I haven’t heard a lot of talk about Communities of Practice (CoPs) and their potential lately, except for an exchange in July around whether long-established ones might be too ‘nice’ and recycling the same old wisdom, summarized on Ewen LeBorgne’s blog.
I remember first hearing about CoPs when Etienne Wenger gave a presentation on them in Ottawa in the late 90s, and thinking: This is great, people with similar interests who….
- continuously and collaboratively bring together their individual expertise, experience, knowledge and networks
- have ongoing conversations about what is new, what is most important, what is no longer valid
- share the latest documents, videos and other artifacts
….all resulting in a highly dynamic, cutting edge mechanism for managing knowledge in a particular domain.
At the time, I was working with Bellanet, which no longer exists – except in the minds of a diminishing number of old hands – but it was an interesting place to be because Bellanet was one of the creators of the dgroups discussion platform, as well as a founding member of the KM4Dev CoP (which may be more of a network than a community these days, but I’ll stay away from that debate for the moment). KM4Dev started around the year 2000 (or, to make it sound even more long-established, the turn of the century). It was still relatively early in the wave of increased interest in KM in development contexts, and I was excited by the potential of CoPs as excellent vehicles for KM.
I’m still excited by that potential, although I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that truly transformative CoPs are a rarity. One of the most crucial things to understand about CoPs is that they are not things you create by design. To a large extent they evolve (or not) organically. So, if you set out to create a CoP – or worse, several of them – you are already starting off on the wrong foot.
How does a CoP start? I suppose there are many ways, but I’m sure they begin with a small group of people identifying a key question, or challenge, or area of inquiry that they feel should be further pursued, and pursued collectively. Depending on the size of the group and the context, they may or may not articulate a particular mission or goal, but there needs to be a common understanding of why the group has been formed and what it is trying to do.
There is another key: without a certain amount of support to ‘grease the wheels’ – especially in the early stages – a potential CoP may never get off the ground. In the case of KM4Dev, it got a lot of behind the scenes support in terms of facilitation and resources to hold meetings in the first couple of years.
BUT, too much intervention stifles what could otherwise be a natural evolution as the group clarifies its main goals and establishes a culture of collaboration and communication. There’s no formula that says how much or what kind of support should be provided, but the energy and ownership need to come from within the group itself if it is to continue to thrive.
When it comes to thinking within an organisational context as I often do these days, the trick is to have the capacity to support emerging communities – in both technical and process-related ways – and to help nudge them along the road to creating a modus vivendi for themselves. Some will focus on a short-term need and fizzle out relatively quickly, others will continue, evolve and expand, perhaps leading to a community that can really transform the organisation, its partners, and maybe even the contexts in which they work.
We did a substantial re-design of our intranet a couple of years ago, and instead of trying to establish thematic CoPs, we focused more narrowly on supporting our staff to learn how to use the platform for dialogue, information sharing, etc., and to support interest in taking things up a notch whenever it came up. I feel like we are now starting to see examples of collaborative discussions that could become vibrant CoPs with the right amount of patience, nurturing and independence.
It’s certainly not the only way to go when it comes to supporting KM, but I still hold out hope that occasionally, the right combination of opportunity, good facilitation and a champion or two, will give rise to a shining example of how such communities can be powerful drivers for learning, preserving organisational memory, and innovation.
If you ever see a community that looks like it may be heading in this direction, go for it! Even if it’s a temporary exposure, you’ll get a first-hand taste of what people can do collectively when they get it right.