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Feature: Unlocking the Knowledge Within


Meeting Communities of practice are based around the principles of informal learning in the workplace. There is a significant role for HRD practitioners in helping to establish and cultivate them. Yet practice suggests that these communities belong firmly within the domain of knowledge management. Michael Kelleher explains what these communities are and how to set one up.

In its earliest forms knowledge management focused on IT (from whose industry it was first promoted) solutions to capturing knowledge before it left the building. This defensive philosophy was borne out of companies acknowledging that policies of reducing employee levels had diminished the organisation’s capacity to achieve its stated goals.

Later knowledge management systems appear to have acknowledged what proponents of learning and innovation had understood for over a decade: that technology in itself could not address the issue but that an emphasis on organisational culture was necessary to ensure that knowledge sharing and mutual learning was accepted. What the proponents of knowledge management had achieved, however, was a recognition that technology could enhance organisational learning, making it easier for people to make connections with each other, find useful knowledge and engage in debates at a time and pace that suited the demands of their own work.

The concept of communities of practice has come to dominate knowledge management debates since the publication of the seminal work by Etienne Wenger.

Now widely regarded as the leading authority on the topic, Wenger identified three characteristics of communities of practice:

  • Communities of practice are focused on a domain of shared interest. As such members will have a minimum level of knowledge of that domain that distinguishes them from other people.

  • Members will engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. That is how they form a community around their domain and build relationships.

  • Members will develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems, in other words, shared practice. Melissie Clemmons Rumizen goes as far as claiming that communities of interest are the "killer application" of knowledge management.
  • Self-organising communities of practice
    These are self-governing and often pursue the shared interests of the group’s members. Communities of practice add value by providing fora in which issues and problems can be raised and resolved.

    Being voluntary, informal and self-organising, these communities are fragile in that attempts to manage or control them can result in the group members disbanding or going underground instead of sharing their expertise and knowledge more broadly. However, they are extremely resilient in that members come and leave as interests and issues shift and evolve. This adaptability means that members will sense when the community is no longer adding value and can choose to disband.

    Sponsored Communities of Practice
    Internally sponsored communities may be supported by management who provide the necessary resources for meetings and the development of knowledge resources. Externally sponsored communities may be the result of public agencies - such as regional economic development agencies, local authorities etc - who are convinced that communities of practice will produce measurable results that contribute to the goals of the sponsoring agency.

    These communities are provided with the resources necessary to help optimise the potential and individuals tend to have more formal roles and responsibilities. In these types it is likely to have facilitators with process-related roles and responsibilities working with members who are content specialists.

    Communities of practice also exist in professions, such as engineering or law and in industries such as automotive or healthcare. In fact, the NHS Information Authority has encouraged health care practitioners to form and or such communities.

    Roles and responsibilities in sponsored Communities of Practice:

  • Members interact with each other, sharing information, insights and experiences, participating in discussions and raising issues and concerns regarding common needs and requirements. Members will focus on participation, sharing their knowledge and learning from others.

  • The champion must demonstrate enthusiasm and energy for engaging with the membership. The champion focuses on content and understands the needs and the rhythm of the community and will lead the organisation of meetings and other sharing events.

  • The facilitator focuses on process and is responsible for clarifying communications, understanding knowledge and learning needs, designing and facilitating events etc. This need not be one individual.

  • The sponsor communicates the support for a sponsored community and will help remove barriers that obstruct community progress such as resources. The sponsor will focus on outcomes and on monitoring effectiveness.
  • Getting started:

  • Select a focal point: this could be a particular problem or a field of work.

  • Present a proposal demonstrating where resources or support will be needed.

  • Make sure that the added value / benefits are identified for both members and the sponsoring bodies.

  • Prepare an initial work plan covering the first six months of the initiative that also indicates further activities beyond that period. This work plan may be subject to revisions based on experience for the first few months.

  • Enlist initial members to help devise a shared vision of the community with goals and objectives, how it will operate and how they will work together.

  • Establish any IT support requirements.
  • Cultivating the community:
    The first meeting should introduce members to the benefits of the community of practice, outline the services on offer and introduce the facilitator and the sponsor, their skills and their roles.

    This meeting must help the members to create a shared vision and to establish ground rules that will underpin the operations and the success of the community. At this meeting it will be important to identify the topics the members wish to focus on.

    Michael Kelleher is a senior consultant at CIBIT Consultants/ Educators and is based in Wales. He is a Visiting Professor at Nottingham Trent University.
    Mike can be contacted at [email protected]


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