Creating Communities of Practices to Drive Organizational Learning

September 12, 2019 | Kiara Graham | HCI
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The modern world of work is one dominated by change, and so organizations must be ready to upskill and reskill employees to meet evolving demands.

At a larger level, leaders, too, need to learn and adapt in order to thrive. Organizational learning reflects the ability to create knowledge, to transfer it, and subsequently to modify behaviors based on the insights gained.

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are an effective tool used to prepare employees with individual learning, and at the same time, bridge the gap between individual knowledge and organizational learning.

Understanding CoPs

The concept has been around for decades, but the term “Community of Practice” was coined by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the 1990s. They defined these communities as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

CoPs must have the following three characteristics:

  • Domain: CoPs have a common ground that guides the learning that takes place within them and that is formally referred to as a shared domain of interest.
  • Community: In pursuit of their shared domain of interest, group members engage in discussions, relationship building, information and idea sharing, and other activities that enable them to learn from and with each other.
  • Practice: Members of a CoP are not just interested in the shared domain but are also practitioners in it. Their practice is what they are developing through the community.

How CoPs are set up and organized varies. Some CoPs arise spontaneously while others are formally organized to achieve a desired outcome. Some companies have multiple CoPs, whereas others maintain one CoP for the entire organization. Often, organizations utilize CoPs for one of three reasons:

  • Skills Development: Through joint activities and social learning, members can improve existing skills, build new skills, and enhance their subject matter expertise. Hewlett-Packard puts on monthly teleconferences so product-delivery consultants can evolve skills and share ideas.
  • Subject Matter Networks: Being part of a CoP gives members easy access to a network of peers who can share best practices and help them solve problems. At Buckman Labs, members of CoPs respond to each other’s questions within 24 hours.
  • Knowledge Management: CoPs facilitate the sharing and growth of knowledge throughout an organization. As such, they serve a knowledge management function. Shell uses 13 CoPs with more than 10,000 members to promote cross-functional knowledge-sharing and has saved $200 million per year.

Ultimately, CoPs can contribute to many key strategic activities that further employee knowledge and skill development and contribute to positive business outcomes.

Leveraging CoPs at Your Organization

Regardless of how CoPs are formed, technology plays a key role in supporting them and capturing the knowledge shared from person to person. Technology can be used in different ways depending on your needs:

  • Synchronous Meetings: These meetings are valuable for CoPs because they allow members to bounce ideas off each other, ask questions, and engage in real-time conversations that serve to enhance and further individual and collective knowledge.
  • Asynchronous Information Sharing: Enabling asynchronous activities such as file distribution, posting and watching videos, and participating in discussion forums is also important because it allows members to access resources and information on an as-needed basis.
  • Capturing and Transferring Subject Matter Expertise: In order for knowledge to reach beyond the boundaries of each CoP, it needs to be captured and hosted in a shared repository where other members of the organization can discover and consume it.

A modern learning platform can meet each of the above needs and provide a cohesive experience for members. The platform should allow CoPs to create content, gather videos and files, post recordings and notes from their meetings, and host the knowledge they are generating in a way that can easily be accessed and consumed throughout the organization.