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Last week I posted about collaboration – why using an online community of practice platform is beneficial. This week I thought I should follow up and describe what communities of practice are, how they work, and what makes them successful.
What is a Community of Practice?
Communities of practice are intentional communities. They are driven by a common goal or shared vision/interest. But what really sets communities of practice apart, and what makes them important for advancing knowledge and addressing social and environmental problems is the emphasis that is placed on establishing space for knowledge sharing and bridging of experience of the members of the community of practice.
Three specific characteristics distinguish Communities of Practice from other communities:
- Membership to a community of practice requires commitment to a particular topic or area of interest shared with the other members and a shared set of competencies (knowledge and/or skills) related to content focus of the community of practice
- Members actively engage in activities and discussions, share information, and offer support to other members in order to create a mutually beneficial learning environment that increases all members’ competencies relating to the content focus of the community of practice
- Members are practitioners of the content focus of the community of practice who, through engaging in the community of practice, develop a shared approach to practice (i.e., shared experiences, stories, tools, methodologies and approaches, ways of understanding issues/topics related to the content focus, solutions, best practices)
Why is a Community of Practice important?
A community of practice is an important strategy and platform for enabling collaboration amongst people in a particular field or area of interest. As I indicated in the last blog, collaboration and knowledge sharing are critical for developing effective strategies for solving complex social and environmental problems.
Communities of practice provide the space for members to engage in meaningful exchanges, wherein they can share their knowledge and experiences with other members of the community. This helps to mobilize and spread best practices throughout the network of practitioners, thereby increasing the skill and knowledge base of all members that are involved. This, in turn, helps the entire field progress.
Building members’ competencies
One of the major benefits of communities of practice is the tremendous growth that comes from bringing people with different experiences and skills together to share and learn.
One of the major benefits of communities of practice is the tremendous growth that comes from bringing people with different experiences and skills together to share and learn. Creating a safe space for members to seek out advice from the other members about how to address issues that they encounter encourages members to open up and share the strategies, approaches, resources, and tools that they have used within similar circumstances. Such sharing is important for raising the level of competency within the community/organization/business as a whole.
An example of this capacity building and knowledge sharing, which comes to mind is a situation that recently occurred in our work with the Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention. The situation came up at the annual Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention conference, where Municipal crime prevention practitioners from across Canada came together to network and share their knowledge and experiences working in crime prevention.
I was facilitating a discussion about crime prevention with Indigenous communities. A number of the participating members were at a loss for what to do, not knowing how to engage the Indigenous communities near their municipalities. They shared about how they keep on creating programs and that they do not get any traction or buy-in from the Indigenous communities. Other members of the discussion, who have been successful in developing strong relationships and partnerships with their local Indigenous communities offered their experience, asking them if they had ever asked the communities what they want and if they had ever tried to involve the communities in the decision-making process and development of the initiatives.
The other members discussed what they had learned over the years that they had been working with the Indigenous communities near their municipality, and spoke to how they had to completely transform their approach to working with Indigenous communities from one of paternalism to partnership.
This kind of knowledge exchange, just to give you a short snapshot of the conversation, is crucial for building capacity and developing knowledge that will enable all practitioners in the field to be more effective in their work.
Knowledge Development And Knowledge Transfer
For any organization or business, knowledge is a critical asset in attaining success and reaching goals. It provides a competitive edge through best practices, innovation, experience, and lessons from the past. However, knowledge can easily be lost through staff turnover or completing projects.
Knowledge, therefore, needs to be managed so that it yields the highest value to the organization seeking to use it. The goal is to connect people with what they need to know so they can work smarter in collaboration with others to accomplish the organization or business’s goals. Knowledge development helps people to adapt to rapidly changing situations, policies, and strategies by making information easy to find and use for informed decisions and actions.
Communities of practice rally people together around common interests, passions, or objectives. Communities of practice can provide a trusted and organizationally sound method for sharing and accessing knowledge.
What does a Community of Practice look like?
Communities of Practice offer a systematic way to capture and share individual and collective experience that will contribute to the organization’s success.
Communities of Practice can:
- Provide timely, accurate, accessible information to members
- Apply lessons and replicate successes to achieve results more efficiently
- Retain and share institutional memory
- Support a culture of knowledge sharing through improved collaboration
- Facilitate professional development and mentoring
The importance of competent and active facilitation
Here’s the thing. I mentioned that I developed an online community of practice platform for some of our clients. But in reality, even if there is an amazing platform, it can only be as good as the facilitation. We are all inundated with things to try, new technologies and platforms with which we are engaging.
This reality spans both our personal and professional lives.
It is easy for members of a community of practice to become disengaged due to the bombardment they experience in all facets of their lives. Without strong facilitation, which engages members and helps to motivate them and help keep the vision and purpose of the community of practice at the fore, it is difficult to keep a community of practice alive.
Facilitation is the pumping heart that keeps the lifeblood of the community of practice flowing.
Communities of practice are important tools. They are useful for growing close-knit networks of like-minded individuals who are share a common vision. Communities of practice help to advance knowledge and expertise in a given field and drive practitioners to discover solutions that they would not have been able to discover on their own. With this understanding it is clear that communities of practice have an important role in supporting businesses and organizations of any scale to achieve their goals.
*First person narrative written by Jackson Smith
Sources and Further Reading:
1 Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner (2015). Introduction to communities of practice: A brief overview of its concepts and uses. http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/
2 Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. By Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
3 Knowledge management is a donut: shaping your knowledge strategy with communities of practice. By Etienne Wenger. Ivey Business Journal, January 2004.
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