Posted by: jimmydlg | October 29, 2008

Practice Makes.. a Community?

Yes, it does (and “perfect” of course as well.)

Etienne Wenger sums up what communities of practice are concisely as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

He points out that communities of practice can be many things, such as a surviving tribe, band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems and even a clique of pupils defining their own identity in the school.

In order to be a true community of practice, three important characteristics must exist: a shared domain of interest, a common community of individuals pursuing their interest in their domain, and the actual practice, or, a shared repertoire of stories, tools, experiences and ways of addressing recurring problems.

Many of us have experienced communities of practice before, even if we haven’t realized it. I for one have encountered several of them throughout my professional career. I’ve both participated and lead shared mentorship communities of practice, as well as watch them grow in organizations building IT support teams from the ground up. In both cases, the development of these communities of practices not only benefited the participants, but the companies that employed them as well.

In fact, there has been a lot of research done on the benefit of communities of practice and how it relates to organization performance. IBM specifically points out that the development of communities of practice fosters the growth of social capital, which in turn positively influences business performance. Specifically, these influences:

  • Decrease the learning curve of new employees
  • Allow employees to respond more rapidly to customer needs and inquiries
  • Reduce rework and prevent “reinvention of the wheel”
  • Spawn new ideas for products and services

    I’ve personally found communities of practice invaluable in my various professions, however, I haven’t participated in them in every job I’ve ever held. Some companies are structured in a way that make communities of practice difficult to promote. In a government sponsored research project, Mike Burk points out that to be successful, communities of practice need the “right environment” which means they not only have to be formed legitimately in the eyes of the company, but they must not be scrutinized too carefully and need the appropriate tools to grow.

    In some jobs I’ve held, my team members were all sequestered from each other because interaction was thought to reduce a productive work environment. We frequently found that we had all reached the same solution via different paths (or reinvented the wheel.)

    Having realized the benefit of communities of practice however, I can say for sure I’ll be seeking them out in future endeavors. If I ever get the opportunity to employ enough workers to sustain a community, I’m going to be sure to encourage them as well.

    Communities of practice are invaluable to companies and have been and will be an integral part of my professional career and education. And now that I know what makes them successful, it should be easier to be a useful member in any I may encounter in the future.



    1. Great Post. In my personal experience like you said a share live groups, assisting some conferences. But now with this technology, it will be easier for the next generations, to be a successful worker, no doubts.

    2. Jimmy, You are in a community of practice already and don’t realize it. When you help answer questions in class that theinstuctor doesn’t know or you could just put it in words that I could understand better amke you a par t of the group. Our classroom setting is more than just the teacher lecturing and us writing it down. Everyone participating is making up a community of practice.

    3. Jimmy, I share your last paragraph that I hopefully will be an active and useful member to improve not only others but more for myself. However, I was wonder, what about group of women or girls who just get together in regular basis, chat and exchange experiences with each other even though they are not in the same interest ?

    4. Jimmy, I like you post I have you used almost the same links as I did, so, we read the same things (including the IBM one). I don’t think that a community of practice will be focused only in the work environment or a company though, like you mentioned in your examples. I think that was just an example of community of practice but not the only one, people from the same field get together to exchange and share ideas, not only at work, but in a coffee shop or even a convention, everywhere. I think the point here will be to learn from other and hopefully contribute to increase the knowledge of that specific community.

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