Communities of practice: five factors for success
In the 1964 Jacobellis vs. Ohio Supreme Court ruling limiting censorship, Justice Potter Stewart remarked on the indelicacies of the case, "I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it."
In the past, such a remark could have been also applied to the art of knowledge creation.
Today, however, methods of producing relevant knowledge for businesses are emerging that can be described, facilitated and advocated. A leading means of knowledge production are the popular communities of practice.
Communities of practice are deliberate collaborations to expand the capacity for organized people to acquire, produce and apply knowledge for business benefit. They are used to advance and reciprocate knowledge contributions of stakeholders internally and externally. Communities of practice stand alone with the singular motive of advancing the net intelligence of the enterprise. They are aligned only to the particular knowledge opportunity. Their specific deliverables are higher densities of collaborative relationships, heightened awareness, improved responsiveness and deeper relative instinct of the knowledge domain.
Communities of practice are not task forces, project teams, quality circles, steering committees, special interests groups, focus groups, brainstorming sessions, off sites, review boards, shared documents, newsgroups, chatrooms or any other of the myriad of modern organizing foundations.
- 1. Opportunity focus. The most successful communities of practice focus on entrepreneurial and administrative opportunities. They promise the possibility of innovation that has yet to be broadly recognized or formally structured. The enthusiastic and informal nature encourages and demands non-linear, discontinuous and breakthrough thinking ... behaviors central to new knowledge production and advancement.
- 2. Same time, same place.Communities of practice are face to face, interactive, people-oriented activities. Since communities of practice operate in the domain of tacit, non-codified knowledge, the venue must be a shared, co-located, human workspace. Notable behaviors are agreeable discussion, collaboration and frank, impartial dialogue.
- 3. Empathetic leadership.Enthusiastic individuals that crave interaction on the particular knowledge domain are the most successful leaders of communities of practice. These leader-facilitators deeply appreciate the profound value of exposing and developing ideas in a varied, cognitive environment. Their genuine devotion expresses itself through listening, co-development and shared production of new knowledge.
- 4. Broad participation. Communities of practice are inclusive. The most effective always include partners, suppliers and customers. Since the motive is to cultivate and expand individual capacity to acquire, produce and apply knowledge, the breadth of exposure is key. The individual is paramount. Overbearing, "Confucian-type mandarins," participating to simply advance their own opinions, won't be successful and will be weeded out naturally.
- 5. Self-organizing and non-political. Communities of practice gather strength and momentum from fluid, social and informal properties of interested people. Very often, there is literally no financial or reporting structure. The appetite for knowledge motivates participants. This motivation delivers self-organization and diffusion of both the community and the deliverables.
Communities are one organizing foundation that do not require sponsorship, executive or otherwise. In fact, when a community of practice does attract the political attention of the organization, it is a testimony to its success, and will simply and most suitably evolve into one of the previously mentioned structures.
Communities of practice are an important addition to the toolkit of organizing foundations. They are specific in mobilizing individuals and their production of knowledge for business. They are participative, interactive, spirited and fun. Participants are so eager and driven by the pursuit of knowledge they transcend the unfortunate barriers so prevalent in organizations. The product of the community is self-organizing and self-diffusing by nature.
Communities of practices provide deliberate coordination of individual knowledge and accelerate aggregation and effectiveness. The great Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich August Von Hayek summarized this point well in his groundbreaking 1945 article in The American Economic Review, titled "The Use of Knowledge in Society," with the following remark: "Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him."