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Good CoP, bad CoP - are communities of practice much cop?

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CopWhat are the practices, understandings, and institutional arrangements that might contribute to the successful design and continuity of Communities of Practice (CoP)?

We suggest six design and practice considerations for practitioners aiming to create and sustain successful CoPs, based on a study of the Department of Land Resources (DLR) in Australia.

Communities of practice are one of the most significant means of fostering knowledge management. They can considerably enhance the exchange of expertise, information, collaboration, and resources within organizations. There are five ways CoPs can improve organizations:

  1. through rapid problem solving
  2. professional skill development
  3. best practice promotion
  4. retaining talent, and
  5. by guiding strategy.

Creating successful communities of practice

We identified six factors that contributed to the success of the three established CoPs we studied:

  1. Dispersal
    The dispersal of development and learning practitioners across the state and throughout different organizational divisions creates an obvious need for a CoP. It acts as a way to collaborate over distance and share expertise across divisional boundaries.
  2. Awareness of limitations
    The identification of limitations indicates that members are enthusiastic about improving their CoP and are committed to its success.
  3. One coordinator
    If a CoP has the same coordinator throughout its life, then its coordinator has been able to establish recognition and become highly networked.
  4. High-level sponsor
    The acquisition of high-level management support is important to ensure the long-term viability of CoPs, so getting high-ranking officers to act as sponsors is crucial.
  5. Pre-existing social capital
    The use of pre-existing social networks for the purposeful design of CoPs is highly beneficial. This can overcome isolation and a “silo” mentality, and a support group is in place from the start. This enables newcomers to quickly advance to expert status. The speedy transition of novices to experts is also facilitated by the opportunities for community members to learn through experience, a central feature of learning systems.
  6. Core business
    A consideration of core business values should be in-built.

Creating successful CoPs is more than a business or managerial concern. Social capital plays an important role, and whilst there are social aspects to learning within organizations, the contribution of social capital to successful CoPs is still not well understood. In line with previous studies cautioning against top-down approaches to CoP design, strategies for fostering social capital among employees could be explored, as it could provide the conditions required for CoPs to emerge. Moreover, CoPs, with their social aspects, could help overcome organizational silos.

“The articulation of purpose and agreement among key stakeholders, followed by the conceptual modelling of activities required to achieve a transformation, or transformations (what a system does), is central to most lineages of systems thinking and practice.”

Good CoP/bad CoP

A successful CoP is one whose members:

  • demonstrate a sense of stake holding or ownership of their CoP topic
  • demonstrate a willingness to participate in meetings and in the sharing of expertise
  • communicate with members in meetings and between meetings; and
  • identify gaps in their knowledge and attempt to fill gaps by, for example, suggesting new topics for meetings.

The concept of enthusiasm is useful as its presence or absence among community members largely determines the success of a CoP.

Practitioners aiming to create a successful community of practice should:

  • avoid creating a CoP within an organizational silo
  • build on pre-existing social capital among potential members
  • use one coordinator throughout the life of the CoP (or have in place a successful method of transferring coordination)
  • gain the support of a high-ranking officer embedded in the political life of the organization to act as sponsor
  • engage in reflective practice that attempts to overcome the constraints to effective functioning of the CoP; and
  • ensure the focus of the CoP reflects the organization's core business.

However, it may be appropriate to step back and consider the strategic organizational context before proceeding. This may reveal a need to:

  • build or reveal a discourse of organizational imperative/need
  • gain organizational commitment and support structures for the CoP concept, including sponsors, funding, allocation of time, etc)
  • foster or facilitate individual motivations to participate in a CoP (enthusiasm, ownership, etc); and
  • develop the means to value and communicate individual and organizational benefit from CoP participation (learning, improved delivery on core business, communication, etc).

CoP in context: the DLR

The DLR is in many ways at the forefront of public sector innovation in pursuing the purposeful creation of CoPs. Despite being a highly structured and hierarchical organization, the DLR still has space for some self-organizing, responsible autonomy, evidenced by the successful functioning of several CoPs. Yet the organizational and institutional context of the DLR is such that CoPs (with some exceptions) appear largely unknown to management at the higher levels. The organization therefore lacks the ability to assess the value of its CoPs, which has implications for on-going purposeful design. Without higher management recognition, CoPs are vulnerable to structural, institutional, or other changes coming from the upper levels of an organization's hierarchy. It also makes the allocation of work time towards CoPs difficult to justify.

Implications for managers and practitioners

The findings of this study have implications more generally for the purposeful creation of CoPs. The articulation of purpose and agreement among key stakeholders, followed by the conceptual modelling of activities required to achieve a transformation, or transformations (what a system does), is central to most lineages of systems thinking and practice. This process entails making boundary judgements about a system of interest. From this perspective, failing CoPs suffer from a crisis of purpose, inappropriate boundary judgements and thus inappropriate activities needed to effect transformations in relation to purpose. Confusion about purpose leads to a system of interest being too broad, as its boundary being set too wide.

Reaching agreement about purpose can be a process for significant learning. Disputes over boundaries can result in mutual learning. For example, evaluation practitioners see disagreements as a way to enhance learning, indicating that a CoP is functioning efficiently as a learning system. For learning to take place at boundaries within learning systems, there needs to be a balance between competence and experience among members. This balance is evidenced in successful CoPs.

Variable topic areas encourage the exchange of different repertoires, allowing members with different competencies and experiences to interact. Disagreements are welcomed, even encouraged, permitting open engagement with real differences as well as common ground. This helps encourage learning. Active members who are open about the shortcomings of their CoP, such as lack of participation in meetings, suggests an ability among practitioners to assess the competence of their community.

The fact that our observations were drawn from real-life examples of CoPs within a public-sector organisation in Australia, gives practitioners solid examples of how to create their own CoPs and see the potential hazards to avoid. However, the role of coordinator is not well understood and so needs further investigation before recommendations can be made.

April 2011

This is a shortened version of “Creating communities of practice: scoping purposeful design”, which originally appeared in Journal of Knowledge Management, Volume 15, Number 1, 2011.

The authors are Ben Iaquinto, Ray Ison, and Robert Faggian.