What is a community of practice in an open organization?

If organizational silos are slowing your teams down, consider building communities of practice to supercharge collaboration.
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Open community, gardeners and food co-op

Original photo by Gabriel Kamener, Sown Together, Modified by Jen Wike Huger

Community is a fundamental component of open organizations. The Open Organization Definition notes that:

Shared values and purpose guide participation in open organizations, and these values—more so than arbitrary geographical locations or hierarchical positions—help determine the organization's boundaries and conditions of participation.

In other words, people in open organizations often define their roles, responsibilities, and affiliations through shared interests and passions—not title, role, or position on an organizational chart.

That means organizational leaders will find themselves invested in building communities inside their organizations, connecting like-minded people with one another to accelerate business objectives.

For this reason, communities of practice can be a useful component of open organizations. In this three-part series, I'll explain what communities of practice are, why they are beneficial to an organization, and how you can start a community of practice. 

Community at the core

Community has always been central to organizations built on open principles. In fact, The Open Source Way explains community as:

… the group of people who form intentionally and spontaneously around something important to them. It includes the people who use or benefit from the project, those who participate and share the project to wider audiences, and the contributors who are essential to growth and survival.

This definition informs our vision for communities of practice (CoPs) at Red Hat.

In 1991, cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger first coined the term "community of practice" while studying group learning. They defined it as “a group of people who share an interest, a craft, and/or a profession.” Communities of practice have been around since the beginning of civilization. Groups of people have come together telling stories, imparting wisdom, and passing on tradition. Any group of people can form a CoP—a group of teachers exploring a new topic, for example, or architects discussing a typical customer problem and identifying a resolution.

Not all groups are communities of practice. A CoP must have a shared domain of interest, practitioners who share resources (tools, techniques, and ideas), and community members. A CoP forms at the intersection of those factors (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Model for emergence of communities of practice

Domain

A community of practice is defined by a shared domain of interest. It's not merely a group of friends hanging out together; members have a commitment to the success of the domain and a desire to share their knowledge. They value use cases, success stories, feedback, and learning from the other members.

Practice 

A community of practice is not simply a group of people who like the same things (such as certain kinds of music). Members of CoPs are practitioners who engage in shared activities, share resources, tools, techniques, and ideas. Together they develop ways of addressing problems in new ways. Members value interactions and seek knowledge from each other. Many often become thought leaders and experts in the domain.

Members

Not all groups are communities of practice. A CoP must have a shared domain of interest, practitioners who share resources (tools, techniques, and ideas), and community members.

Community of practice members engage in joint activities and discussions, assist each other, and share their knowledge. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other; they care about their standing with each other. Members of a community of practice participate regularly but do not necessarily work together on a daily basis. 

Wenger suggests several characteristics and potential activities of communities of practice, including:

  • Problem-solving
  • Making recommendations
  • Sharing experiences
  • Hosting community forums
  • Developing shared measurement tools
  • Building an argument for a policy campaign
  • Growing confidence and encouraging representatives to speak out
  • Discussing developments in communities and solutions to challenges
  • Documenting data needed to move communities forward
  • Coordinating visits to participants' sites to learn more about different approaches and perspectives
  • Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps

Communities of practice can form inside and across roles and departments in an open organization. When they do, they can help dissolve organizational silos by providing safe spaces for practitioners to come together as a community and work on a domain the members enjoy.

Together, members can solve current problems—and innovate on new products and solutions. Communities of practice also provide an opportunity to learn from the interaction and open communication in the group. Members mentor and encourage each other to learn more and do more within the community. CoPs provide a place to begin personal branding and to find the confidence to reach out for other thought leadership activities.

Communities of practice draw together domain, practice, and members to provide benefits for both the members and the organization. They are a cost-effective way to enhance learning, reduce silos, and promote innovation. And as Wegner said, “We need others to complement and develop our own expertise.”

In the next article in this series, we will discuss the benefits of a CoP in an organization.

Read the second part

What to read next
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Tracy is the Project Manager for Communities of Practice at Red Hat. She is passionate about bringing business and technology together in creative ways to encourage full-circle feedback, transparency, and open communication. In her spare time, she is a writer and amateur photographer.

2 Comments

You said, "That means organizational leaders will find themselves invested in building communities inside their organizations, connecting like-minded people with one another to accelerate business objectives."

I've participated in several CoPs during my career within different types of forward-thinking companies. When inclusivity is a core belief that's embraced by all members within the community, then practitioners choose to follow someone (the 'earned' leader) based upon their ability to convey meaning and substance. Diversity, in this context, includes people that may think differently than the majority of the members. They could suggest a course of action that is counter to popular opinion.That's okay and encouraging.

In contrast, legacy organizations that still practice the command-and-control model of leadership will 'appoint' a leader of the CoP based upon their rank in the organization's established hierarchy. That individual then sets a 'mandate' that is used to limit and contain debate within a narrow scope. The application of this top-down thinking, therefore, is often a barrier to the full exploration of a topic for discussion.

My point: while it's beneficial to have 'like-minded' people come together in the quest for a common cause, there must also be an appreciation to invite dissenting opinions about how to achieve the desired outcome.

Also, if the appointed CoP leader has worked most of their career (decades) at one company, then they may favor the opinion of other members who are very similar to them. However, they don't understand or appreciate the value that can be gained from a truly open and inclusive debate. Instead, they take comfort in the fact that they can use their mandate to create an echo-chamber effect -- essentially maintaining the status quo.

That's why the path to significant progress, via the application of CoPs, must reward behavior that's more likely to result in the enlightenment that's made possible by an open culture and an inversion of the old approach (e.g. more bottom-up reasoning, less top-down thinking).

Tracy, your introduction of communities of practice (CoPs) and selecting the Domain, Practice and Members are very interesting. It got me thinking how it would apply in my article “How to assess your organization's technological maturity“ (https://opensource.com/open-organization/20/3/communication-technology-…).

In the case in the article, I discuss a salesperson at an enterprise IT company working with a transportation company, and a Worksheet to download to determine the situation of the trucking company. I got to thinking. What would the “Domain of interest” be?

In the article, I mentioned three benefits of enterprise IT. I would guess the Domain is either to 1-enhanced trucking company’s interaction with its customer, 2-improve the trucking company’s operation, or 3-provide communication technology expertise, so it can open up new transportation business strategies. Let’s say we choose the Domain of #2-improve the trucking company’s operation based on the Worksheet results.

Then we can explore what “Practice” or practitioner shared resources (tools, techniques, and ideas)” is. I mentioned four broad solution areas in the article which all require different expertise: 1-Data gathering and company strategy analytics, 2-Social media, internet utilization, and interaction internally, 3-Telecommunication utilization within company (to avoid excess and unnecessary traveling for meetings, etc.) and 4-Automation technology utilization within the company. As “Practice”, let’s say we select #4-Automation technology utilization within the company based on the Worksheet results. It could also be described as providing embedded devices for information gathering to improve operations. We decide where we want devices on the trucks and company facilities, what information we want to gather from those devices and how we analyze that information received to improve operations.

Now, lastly we can move to “Members” after deciding the devices we want to use and why. The members should probably be the exact users devices and the information received in the transportation company, the IT company salesman as a coordinator, the appropriate IT company solutions architects as a device developer and selected device technical staff of the devices suppliers to produce the devices.

Building a community of practice (CoPs) like this and working through these three categories has been very helpful. Thanks.

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