Sharing knowledge in communities of practice

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Organizations are under greater pressure than ever to streamline operations, increase productivity, and come up with innovative solutions for delivering products and services. To meet these challenges, workers need in-depth, up-to-date knowledge of the technologies and processes that enable them to carry out everyday operations, whether they work in government, education, medicine, technology, or an assortment of other fields. This article explains how communities of practice can help expand their domain knowledge.

Ensuring that they have this knowledge is no small feat when up against looming deadlines, competitive markets, and the endless stream of challenges that plague the modern workplace. Yet these are the types of situations that demand the highest degree of domain knowledge—when workers must address issues quickly and deliver creative solutions that provide long-term results, rather than short-term fixes.

Knowledge of this sort requires more than just a couple workshops, an occasional class, or reading a few articles online. Although any source of information can be useful, learning must be an ongoing, organic process—one that requires an extended commitment not only from the workers themselves, but also from management, which plays an integral role in ensuring that a system of ongoing learning is available to everyone. Unfortunately, some in leadership roles might give lip service to the importance of knowledge but often fail to provide the support necessary to make it happen. Even if they do recognize its importance, they too face their own assortment of demands that leave them forced to balance competing interests.

Despite these challenges, most individuals recognize that people need to be knowledgeable in their fields to do their jobs effectively, and for many jobs, this requires a system that promotes an ongoing process of information sharing and continuous learning. Faced with this need—as well as the realities of today’s business environment—many organizations have set up communities of practice, groups of people with common disciplines or interests who come together on a regular basis to share information and learn from their peers.

What is a community of practice?

The idea of coming together to share knowledge and learn from each other is not new. Humans have been gathering into groups since their earliest days to discuss ideas, instruct one another, solve problems, and come up with ways to improve their lot. Today’s stakes might not be as high as they were back when early communities were struggling to survive, but the idea of collective learning as a relational process of information sharing continues to this day.

Despite its long history, the learning community went mostly unnoticed or unacknowledged, especially in the workplace. This started to change in 1991, when social anthropologist Jean Lave and research scientist Etienne Wenger published their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. In it, the authors introduced the idea of learning as a social process, rather than occurring entirely in the learner’s head. They described learning as a method of participation in communities of practitioners, in which newcomers “move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community” to master knowledge and skills.

An image representing communities of practice

Figure 1. Community of practice (image by geralt)

From these beginnings, the term community of practice emerged as a way to refer to a community as a type of living curriculum, one that regards learning as a social process rather than the passive transfer of information. In such a community, individuals who share a common concern or interest come together in an atmosphere of collective learning, where they can share information, acquire knowledge, and improve their skills. The process itself can be as formal or informal as the group wants to make it. The important point is to create a community that fosters learning and the exchange of information in order to expand their knowledge domain.

Communities of practice can be quite small or can be very large. They might meet at a physical location or conduct their gatherings remotely. They might be from different teams in the same organization or come from different organizations, each person working in the same field. Some communities might be made up of small core groups but have lots of peripheral members who drop in only on occasion. In other communities, everyone participates equally and shares the same level of commitment. There are no set formulas that define the size, shape, or structure of a community of practice. It is based entirely on need, but always with the goal of sharing knowledge.

What makes a community of practice?

After the publication of Situated Learning, Etienne Wenger continued to work in this area, while expanding on concepts related to communities of practice, contributing to multiple books and articles. In 2015, he and Beverly Wenger-Trayner published the article Communities of practice: a brief introduction, which provides a solid overview of what makes a community of practice.

In their article, the authors make clear that not every community can be considered a community of practice. For example, a neighborhood is often called a community, but it is not a community of practice, at least not in the official sense. To fit this label, a community must possess the following three characteristics:

  • Domain. The community is more than just a social club or network of connections. It is a group of people defined by a shared domain of interests and whose membership is committed to that domain. DevOps engineers, for example, share a domain of interest, as do members of a street gang (even if that domain isn’t appreciated by the outside world). Community members learn from each other and value their collective knowledge.
  • Community. Members build relationships with each other and together pursue their domain interests. They share information, help one another, and engage in joint activities and discussions. It is not enough to have the same job title or go to the same university. Members interact with each other and learn from each other, much like the impressionists who met regularly in cafes to discuss their artistic techniques.
  • Practice. Community members are practitioners who develop a shared repertoire of resources such as tools, stories, experiences, and ways of addressing recurring problems. In this sense, they develop a shared practice that takes time and sustained interaction to mature. Strangers on an airplane who swap stories do not qualify as a community of practice. On the other hand, hospital nurses who meet for lunch on a regular basis and share their floor experiences can serve as a valuable source of knowledge for each other.

According to the authors, “It is the combination of these three elements that constitutes a community of practice. It is by developing these three elements in parallel that one cultivates such a community.” There are no set rules that dictate how a group of individuals should go about adopting these elements, but a balance of all three is essential to establishing an effective community of practice.

Who can benefit from a community of practice?

