What is a Community of Practice?
A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Many of you reading this have joined several clubs, groups, and networking opportunities over your lifetime. Think of a community of practice as something remarkably similar with the small but main difference being that a CoP is set within a company and hosted with a different purpose and context.
For companies to remain competitive in their prospective market, learning is one of the key components to stay ahead. As learning in a social context is the basic foundation of CoP, it would make sense for a business to tap in and use an idea-generating asset that does not require a large investment – see it as a hidden value within your workforce/team.
What makes a CoP unique is that it provides an informal, natural flow of knowledge, and sharing among employees and colleagues. As there is a voluntary desire to learn and share knowledge it makes it a highly effective tool for learning.
What are the characteristics of a community of practice?
There are three characteristics of a community of practice:
- There must be a shared domain, concern, or passion:
There has to be something that binds CoP members together, and that is their common interest. The common interest inspires members to join, drives their learning activities, and gives purpose and meaning to their actions.
- There has to be a community:
The idea of a community creates the social fabric for enabling collective learning. One of the key characteristics of CoPs is the ongoing activities and discussions which are created by members so they can help each other and share information relevant to their shared domain or passion.
- There is a shared practice:
This would be the point of action around which a community develops, shares, and maintains its knowledge. Members of a CoP are people who have a shared arsenal of resources and as such knowledge sharing, and interaction exist because participants find value from them. It delivers processes that can be reused and constantly evolving best practices while making room for innovation. It allows a business to continue to constantly improve its standards.
What is the structure of a Community of Practice?
The structure of a community of practice can vary from business to business. However, they do follow a generalised structure, consisting of three groups:
- The Core Group:
The core group are the individuals who have a good understanding of the domain. They are considered community of practice leaders and the backbone of the group. They are the ones who set and decide on the agenda or topics to be discussed during sessions. They may provide secretarial support as necessary, such as keeping records of the members, experts to contact, etc.
- The Inner Circle:
These are the community members in general. They have a more informal structure. They participate in activities and discussions, actively bringing their concerns, knowledge, and problems to the community.
- The Outer Circle:
These are the interested members, and contributors in a loose network. They provide support to the community in multiple ways, such as sharing resources, as they know that the knowledge obtained through the CoP will benefit the organisation as a whole.
Unlike a project team, communities of practice do not cease to exist once they deliver a set of specific outputs from a topic. They grow and evolve and can last as long as the members are still engaged and continue to gain value from the group. There are many advantages to being part of a community of practice such as problem-solving, validation, identifying gaps, and discussing developments. And as long as your CoP possesses the key elements mentioned above, the possibilities are boundless of what knowledge can be developed, learned, and achieved through these groups. It is all up to you. Communities of practice have existed for decades and have proven to be of excellent value to a business, which is why they are still around. Being a key driver of learning, developing these communities by providing them with support and resources can enable them to thrive and deliver impactful results for your company.