community of practiceCommunities of practice have existed within organizations for many years, usually taking the form of a group of people gathering together to share knowledge, to motivate each other, and build their expertise.

The theory around communities of practice was developed by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the early 1990s. These groupings were observed to support business aims by harnessing knowledge and expertise. No wonder they were appreciated within organizations!

With the arrival in the workplace of millennials, otherwise known as “the Facebook generation” the concept of communities of practice has been given a rocket booster. Social networking tools like discussion forums, newsgroups and wikis were now being used to drive business performance. Suddenly, ad hoc communities of practice were transformed into engines for management reframing.

Knowing the benefits of these communities, how can you successfully create them in your organization and ensure that they are properly resourced, motivated and on the right track?

How do communities of practice work?

A community of practice can be defined as a group of people that learn from each other by sharing information and experiences. With the proper guidance, communities of practice can provide great value to a company.

There are different types of communities of practice that may appear within an organization. A community of practice might be strategic and created in order to meet a specific goal. This type is usually created by management, and employees with specific talents or experience are encouraged to participate. Other communities of practice might appear naturally, as a group of people who have common interests and provide mutual support.

No matter the type, there is a strong educational element to these networks which can be harnessed for professional development. Cranfield School of Management, for example, now delivers most of its executive education in clients’ workplaces and reinforces its message by setting up communities of practice that are tasked with translating theory into practice.

Globalization and the rise of international managers working across borders has also boosted the popularity of communities of practice.

Why is a community of practice useful?

Linked by email, video conferencing, webinar, and Skype, multinational companies are able to pull together teams of managers drawn from many different countries to work on a single project. By sharing knowledge and best practices, communities of practice provide continuity to business.

One of the great advantages of having communities of practice is that they cut across departmental and divisional boundaries, bringing a wider participation from across the company and building a common purpose. Communities of practice that are composed only of employees under the same roof seldom grow larger than fifty people. Web-based networks can easily accommodate a hundred or more participants.

Also, communities of practice can be an ideal way of sourcing expertise. Its members are able to ask for assistance in solving problems without being constrained by hierarchies.

Top tips for building a successful community of practice

1. Appoint a facilitator

First of all, a community of practice will need a facilitator–someone who the group sees as an insider and who can come up with new topics for discussions while ensuring that the existing online discussions go smoothly. The moderator should be someone who is well respected within the company, who has enough experience and who is perceived not only as a resource, but also as an enabler.

2. Find a sponsor

Communities of practice often lack the extra resources to invest in training or technology. Finding a sponsor from within the organization can provide leadership and strategic vision, especially if it is someone high up in the firm. Many top organizations have adopted a policy of encouraging partners to sponsor communities of practice. A sponsor encourages participation in a community of practice, values its work and can help celebrate its successes.

3. Develop a communication strategy

How does your group communicate?

Communities of practice can function via in-person exchanges, or rely on electronic communication methods. Combining the two can create more camaraderie and trust among the members of the community. Communities of practice make a valuable contribution to company performance and individual career development. But even with the right sponsors and facilitators, these groups cannot be sustained by enthusiasm alone. For a continuous and prosperous result, communities of practice must be encouraged and challenged long term.

To be successful, a community of practice needs to have a common identity so that it facilitates the decision for new members to join or not. Also, a community of practice needs to be clear about its objectives and strategies. It is essential that the members of a community of practice are rewarded as individuals. They need to be aware of the personal value they contribute to the community practice.