Communities of practice can benefit workers from a wide range of industries, providing them opportunities to expand their domain knowledge in meaningful ways. Data scientists can share ideas about artificial intelligence, city planners can join forces to address sustainability, human resource professionals can look for ways to embrace diversity, and teachers can meet to discuss how to better prepare students for life outside of school. There are no restrictions on who might benefit from a community of practice or how groups might organize themselves into communities.

Consider the organization that has adopted DevOps methodologies into its workflow. DevOps joins development and operations teams into a single effort to help streamline the application delivery process. Although this strategy can be highly effective, developers still benefit from interacting with other developers, in the same way that testers can learn from other testers and system administrators can learn from other administrators. At the same time, members of the DevOps team might want to form a community of practice that focuses specifically on DevOps methodologies.

Regardless of the discipline, communities of practice can offer organizations a useful strategy for providing their workers with access to the learning they need to expand their knowledge domains. In so doing, the communities promise a number of important benefits:

  • Communities promote an attitude of sharing and learning, both during meetings and in between.
  • Members establish a network of peers that can extend well beyond the community meetings.
  • New employees get up to speed faster because they’re learning from more experienced members.
  • The exchange of ideas inherent in a community helps members think more creatively when solving problems, planning strategies, and delivering products and services.
  • Workers become more productive and more satisfied with their jobs because they learn new skills and new ways of solving problems.
  • As workers gain additional knowledge and learn more skills, operations become more streamlined, leading to faster product and service delivery.
  • Communities increase the access to knowledge for all its members, knowledge that can filter down to the rest of the organization.

Despite these benefits, establishing a community of practice is not without its challenges. One of the most common challenges is trying to sustain member engagement and commitment. Members are often enthusiastic initially, but that excitement can wane quickly as job, and personal pressures pull them into other directions. A community is made up of real people with all their foibles and competing priorities. Organizers must be able to hold their interests while navigating the difficult waters that come with human relationships.

A community of practice is also a long-term undertaking. It takes time to build this type a community, requiring a strong commitment from both members and leadership. It can be difficult to overcome the attitude that a community of practice is not as worthy as real work. Without management support, organizers will have an even greater challenge trying to sustain the community for any length of time. Like any effort, engaged leadership is essential to a community’s success.

How do I set up a community of practice?

The internet is rife with tips, guidelines, and best practices that offer advice on how to set up a community of practice. You can also find articles, videos, and a fair amount of books. You can even find consultants willing to offer a hand (in exchange for a fee, of course). Despite all the available information, I put together my own list of tips, just to give you a starting point from which to launch your own research:

  • Identify the community’s vision, goals, and overall plan upfront and ensure that everyone involved with the community understands them. After the community has been established, those who show interest in joining should also understand what they might be getting into.
  • Emphasize open and transparent communications right from the start. The community should be built on the idea of sharing knowledge in all its forms. Not only does this include ongoing dialog, but also artifacts such as documents, scripts, tools, and other resources. The goal is to build relationships and foster a culture of learning and the transfer of knowledge in all its forms.
  • The community should provide members with a safe and welcoming space that helps them feel comfortable asking questions, sharing ideas, expressing opinions, and entering into dialog with each other. There needs to be a focus on trust-building and open communications so members can talk freely and participate easily in the learning process.
  • A community needs one or more individuals to facilitate and coordinate the group. Their roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined and communicated to the other members. They also need the time and space needed to plan and organize meetings. In addition, some might require training, not only in community logistics but also in helping to ensure that members remain engaged and committed to the community.
  • The community should have regular, scheduled meetings, whether virtual or face-to-face, and community artifacts should be made readily available to all members. The community should also leverage whatever tools or social media platforms might be useful in establishing their group, especially those that encourage ad hoc communications between members outside of the meetings themselves.
  • The community must have the full support from the organization’s leadership. They should feel a stake in its outcome and engage in the process whenever possible. They should also encourage their employees to participate in communities of practice where appropriate.

These tips are fairly general and provide only an overview of the considerations you should take into account when planning a community of practice. Before moving forward, you should research this topic much more thoroughly and look for examples of communities in action—better still if you can attend a session or two. Talk to people involved in communities of practice or who have organized them. The more information you can gather in advance, the more prepared you’ll be when establishing your own community.

Communities of practice: another piece of the puzzle

Communities of practice can offer an organization a valuable tool for providing its workers with the ongoing stream of knowledge they need to do their jobs effectively. That said, a community of practice is not the answer to every challenge. Workers must still rely on other avenues for learning, and organizations must still ensure that their teams remain focused on the projects at hand so they can deliver the products and services necessary to keep the organization afloat. A community of practice is only one piece in a much larger puzzle, but it is a piece that until now has been greatly underutilized. Fortunately, this has begun to change.

If you liked this article, you might also like Ten tips for building a collaborative DevOps culture.

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About the author

Robert Sheldon

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Robert is a freelance technology writer based in the Pacific Northwest. He’s worked as a technical consultant and has written hundreds of articles about technology for both print and online publications, with topics ranging from predictive analytics to 5D storage to the dark web. He’s also contributed to over a dozen books on technology, developed courseware for Microsoft’s training program, and served as a developmental editor on Microsoft certification exams. When not writing about technology, he’s working on a novel or venturing out into the spectacular Northwest woods.

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