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Communities of Practice - the Structure for Future Learning

Communities of Practice – Some definitions

Most of this material has come from George Por's excellent resource. You can find his work at

What is the Opportunity?

Companies today face a landscape littered with ambiguity. Old structures, familiar routines, reliable channels -- all are apt to yield puzzling, often disappointing results. At the same time, hungry competitors, unfamiliar strategic models, and new business techniques seem to emerge from thin air, threatening to overthrow decades of business-as-usual.


The ranks are dividing: companies who get it, companies who are gotten by it. The difference, increasingly, pivots not on information but on interpretation -- the ability to make meaning out of still-emerging patterns.


Processes don't do work, people do.


Look closely at the inner workings of any company and you'll discover gaps between official work processes -- the "ideal" flows of tasks and procedures -- and the real-world practices behind how things actually get done. These gaps are not problems that need fixing; they're opportunities that deserve leveraging. The real genius of organizations is the informal, impromptu, often inspired ways that real people solve real problems in ways that formal processes can't anticipate. When you're competing on knowledge, the name of the game is improvisation, not standardization.


Organizations are webs of participation. Change the patterns of participation, and you change the organization. At the core of the 21st century company is the question of participation. At the heart of participation is the mind and spirit of the knowledge worker. Put simply, you cannot compel enthusiasm and commitment from knowledge workers. Only workers who choose to opt in -- who voluntarily make a commitment to their colleagues -- can create a winning company. When a company acknowledges the power of community, and adopts elegantly minimal processes that allow communities to emerge, it is taking a giant step toward the 21st century.

The People Are the Company - How to build your company around your people. by John Seely Brown and Estee Solomon Gray
illustrations by Alistair Thomas
from FC issue -Premiere, page 78

This link takes you to a review of Xerox PARC’s breakthrough work back in 1995!


Much of this information has been taken from work by George Pór – his outstanding web site is found at
What are they?

Groups that learn

Groups that learn, communities of practice, have special characteristics. They emerge of their own accord: Three, four, 20, maybe 30 people find themselves drawn to one another by a force that's both social and professional. They collaborate directly, use one another as sounding boards, teach each other.

Communities of practice are the shop floor of human capital, the place where the stuff gets made. Brook Manville, Director of Knowledge Management at McKinsey & Co., defines a community of practice thus: "a group of people who are informally bound to one another by exposure to a common class of problem." Most of us belong to more than one, and not just on the job: the management team; the engineers, some in your company and some not.

Fortune Magazine , August 5, 1996
by Thomas A. Stewart  You can follow the link to more of his writing at,2110,503,00.html

Tom is a senior Editor at Fortune and worked with me on his first book “Intellectual Capital” His journalistic focus is on how knowledge becomes the central business issue of our time.


What do they do?

Why Should You Pay Attention
to Your Communities of Practice?


Core competences don't reside in the abstractions of management theories.

In the real world of organizations, they reside and grow in communities of practice.

Communities of Practice and their networks can help you:

·        organize work in ways that makes people grow and be happy

·        accelerate business cycle

·        learn faster than the competition


Communities of Practice deliver their value proposition by: 

  • Developing and spreading better practices faster
  • Connecting "islands of knowledge" into self-organizing, knowledge sharing networks of professional communities
  • Feeding and being fed by web-based repositories of both proven solutions and new approaches
  • Fostering cross-functional and cross-divisional collaboration
  • Increasing your members' ability to initiate and contribute to projects across organizational boundaries

How do they work?

A mechanism for practitioners to reach out to other practitioners

"Communities of practice form and share knowledge on the basis of pull by individual members, not a centralized push of information.


Knowledge-based strategies must not focus on collecting and disseminating information but rather on creating a mechanism for practitioners to reach out to other practitioners. IS managers must then develop systems that facilitate an exchange of ideas and solutions, as well as track participation."
  (Harvesting Your Workers' Knowledge,
 by Brook Manville & Nathaniel Foote, McKinsey & Co., 

Becoming a better practitioner, not learning about practice

"Corporations must provide support that corresponds to the real needs of the communities of practice. The central issue in learning is becoming a better practitioner, not learning about practice. This approach draws attention away from abstract knowledge and cranial processes and situates it in the practices and communities in which knowledge takes on significance."
  (John Seely Brown, VP and Chief Scientist, Xerox Corp.)

Business metrics

"Knowledge-based strategies focused on communities of practice must be linked to performance and ought to be measurable by traditional and widely understood business metrics. The communities of practice must be able to see the link between their sharing and hard business outcomes appreciated by senior management.

 (Harvesting Your Workers' Knowledge,
 by Brook Manville & Nathaniel Foote, McKinsey & Co.,

The company as a constellation of overlapping CoPs

A company can be seen to consist of numerous, often overlapping, but rarely formally recognized communities of practice - an informal structure which exists in parallel with more formal forms of organization.
Peter Hillen, Congruity


Concept of practice

"The concept of practice connotes doing, but not just doing in and of itself. It is doing in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning to what we do.


When I talk about practice, I am talking about social practice.


