Expanding Communities of Practice

A community of practice refers to a network of individuals joined by a common domain of interest. Members typically engage in joint activities, face similar challenges, and  share similar tools and resources. It makes a lot of sense to organize learning management systems to address the needs of communities of practice in order to share the resources and knowledge developed by individual members of such a community.

Keeping the best and fighting the worst traits of communities

Communities can be vibrant, committed, and open to new ideas. They also can be insular, unreasonably wedded to traditional approaches, and mired in bureaucracy. It’s  worth considering how communities of practice can create silos.

Consider the typical entities in a business. Should communities of practice reflect the natural units that segregate in the company (i.e., business leaders, research and development, product development, marketing, sales, compliance/legal)? Each of these individual units would benefit from forming learning communities since the members of these units work most closely together, share a common language and understanding, and still can reflect a diverse range of experiences obtained from different years of practice, varying educational backgrounds, and exposure to other businesses.

However, this same common language and understanding can  also act to exclude the most efficient interactions between groups that need to work together. Individuals are most likely to ask questions of those in their community of practice and least likely to consider perspectives of those outside the group until a crisis forces the situation. The natural default state is that learning is limited by the comfort zone established by the community.

Connecting communities

This isn’t to say that communities of practice aren’t essential and very worthwhile structures to organize learning systems around. However, it should be recognized that such communities work within larger  communities, i.e., the  cross-functional teams that bring different business units together. These larger communities may have unmet needs when it comes to:

  • reducing communication barriers
  • promoting an understanding of, and respect for, different roles within the larger community
  • promoting an understanding of the knowledge resources that other business units possess and reducing territorial barriers when it comes to accessing this knowledge

Ideally, communities of practice aren’t limited by the hierarchy of an organization but coalesce around common needs and involve different members of the organization at different times. In practice, communities are more likely to come together around traditional reporting structures, driven by inertia and the juggernaut of other responsibilities that put the actual structure/membership of a learning community pretty low on the list of things to consider.

What I’m suggesting therefore, is that learning specialists/trainers within an organization have an important role in evaluating the structures that are forming to consider whether they are forming in the best ways possible. There may be a need for both stable and dynamic communities of learning organized using an LMS. Merely identifying and obtaining an LMS, providing training, and porting existing company resources into the LMS isn’t the end of the response that’s needed or even the beginning. Some analysis on the front end of how the LMS can be structured to best serve different communities is needed, along with follow-up community management. The learning specialist/trainer can act as a community liaison and coach community leaders to foster learning within and between communities. Communities of practice can’t be static, or the trappings of technology will do nothing but reinforce business as usual.


3 responses to “Expanding Communities of Practice

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