The community of practice (CoP) is an old idea for solving modern problems. In fact, CoPs are a fantastic tool for change management and the learning that goes with it. In this post and my next one, I’ll introduce ways you can use the community of practice to support your organization’s change management maturity.
Communities of practice are based on a universal human quality: the drive to join together to solve common problems through social learning.
There are thousands of examples of CoPs from history. A favorite of mine is the Impressionist painters. Here we had a group of artists living in nineteenth-century Paris. Many of them were poor and unknown, and all of them faced changes in society and the art world.
Meeting together over coffee and no doubt a lot of wine, the Impressionists hashed out ideas and learned together. In the process of solving their common problems, they forged a new aesthetic and philosophy that changed the way the world thought about art.
The social learning researcher Etienne Wenger is arguably the top thought leader today around communities of practice, and developer of the modern concept of the CoP. Wenger uses the Impressionists to illustrate the CoP model because it contains the three defining features: community, domain, and practice.
The Impressionists were a community of artists who met regularly around a shared domain – painting. Their practice was the unique set of ideas, techniques, and stories they developed together, which we now call Impressionism. I’m oversimplifying the story a bit, but the important point is that the practice was greater than the sum of its parts. The Impressionists became who they were, and accomplished what they did, in no small part because of their shared artistic journey. This is the strength and value of the CoP model.
|Features of a Community of Practice|
|Community: a group of practitioners who share experiences around a...|
|Domain: a shared skill, interest or profession that supports a...|
|Practice: the skills, knowledge and resources that develop within our community|
In much the same way that the Impressionists created something new in the art world, CoPs in modern organizations have the potential to benefit their enterprises.
In recent years, organizational experts have figured out ways to apply the CoP concept for modern uses. Organizations have a “need for speed” in the way we handle knowledge and respond to external and internal changes. Traditional business units are often too cumbersome for this. Since CoPs are structured around what people know and not the organizational chart, they can be flexible and responsive. They’re also ideal vehicles for learning because they are social and experience-based.
The traditional model of a CoP is a self-organized, bottom-up organic group. But modern CoPs are also organized from “the top” around a desired outcome or business goal.
In my next post, we’ll look at best practices for setting up a community of practice specifically for change management.