Such a concept of practice includes both the explicit and the tacit. It includes what is said and what is left unsaid; what is represented and what is assumed. It includes the language, the tools, the documents, the images, the symbols, the well-defined roles, the specified criteria, the codified procedures, the regulations, and the contracts that various practices make explicit for a variety of purposes.


But it also includes all the implicit relations, the tacit conventions, the subtle cues, the untold rules of thumb, the recognizable intuitions, the specific perceptions, the well-tuned sensitivities, the embodied understandings, the underlying assumptions, the shared worldviews, which may never be articulated, though they are unmistakable signs of membership in communities of practice and are crucial to the success of their enterprises."

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity,
  by Etienne Wenger, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, 1997.

CoPs cannot be "essentialized" by skill catalogs or yellow pages

"Some companies confuse communities of practice with competencies and go looking for them in hopes of cataloging skill sets and maybe even enshrining those skills into some sort of corporate knowledge base. It is true enough that knowledge is the coin of the realm within communities of practice; moreover, one has to be able to give as well as take knowledge in order to remain a member in good standing. But the knowledge that gets passed around in these communities is not limited to the sort of explicit information that can be cataloged or computerized or bullet-pointed in a training curriculum. Quite often it takes the form of implicit, or tacit, knowledge."
 Communities of Practice: Learning Is Social. Training Is Irrelevant?,
 by David Stamps Training Magazine, February 1997


Core competencies live in communities of practice

"Companies do much of their most important work through CoPs -- especially in the overlaps and alliances that bring disparate communities together. Indeed, it is precisely in these overlaps that core competencies live. Most companies make the mistake of defining competencies as discrete technologies: patents, trade secrets, proprietary designs. But a real-world competence -- a sustained capacity to outperform the competition-- is built as much on implicit know-how and relationships as on tangible products and tools. You can't divorce competencies from the social fabric that supports them."
John Seely Brown


Documents as "strange attractors" of CoPs

The multitude of digital documents now being generated are "digital artifacts" around which communities of practice choose to organize themselves in distinctive ways. The documents and the communities interpenetrate and become mutually dependent; the documents would not exist but for the communities of practice, and vice-versa.
 The Dynamics of Digital Documents in: Documents in the Digital Culture: Shaping the Future, A Report on a Workshop Held at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, January 1995


Emergent structure cannot be separated from the process

"Asserting that it is learning that gives rise to communities of practice is saying that learning is a source of social structure. But the kind of structure that this refers to is not an object in itself, which can be separated from the process that gives rise to it. Rather it is an emergent structure . . ."
 Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity,
 by Etienne Wenger, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, 1997


How "being local" is a limitation

"IRL's Wenger likes to point out that all communities of practice are local. That doesn't mean there aren't communities whose members are geographically dispersed; it means that every community of practice takes a parochial view of the organization. That's why communities can be the source of problems as well as solutions. Their local viewpoint may keep them from understanding the needs of others in the company. 'No practice has the full picture,' says Wenger, 'not even the practice of management'."
Communities of Practice: Learning Is Social. Training Is Irrelevant?
 Training Magazine, February 1997


Legitimate Peripheral Participation

MUDding facilitates "legitimate peripheral participation," a term that Xerox PARC's chief scientist John Seely Brown discussed in his speech at PC Forum last March. Legitimate peripheral participation occurs when the members of a group can hang out at the boundary between the center of a group and its periphery. The members are not responsible for the conversation but are free to join in whenever they wish. To illustrate how communities of practice form through legitimate peripheral participation, Brown described an experiment in which Xerox repair technicians were outfitted with two-way radios that created a shared audio space. They could listen in at the periphery and jump in when they saw fit.
 John Seely Brown


Life cycle of CoPs

"They come together, they develop, they evolve, they disperse, according to the timing, the logic, the rhythms, and the social energy of their learning. As a result, unlike more formal types of organizational structures, it is not so clear where they begin and end. They do not have launching and dismissal dates. In this sense, a community of practice is a different kind of entity than, say, a task force or a team."
Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity,
 by Etienne Wenger, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, 1997


Organizational learning at the periphery of CoPs

Not only do organizations learn by developing and storing their competencies in groups of practitioners; they react to and create change primarily through activity engaging the periphery of these communities - absorbing new members, colliding with other communities, dealing with stimuli from outside.
Each community of practice is a focus of learning and competence for the corporation. Especially in today's knowledge intensive organizations, much of the work of the corporation is accomplished or thwarted through the interaction and overlap of distinct communities of practice.
 Peter Hillen, Congruity


Tools for representing problems, building prototypes, and creating solutions

"IS managers must find ways to facilitate the key activities of communities--problem solving and innovation. This will mean providing new application architectures that allow members to represent problems, build prototypes, and create solutions. These tools--for modeling, scenario development, and analysis--must be open, flexible, and easy to use by any member of the community."
(Harvesting Your Workers' Knowledge,
 by Brook Manville & Nathaniel Foote, McKinsey & Co.,
 in Datamation, July 1996)


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Last update: 19/01/2003; 9:52:49 AM.