Forming a Community of Practice
A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who regularly get together on a voluntary basis to collectively learn and share knowledge about a domain of interest. Throughout my life I’ve built and seen many CoPs running successfully. If I look back, probably the first CoP I was involved in was a forum where we discussed and lived rock music.
The formal definition of CoP is quite generic and unopinionated. I’ve seen CoPs being implemented in different ways, sometimes not even referred or known as CoP (examples I’ve seen are collectives, working groups, community of interests, chapters and so on).
In this post, I’ll outline the main principles behind building and running CoP in an engineering organization. The ideas discussed below are covered in detail in the Building Successful Communities of Practice book by Emily Webber. It is a very concise book (only 80 pages!) with lots of practical tips. Highly recommend to read if you are about to start a CoP.
The most successful CoPs I’ve seen were born organically, by a group of people identifying the gaps in a particular problem space within the company or being extremely motivated for learning collectively.
A successful CoP requires full commitment of its members.
Often CoP initiatives start with a single leader (not necessarily from leadership/management line) who sees an opportunity and proactively reaches out relevant people about the potential. The common pattern I’ve observed is that the need of CoPs usually raise in companies without specialized teams/people for specific domains of problems. This, in my opinion, is due to the fact that without explicit organization support, specialization develops into problems for teams and individuals, since it requires dedicated investment. Often it becomes less of a priority for the teams/companies whose primary goal is not that particular problem.
To summarize, few benefits of CoPs are:
- Increases the bus factor of the organization (breaking knowledge silos)
- Accelerates learning experience of individuals
- Motivates people to share knowledge, build and advocate better practices
- Reduces cognitive load of individuals who would typically be responsible for the problem space if not for the CoP
- Provides consistency of practice within the organization.
Building a CoP
Building a CoP is like building any other “collective entity” (e.g. a team). Simon Senek’s Golden Circle theory states that to achieve success you need to understand the why, the how and the what. For CoP to function, you need to find out the answers to these questions:
- What is the vision of our CoP?
- How will we work together towards our vision?
- What will we do together to succeed?
Without clear purpose the chances that CoP will fail are very high. In most of the cases people start thinking about CoP since they already identified the opportunity, so the purpose at this stage might be more or less clear. However, agreeing on purpose collectively will put the CoP on a strong foundation from the very beginning. This can be achieved by having a kick-off workshop with interested people and coming up with a format which will allow everyone to contribute to the process and decision.
Things to keep in mind:
- When purpose is aspirational, CoP might not be an optimal solution.
- Purpose has its lifetime. Something that is relevant now, might not be tomorrow.
- If you don’t believe in purpose, better to stop now.
Purpose answers the why part, vision is for what. As with purpose, it is better to come up with a collective exercise to agree on vision.
Things to keep in mind:
- If you don’t know where you go, you won’t get there. Vision is your compass.
- Vision establishes boundaries and is pre-requisite for operating principles.
Mission and goals
Once you have established the purpose(why) and vision(what), you know where you want to go. Mission statement and clear goals are essential for knowing how to get there.
Things to keep in mind:
- You don’t need to go SMART. Aspirational goals are just as fine, sometimes even better.
- Review the mission and goals frequently, simple “temprature checks” in a regular meetup is sufficient.
While how you operate a CoP depends a lot on your environment, the general questions you want to have answers to are:
- How often do you want to meet?
- How do you distribute the work among its members?
- How do you make decisions?
- How do you communicate back to the rest of organization?
- What are your ground rules?
Lifetime of a CoP
Closing a CoP is as important as building it. If you have a well established vision and mission, the chance that sooner or later you won’t need a CoP is high. Thus thinking about closing a CoP will help to run it successfully during its lifetime.
I’m not suggesting that below mentioned points need to be absolutely avoided, however I’ve observed many times how they have been a contributing factor to the unhealthy CoP. Here are my top three:
- While a single leader may start a CoP, ideally you want to have core members of CoP who would lead the community. Lack of collective leadership is a bad sign.
- The work generated by CoP should not come as an extra work on top of members day-to-day responsibilities.
- Without support in the organizational level CoPs suffer a lot. You need to get a buy-in from whoever you need to ensure the safety of members and trust within the CoP.