The heart and soul of a Community of Practice

What makes a group of people into a Community of Practice?

Recently I read a document which asserted that the employees within an organisation are naturally a community of practice, because they all work together in service of the same organisational goal.

That immediately struck me as wrong, but why was it wrong?

Certainly the employees fall under Wenger’s definition of a Community of Practice – namely “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.” Employees in a company may be passionate about what they do, they may learn to do it better, and they may interact regularly with each other as part of their work. But for me, this alone is not enough for them to be a community of practice.

The extra point that is needed, is a sense of group identity based around practice.  

The members of a community of practice identify with the domain of practice, and therefore with the other practitioners. They talk about “we” when they talk about practitioners in the knowledge domain. That’s a different “we” from “we who work for this company”- its “We, the engineers”, “We, the geologists” and “We, the admin assisitants”.

This sense of identity needs to be supported by interactions that are specifically about the domain. Even if you say “we, the engineers”, there is not necessarily a community of practice of engineers unless there is an interaction among that engineering community, related to the practice of engineering, and concerned with engineering issues. The interactions, these conversations about engineering, make the community a reality.

So the employees within an organisation are not naturally a community of practice, until they develop a sense of identity around a domain, and interact within each other to discuss and improve their practice withuin that domain. Without these two factors, they remain individual contributors, reliant on their own knowledge.

Of course there is more to being successful as a CoP than just identity and interaction (see my post on the 10 success factors for CoPs), but interaction and identity are the heart and soul.

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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