Communities of Practice

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One of the many valuable new ideas I picked up at Agile2007 is that of Communities of Practice (CoP). The basic principle is not ground breaking, but it puts a formal structure on a highly effective organizational pattern many people forget is available to them.

The concept is deadly simple. People of like mind within your company come together to pursue excellence in your shared area of interest. This is almost a simple SIG (Special Interest Group) in your organization, but the 3 qualities of a CoP make it far more effective that a group of Trekkies at the “Captain Janeway is hot SIG” table.

Google has used the CoP concept to great effect with Google Grouplets, the organizational paradigm that gave us GMail, Google Reader, and Google maps.

Groking CoPs

Communities of Practice are fundamentally similar to the  idea of a SIG (Special Interest Group). CoPs are a bit more structured in their intent and organization and this tends to amplify their effectiveness. There is a set of core attributes we find in any CoP that both defines them and makes them so effective.

According to Fred Nickols, the basic charter for all sponsored Communities of Practice should have three major objectives:

  1. To enable colleagues to learn from one another through the sharing of issues, ideas, lessons learned, problems and their solutions, research findings and other relevant aspects of their mutual interest;
  2. To more broadly share and better leverage the learning that occurs in the CoP with other colleagues;
  3. To generate tangible, measurable, value-added benefits to the business.

Although I agree whole heartedly a CoP must have these attributes, I believe they fall short of what is needed to assure CoP success within an organization. To ensure a CoP will succeed, I believe it must also have the characteristics of volunteerism, a tangible value proposition, and a committed membership.

Volunteer Duty

All membership is voluntary.

There is no more poisonous pill to a collaborative group of people than the lone voice of resentment. If someone doesn’t want to be in the room, don’t force the issue. The a safe environment is necessary to foster free sharing of ideas. Let’s face it, not everyone in your organization is going to be chomping at the bit to sit around discussing Agile practices, or TDD, or Lego Robots, or whatever your CoP is focused on.

If you are want to spark a CoP in your company, recruit broadly. The range of expertise and experience is crucial to your success and not all initial members will remain to engage the work required to sustain the community.

Organizational Value

The CoP must provide value to the parent organization.

I do not believe this must be measurable, but it must be qualitatively verifiable. On other words, I do not need to publish metrics supporting the value of the Java CoP in a .Net organization. It is enough to realize that the breadth of experience gained by this group is a resource for the organization in itself.

Nor are we interested in proving a positive ROI. It is not necessary that a CoP pay for itself, merely that it provide value.

Member Commitment

Each member is individually committed to the success of the group.

This group will quickly become the defacto Center of Excellence for your company in the CoP’s area of focus and each member is an evangelist for the group. Make sure that each member can articulate core values and mission of the group.

Individual commitment is demonstrable by attendance, participation, outside research, and collaborative engagement. In other words, this is a Community of Practice, and that means action. This isn’t a Community of Debate and the intent is to get out there and try something. Debate is a necessary ingredient to creative collaboration, but debate is not the goal itself.

Common deliverables from individuals or sub-groups within the CoP include things like Prescriptive Guidance papers and Best Practices.

Other Resources

Etienne Wenger (CoP Pioneer)

Distance Consulting



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