Again in this class, I’m coming back to the thought that solely individual based learning may not always be the best practice. The term “community of practice” is defined by Wikipedia as, “the process of social learning that occurs and shared sociocultural practices that emerge and evolve when people who have common goals and interact as they strive towards those goals.” This CoP (for short) is a concept I have observed before, and in a few different settings in my life have more or less a part of, but hadn’t given specific thought. If everyone in a group is committed to learning something, and share with each other in order to get better, then great things can be accomplished. A CoP, as Mr. Batchelder has pointed out, does not seem like something you can artificially create. If you try to force a CoP, it will not work.  For example, at a company I worked for, they tried to implement a “Free Breakfast Saturdays” group to perhaps foster a CoP type of atmosphere. This went over like a lead balloon. You can’t make people gather together and foster a learning environment: it pretty much has to happen naturally.

Going further in my research, I read an article called Communities of Practice about two researchers named Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger who have been researching this concept for many years.  According to these researchers, “A community of practice involves much more than the technical knowledge or skill associated with undertaking some task. Members are involved in a set of relationships over time and communities develop around things that matter to people… Learning is, thus, not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation.

To foster this type of learning, organizations have started instituting mentor programs as a part of their training and corporate learning. The authors acknowledge the importance of developing CoPs and of recognizing just how valuable they can be to organizations. I think it is a difficult thing to create such a group, but when one does develop, it is important to recognize and nurture it.

Another article I checked out is called, Building Business Value Through “Communities of Practice.” This article states that building knowledge within an organization is more than just communicating through email and a company intranet. The authors, Jenny Ambrozek and Lynne Bundesen Ambrozek cite real world examples from companies like Ericsson, Schlumberger Oil, and Xerox that have greatly benefitted from CoPs.  One interesting thing the authors pointed out was that little of the industry knowledge held by employees (estimated at 20%) is actually recored. The authors explain, “The other 80 percent exists tacitly in the heads of the employees–and savvy knowledge management aims to capture this 80 percent, through the use of tools such as expertise software and communities of practice.”  The authors offered some ways to help develop a CoP:

  • Start with a clear area of business need.
  • Define clear goals and metrics.
  • Allocate a budget and support resources.
  • Build a team of the right people committed to success.
  • Build on small successes.

The idea of communities of practice is definitely an interesting concept, and one that can help develop an individual’s learning as well as can benefit the organization as a whole. But you can’t just throw in free bagels on a Saturday and expect miracles to happen. 🙂