Today's economy runs on knowledge, and most companies work assiduously to capitalize on that fact. They use cross-functional teams, customer- or product-focused business units, and work groups — to name just a few organizational forms — to capture and spread ideas and know-how. In many cases, these ways of organizing are very effective, and no one would argue for their demise. But a new organizational form is emerging that promises to complement existing structures and radically galvanize knowledge sharing, learning, and change. It's called the community of practice.
What are communities of practice? In brief, they're groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise — engineers engaged in deep-water drilling, for example, consultants who specialize in strategic marketing, or frontline managers in charge of check processing at a large commercial bank. Some communities of practice meet regularly — for lunch on Thursdays, say. Others are connected primarily by e-mail networks. A community of practice may or may not have an explicit agenda on a given week, and even if it does, it may not follow the agenda closely. Inevitably, however, people in communities of practice share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems.
Because its primary "output" — knowledge — is intangible, the community of practice might sound like another "soft" management fad. But that's not the case. During the past five years, we have seen communities of practice improve organizational performance at companies as diverse as an international bank, a major car manufacturer, and a U.S. government agency. Communities of practice can drive strategy, generate new lines of business, solve problems, promote the spread of best practices, develop people's professional skills, and help companies recruit and retain talent.
If communities of practice are so effective, why aren't they more prevalent? There are three reasons. The first is that although communities of practice have been around for a long time — for centuries, in fact — the term has just recently entered the business vernacular. The second is that only several dozen forward-thinking companies have taken the leap of "installing" or nurturing them. The third reason is that it's not particularly easy to build and sustain communities of practice or to integrate them with the rest of an organization. The organic, spontaneous, and informal nature of communities of practice makes them resistant to supervision and interference.
But we have observed a number of companies that have overcome the managerial paradox inherent in communities of practice and successfully nurtured them. In general, we have found that managers cannot mandate communities of practice. Instead, successful managers bring the right people together, provide an infrastructure in which communities can thrive, and measure the communities' value in nontraditional ways. These tasks of cultivation aren't easy, but the harvest they yield makes them well worth the effort.
Communities of practice differ from other forms of organization in several ways. "A Snapshot Comparison", below, looks at some of those differences.
|A Snapshot Comparison|
Communities of Practice, formal Work groups, teams, and informal networks are useful in complementary ways. Below is a summary of their characteristics.
|What's the purpose?||Who belongs?||What holds it together?||How long does it last?|
|Community of practice||To develop members' capabilities; to build and exchange knowledge||Members who select themselves||Passion, commitment, and identification with the group's expertise||As long as there is an interest in maintaining the group|
|Formal work group||To deliver a product or service||Everyone who reports to the group's manager||Job requirements and common goals||Until the next reorganization|
|Project team||To accomplish a task||Employees assigned by senior management||The project's milestones and goals||Until the project has been completed|
|Informal network||To collect and pass on business information||Friends and business acquaintances||Mutual needs||As long as people have a reason to connect|
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William M. Snyder is a founding partner of Social Capital Group, a research and consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.