Communities of Practice Need Some Practice

Communities of Practice are a network not a hierarchy

This is my 3rd post in my journey to cover my thoughts and ideas on the four topics covered in week 3 of the Exploring Innovations in Networked Work and Learning cMOOC. So far, I’ve covered Crowdsourcing and Idea Management and Design with the only one left for tomorrow being Working out Loud which also happens to be my favorite.

Defining Communities of Practice (CoP)

It’s hard to define a Community of Practice, but I think a good start would be to quote a Tweet I recently saw from another MSLOC430 participant. It sums up what happens when you’re in a Community of Practice and it’s a summary of none other than Harold Jarche who seems to have something relevant to each category I’m writing about.


As long as you’re changing your practice, you know you’re in a community of practice. That’s pretty simple, but there are so many nuances that go along with a CoP.It’s not as easy as creating a group of people interested in the same topic and say “we’re going to talk about this, and change our practice. Next month we’ll talk about something else and improve ourselves in that topic.”

Let’s Make a CoP

It’s not as easy as creating a group of people interested in the same topic and say “we’re going to talk about this, and change our practice. Next month we’ll talk about something else and improve ourselves in that topic.”

I’ve seen this attempted. People seem to think a CoP is a formal group that needs strict guidance and cannot build organically with open discussions and open topics. What would happen if we just let people talk willy-nilly? It would be crazy and nobody would learn or get anything done right?

Not exactly.

When there’s strict guidance and you start introducing things like steering committees, the organicness of the CoP is lost rapidly. People become disengaged from the group and start to not care anymore. Those that attend do so out of obligation after a while, not interest.

Discussions and the group have to form organically and discussions have to happen naturally. A CoP need not have an owner, just a single topic that everyone is interested in which then leads to a natural discussion on any part of that topic. Maybe everybody has an interest and turns are taken to discuss that interest and have a messy interconnected conversation (many to many) and not one person to many.

When a CoP turns so formal that there’s one topic that one person “teaches’ the others and then it’s over it is no longer a CoP.

I realize that I just got finished rambling for several paragraphs straight, but as you can tell I have strong feelings about what a CoP is and is not. I’ll stop rambling now and try to get back on track if I ever had a track to get back on.

Being Official

If you want to get official about what Communities of Practice is and isn’t, even the one I describe above could be considered a CoP. As with anything else though, a CoP could be a failure or a success, but both of them are still Communities of Practice.

Here’s what Etienne Wenger defines as a CoP:

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

After reading that more carefully, I might say that what I defined above as a failure CoP might not even be a CoP at all. The keywords to take out of that description are interact and regularly. Those two must be present in a CoP to be a CoP. My failed example above does not do this, there’s none or little interacting.

Meeting once a month around a topic that was pre-determined by a steering committee then asking a few questions in the end is noy interacting.

I’ll leave it at that, the absolute most important element of a CoP is that there is interaction. It’s a group thing, we’re all in this together as equals who love to talk about what we do and want to improve it.

The CoP must benefit each member equally and each one must feel like they own it as much as anybody else. Having one central leader and introducing committees into it turns things back into a company with a hierarchy, that kind of stuff doesn’t work well in the network age, just ask Harold Jarche.

 Your Take

What’s your take on Communities of Practice? have you seen them succeed in changing the way people practice? I hope to see some great examples of how they’ve improved you.

I will take this last part to say that the most successful Communities of Practice I’ve seen are Twitter chats. I’d definitely classify them as a CoP. Even with a central group running the chat, you would never know from the outside. I’m a regular at Chat2lrn and they are very well-organized on the back-end. Before I took part in that back-end once, I had no idea it existed and it doesn’t interfere with the wonderful dynamic of the group.

4 thoughts on “Communities of Practice Need Some Practice”

  1. HI Nick,

    I admire you tackling 4 posts from #msloc430 all in one week. I’ll start with this one.

    You made some great points.

    “Meeting once a month around a topic that was pre-determined by a steering committee and then asking a few questions in the end is no interacting.”

    I’ve seen one per month web conference sessions work well to help the CoP come together. The key, as you say is “pre-determined by a steering committee”. I’ve seen it work well to have community nominated topics be chosen for monthly web conferences. If the community facilitator sets a welcoming tone and expectation for discussion, this medium can be helpful.

    “The CoP must benefit each member equally and each one must feel like they own it as much as anybody else.”

    I see there is definitely something to be said for self selection. I’ve seen even community nominated leadership members fail to lead. We also found that having a self-serve (opt-in/opt-out) listserve really helped our community grow (mostly because it reduces coordination bottlenecks).

    I love your point about Twitter Chats being a form of CoP. In an organizational context, I see this works better for some CoPs than others. For CoPs that are less technologically ambitious, and for those who discuss sensitive topics , a ‘walled garden’ (i.e. listserves, web conferencing platform, ESN) is often needed.

    I blogged a bit about some of the CoP nuances I mentioned in this post (which is likely to be the only one for this week 😉

    • Appreciate the comment Karen! You make some great points, and after reading your quote pointed out some boo-boos (I have a 3yo daughter so I can say that, even if I didn’t though I could still say that ;-).

      What I’m talking about is an experience myself of an experiment to put a CoP together in my own org which was done in the same way many other “learning” activities are done. With this method I feel separated from the even and like I’m not a valued member, it creates that same feeling of heirarchy as managers and leadership which I don’t like. It kind of makes me feel like a grunt and like I’m not a valued member of the practice.

      Another thing it does for me is makes it feel just like another training, and the only thing I find org training good for is catching up on my personal email (or catching a few zzzzz’s.

      So, for me personally the second you add a steering committee and have a “leader” is where half the group is lost. It may even be well more than half too from how much people are engaged.

      Community nominated leader or not I still don’t think the group of a true CoP is receptive to a leader, they just feel they have to nominate one because somebody said so.

      My question is, how can you organize a CoP and have it effectively target a topic without having a visible leader that everyone knows is the leader?

      • Nick, you make some great points. Maybe the term or language around ‘leader’ is a stumbling block we need to address when talking about CoP? I think of ‘manager’ type leaders and than ‘facilitator’ type leaders. I think it’s possible to lead through facilitation. This person needs to understand the values and purpose of the community and fold back the feedback and ideas into the mission of the community, then (I think) express why the decision was made to reflect that of community need. It took me years to realize I was offering leadership through coordination and facilitation even though no one ever called me a leader.

        • I think you’re right on the leadership by facilitation vs leadership by managing. It’s a challenge though because a lot of people would rather sit back, not think about anything and not participate. This just brought a thought from reading your post to mind. An important part of a CoP!

          It’s absolutely necessary to start a CoP organically talking with members who WANT to participate. Gather all Instructional Designers in an org together and sending them a meeting invite is the wrong way to go about it. The best way to start is like you said, small. It’s also important to start out with people who want to participate so there it is now made much simpler in my mind, thank you!

          Reiterating for me: Start small with a group of people who want to participate. After that has become and there is success others will hear about it and the world will spread. Now people are wanting to participate and the group has a 100% engaged audience who love the topic and love the group, no leader by management necessary.

          Thanks Karen! I love these discussions.

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