Communities of practice…

Are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.”

―Etienne Wenger, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge

I like my little groupings of fish, they look like silent communities of practice

What defines a community of practice is a group of people who share common interests, interact and learn from each other. This can be within the same department, as part of a global forum or a group of hobbyists. I am using Twitter and LinkedIn to develop links throughout the world as I learn from others and share what I am reading. I am hoping this will eventuate into a rich community of practice that I can support and be supported by as we all grow and develop our expertise.

It is likely that within your organisation there are existing communities of practice that have not been recognised and as such the benefits these communities can give are not being realised. Think of the knowledge we share and the help we ask of each other within our individual departments/offices now? We could be communities of practice if we set up internal chats, blogs and regularly discuss our work and new ideas for practice with the objective of sharing professional development. This benefit was only one mentioned within Emily Webber’s book, Building Successful Communities of Practice, p.7:

  • accelerating professional development across the organisation
  • breaking down organisational silos
  • sharing knowledge and building better practice
  • hiring and building a better team
  • happier, more motivated people

Webber’s second point, about breaking down silos is of particular interest to me at the moment as I am implementing a pilot project to reduce a series of ‘negative silos’ that have previously obstructed development work. As Webber says, ‘Communities that span [] silos can go a long way to breaking those barriers down and creating a better appreciation for how others work, improving communication and workflow.’ Webber, 2016, p.11

Social Learning

Because communities of practice have social interactions at their core, they naturally take advantage of social learning between members. Webber, 2016 p.9

For most of us, we are not in our first job. As such, we bring a wealth of experience to our current role and thus automatically become part of a social learning network, which is ‘learning within a social context’. We bring ideas that we have seen implemented and working in previous work positions as well as familiarity with scenarios others may not have come across. And each of us have different points of view so bring good experiences and bad, pros and cons. These prove invaluable within a community of practice and, as a result, they can be seen as thinktanks looking at continual processes of improvement within your own role, those of your colleagues and thus the company as a whole.

The important thing to remember about a community of practice is that it is a community. You work together to learn, problem solve, discuss, innovate, and integrate ideas. You will not always agree, but if everyone agreed with everyone else, we would still be in the stone age! No truly democratic organisation succeeds under ‘yes’ people. However, I caution people not to dismiss ideas out of hand. We only truly learn if we are open to new ideas in our communities. Emily Webber, author of Building Successful Communities of Practice, spoke at London’s 2018 Mind the Product conference about this very topic. One of her slides particularly struck me:

  1. Communities create support networks
  2. Feeling supported helps build confidence
  3. Communities create opportunities for learning and development
  4. With these kinds of opportunities people can really fly
  5. Communities ensure knowledge sharing and reduce duplication
  6. On average, people move jobs every 4.4 years
  7. Members adopt a common approach which allows scaling
  8. When communities own quality and standards, it decentralises assurance and creates consistent approaches
  9. Members collaborate on common issues and challenges to create better products
  10. ” Human communities can develop a sort of collective intelligence that is greater than the members’ individual intelligence” Alex Pentland, Social Physics

Communities of practice create the right environment for social learning, experiential learning and a rounded curriculum, leading to accelerated learning for members. This is vital in professional areas because traditional learning methods cannot provide the real experience to back up more traditional training. It can encourage a learning culture where people seek better ways to do things, rather than only using existing models. Webber, 2016 p.11

Within my role, the team have a dedicated slack channel on which we share ideas for Retrospectives, guide each other through unfamiliar reporting processes and update each other on statuses regarding work. We recommend books and articles, organising days in which we chat about specific tasks and ways in which we can improve and create a cycle of continuous improvement for ourselves, our teams, and our department as a whole. By forming a community of practice we have continual dialogue between different areas creating a more dynamic process of working,  and investigating as a team more effective ways to assess, improve and measure our work.

Members of a community of practice are open to suggestions, offer feedback, and allow themselves to develop a greater understanding.This example supports Webber’s five reasons why you need communities of practice

  1. Creating support networks
  2. Learning and development
  3. Knowledge sharing
  4. Scaling common approaches
  5. collaborating and better practices

Enhancing every community of practice are further communities of practice and like ripples in a pool, each community impacts upon the other as we all tend to be in more than one community of practice and our experiences in each impact upon the others. For example, I am also in a community of practice of educators doing their Masters, this impacts upon my community of practice with my team as I can bring elements from the first community in the form of information I have gathered on teamwork, time management, and post compulsory learning.

Where should you start

At the Mind the Product Conference, 2018, Webber said:

  1. Clarify who the community is for
  2. Get those people together (regularly)
  3. Start sharing stories
  4. Create opportunities for learning, building trust, adding value and supporting each other
  5. See what works and turn up the good

A community of practice can take some effort to establish but it doesn’t involve lengthy meetings, just shared passions and ideas, feedback and innovation through forums and groups. Using tools like Slack, Skype and Zoom, we can address our geographic diversity and create multicultural communities of practice as well as local communities. My peers are spread over offices in three different countries. The community I am also a part of is open to any of my company’s employees in the world. We not only have project managers and Products Owners in this community of practice, we have developers as well bringing us insight from their perspective, thus decreasing our risk of siloing negatively and enabling us all to learn.

My peers and I meet every fortnight. We have a busy week when it is sprint end and beginning, and then a down week where we catch up on paperwork, facilitate our teams and do other work. So this second week, the down week, suits us as the week we meet to refine and review work we have done. At the moment we are lead by ourselves, so we have a fully co-owned leadership. Within that leadership, we share the same roles, but we have developed little areas of speciality. Mine is education, mentoring and professional development, another peer is particularly interested in technical aspects and testing. Another peer looks at things from his NGO project management background, while another comes from an XP environment. When we first got together we created as a goal or driver to update and expand our Agile resources, with the ultimate aim to have an extensive library we could share across the company, and we have been achieving this beyond, I feel, the expectations of senior management. The depth of knowledge we each possess has created a resource pool rich in insight and applicable to all areas of Agile.

Every community of practice will work differently. What I have provided above, and what Webber provides in her book, something I recommend you read, should only be seen as a guideline. The truisms are those Webber said at the beginning of this section. Interpret those to meet your communities needs. If anyone would like to discuss anything within this blog further, please feel free to reach out.


Click to access 07-Brief-introduction-to-communities-of-practice.pdf

Webber, E. (2016) Building Successful Commmunities of Practice: Discover how connecting people makes better organisations

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