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Communities of practice are groups of people that share a common passion for something that the practice and what to learn how to practice it better and develop it further. This could be anything from IT specialists to doctors. These social systems have boundaries that define their membership base and would be members must prove their worth before being able to access and contribute in them. If a practice is quite specialised the community may remain quite small to ensure quality and experience.
Online communities differ as they are far more lenient in terms of those who participate, in fact if they do not have specific membership criteria the number of members can be endless. Resulting in a very large membership base where there is more knowledge brought to the community, but as well the actual connection between members could be far removed and weak.
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In business communities have been acknowledged and now sought after because, but there are specific characteristics that define a community of practice, which include:
- The Domain – is an identity created by a shared interest or competence that distinguishes those in the community from other people.
- The Community – must be engaged in activities that encourage and educate other members and provide information and solutions.
- The Practice – members are practitioners in their domain and through developing their shared repertoire of resources, in time develop a way of best practice.
With this in mind you can see how it is crucial for managers to not ignore COP’s in their organisations but facilitate these further.
In the past it was thought that communities of practice could not be forced within an organisation directed from management but that they emerged from the bottom up built around interests and practice. However, organisations today are encouraging and sometimes even require their employees to form COP’s to harness the collective knowledge of their experts. COP’s are being integrated with company’s formal management structures, actively being managed with specific goals and accountability in order to “deliver creative solutions to challenges that bridge functional gaps” (McDermott and Archibald, 2010, pg. 83).
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McDermott and Archibald (2010) explain that COP’s are a powerful management tool which provide the company with a competitive advantage by leveraging knowledge and that they should be incorporated into company culture (think back to my last post about Personal Knowledge Networks and how this relates).
Gelin and Milusheva (2011) also describe the benefits for businesses whereby their internal communications and knowledge sharing is improved and also information sharing with the organization’s external partners are more efficient, resulting in overall business success.
However, it is clear to see where the limitations with COP’s in business are. If they are not actively managed and controlled the members could loose direction and the amount of resources spent of the COP would ultimately be wasted. Therefore businesses must determine the benefit of having COP’s and devise strategies to proactively provide management needed for these groups.
Also, it the members to these groups are not monitored or correctly legitimised, the COP’s could spiral away from their original purpose of practice resulting in directionless thinking that does not provide results either for the business or the practice itself.
Thoughts on this…
I am always astounded when researching for these blog I come across explanations or definitions of things encountered in everyday life that actually have a proper name. I realise that I am part of many online communities of businesses, through my activity and involvement. My favourite is Cool Dog Group, which is an online community of dog lovers, facilitated by Facebook’s ‘Group’ platform.
What about you? Are you a member of an online community you were until now unaware of? Or even a member of a community of practice? (I myself probably don’t have the life experience for that yet… however I am pretty qualified in eating pizza…)
References in order of appearance:
Wenger, E. (2006). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/
McDermott, R., & Archibald, D. (2010). Harnessing your staff’s informal networks. Harvard Business Review, (3), 82.
Gelin, P., & Milusheva, M. (2011). The secrets of successful communities of practice: Real benefits from collaboration within social networks at Schneider Electric.Global Business & Organizational Excellence, 30(5), 6-18. doi:10.1002/joe.20391