Communities of Practice (CoP) are groups of experts who share a common interest and collectively want to learn more and deepen their knowledge in a particular area. They are often vital aspects of lean and agile adoptions. CoPs enable teams to collaborate, share information, and improve their skills as a team to continuously develop knowledge around a specific technical or business domain.
CoPs provide five key functions which, according to Wenger (1998), are: educate, support, cultivate, encourage, integrate. These five functions are enabled by the collection and sharing of key information, organisation of interactions and collaboration, enablement of learning, promotion of great work through discussion, and encouragement of knowledge application. In order to be considered a CoP, the group should have three distinct features:
A CoP helps to drive continuous development and is critical as a professional learning strategy which can help Software teams become more effective in their delivery, problem solving, and prioritisation.
CoPs connect people who might not usually collaborate and therefore allow people to communicate and share information, advice, and experiences across departments to align businesses and equip teams across the whole organisation with key tools. They also encourage and enable learning by enabling dialogue between different people and teams, to introduce new collaborative processes which allow the exploration of new possibilities, ideas and problem solving. With the continuous flow, generation, and sharing of knowledge throughout a team or a business, it helps businesses to work more effectively and efficiently in order to deliver tangible results.
Wenger demonstrates the short-term and long-term value of CoPs for members and organisations below.
In software development and delivery, CoPs can enable coordination between teams working on the same feature, discussions and problem solving around process implementation, sharing of best practices, and removal of any bottlenecks in processes.
Common challenges when implementing CoPs in businesses fall under four umbrellas: personal challenges, management challenges, community challenges, and technology challenges.
Personal challenges within CoPs often arise around optimising relationships between people within the community and ensuring everyone participates equally. A CoP needs to be made up of active participants and organisations need to make sure that all members of the community contribute equally. This is fundamental to ensure that the CoP is truly collaborative, constructive, and productive.
Most management challenges stem from the difficulty of explaining the importance and effectiveness of CoPs to organisations and stakeholders. Assets and results from CoPs are often intangible and cannot be directly linked to the efforts of the CoP, and when you add this to the fact that CoPs are also hard to assess in terms of cost, it can be very difficult to get business buy in. Managers must take steps to ensure they can adequately evaluate the effectiveness of CoPs so that people and organisations understand their importance.
Ensuring coherence between members within the CoP, as well as between the CoP and the business, is integral to success. The CoPs main aim is to develop organisational performance through continuous development and learning. But to ensure this personal development does drive that organisational performance, the CoP must align itself to the overall business strategy and goals.
Managers of the CoP must ensure all technologies are accessible to everyone within the CoP in order to drive effective exchange of information, retention, and capture in a reusable form. Finding a platform or software everyone is literate in and is comfortable using can be challenging and may require some training.
In order to ensure that the CoP works affectively, these four areas must be acknowledged and addressed.
For more information on building effective and productive Communities of Practice, or to give your own thoughts on how well CoPs work within businesses, please get in touch directly or drop a comment or message over LinkedIn.
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Etienne Wenger-Trayner and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. "Introduction to communities of practice".Wenger-Trayner ( 2015). [Accessed 30 November 2015]
Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1999
Wenger, E. (1996); Communities of practice: The social fabric of a learning organization, The Healthcare Forum Journal, Vol. 39, Issue 4, July-August, 1996, p20.