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WP 03-09

Creating and Facilitating Communities


of Practice

Heather A. Smith
School of Business
Queens University

Dr. James D. McKeen


School of Business
Queens University

Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario


May, 2003

Queens Centre for Knowledge-Based Enterprises


http://www.business.queensu.ca
Abstract
Communities of practice (CoPs) are an emerging, unstructured organizational form which
many believe will help companies to truly leverage what they know. CoPs appear to have
the potential to galvanize knowledge sharing, learning and change thereby improving a
companys performance and making it more competitive. However, a major problem
with them is that their organic and informal nature makes them highly resistant to
management supervision and interference in their activities. CoPs are therefore
controversial because there is no clear role for management in them. In fact, if
management does get involved, the community often dissipates. Yet paradoxically, CoPs
require specific managerial efforts to develop and support them so that their full power
can be leveraged.

To discuss CoPs and their role in organizations, the authors convened a focus group of
knowledge managers from a variety of industries. To help them prepare for the session,
participants were given a series of questions to consider in advance on how management
can and should develop and facilitate CoPs. This paper discusses the challenges and
successes they have had in implementing CoPs and makes recommendations for
practising knowledge managers who wish to encourage and support the development of
CoPs in their organizations.

It concludes that communities of practice have the potential to dramatically change how
enterprises operate and compete because they are the mechanism through which
knowledge gets both created and turned into action. While they are made possible by
technologies which enable people to share insights and ideas around the world, they are
first and foremost a social mechanism. Over the next few years, we can expect to see
CoPs evolve and new management techniques develop as we learn new ways to leverage
knowledge to create value.

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Introduction
As we move deeper and deeper into a knowledge economy, many companies are
discovering that they need another mechanism in their organizations to truly leverage
what they know. Communities of practice (CoPs) are an emerging, unstructured
organizational form which many believe may be this mechanism. CoPs appear to have
the potential to galvanize knowledge sharing, learning and change thereby improving a
companys performance and making it more competitive. Others are more sceptical of
these claims and are not rushing to develop CoPs. They note that a major problem with
them is that their organic and informal nature makes them highly resistant to management
supervision and interference in their activities. CoPs are therefore controversial because
there is no clear role for management in them. In fact, if management does get involved,
the community often dissipates. However, it is an interesting paradox that CoPs require
specific managerial efforts to develop them and to integrate them into the organization so
that their full power can be leveraged. (Wenger & Snyder, 2000).

To discuss CoPs and their role in organizations, the authors convened a focus group of
knowledge managers from a variety of industries. To help them prepare for the session,
participants were given a series of questions to consider in advance on how management
can and should develop and facilitate CoPs. These questions included:

1. How do you identify potential CoPs which will enhance company capabilities?
2. What role can/should management play in defining the strategic intent, domain, and
membership criteria of a COP?
3. What role(s) can/should management play in the ongoing leadership and facilitation of a
COP?
4. What technological infrastructure and support should a company provide to a COP?
5. What roles and structures will facilitate or inhibit the effectiveness of a COP?
6. How can management assess the value of a COP?
7. What makes a successful and effective COP?
8. How can ma nagement balance the risks and benefits of sharing intellectual capital outside
the organization (e.g., with partners or customers)?
9. What cultural changes should be expected where CoPs are in place? How should
company management and procedures adjust to these?

Focus group participants presented what their companies were doing to develop CoPs and
discussed strategies for supporting and nurturing them. This paper integrates a variety of
published material on CoPs with the focus groups comments to give the practising
knowledge manager answers to the questions he or she needs to know about these new
organizational forms. It first describes the characteristics of CoPs, and why they are
becoming more important to organizations. It then looks at how companies can develop
and facilitate CoPs. Finally, it discusses some of the factors which are critical to their
success.

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Characteristics of CoPs

What are CoPs?

A very broad definition of a COP is that it is a group of people with a common interest
who work together informally in a responsible, independent fashion to promote learning,
solve problems, or develop new ideas (Storck & Hill, 2000; Wenger & Snyder, 2000).
Within a COP, people collaborate directly, teach each other, and share experiences and
knowledge in ways that foster innovation. As a result, for the corporate world, they are a
force that is both social and professional which operates outside traditional organizational
boundaries and hierarchies. Because they are action-oriented and knowledge-based, and
uninhibited by the strictures of organization structure, CoPs have been called one of the
most important elements of any organization where thinking matters (Stewart, 1996).
Stewart (1996) describes CoPs as the shop floor of human capital, the place where stuff
gets made.

Interestingly, CoPs are not new. In fact, most of us belong to one or more CoPs at any
particular point in time and are an integral part of our daily lives. However, they are so
informal and pervasive that they rarely come into explicit focus. (Wenger, 1998). In our
homes, workplaces, hobbies, and social lives, we all participate in informal, unstructured
networks that help us learn and get things done. Whats new about CoPs is their name
and the fact that recognition of their existence is changing how we understand and
support learning in organizations.

Today, CoPs come in many different shapes and sizes, possibly because companies are
still experimenting with them. Several writers have tried to identify the hallmarks of a
COP, which distinguish it from a variety of other organizational groups (such as teams,
networks, grapevines, and competency groups). Stewart (1996) and Wenger (1998) both
point to several broad, defining characteristics. First, because a COP must develop over
time, it has a history of learning. Second, it has an enterprise something which forms
around a value-adding something-were-all-doing but it does not have an agenda of
action items as a team would. Third, learning is a key element of this enterprise. As a
result, CoPs develop their own ways of dealing with their world. Fourth, they are
responsible only to themselves and self-policing. Theres no boss. Leaders tend to
emerge on an issue by issue basis. In addition, because relationships within a COP are
ongoing and indeterminate, they tend to be characterized by mutual trust (Storck, 2000).
Finally, CoPs are concerned about content rather than form. As a result, they are not
identifiable or designable units (Wenger, 1998).

Focus group members saw CoPs as bridging mechanisms that cut across regional,
divisional, and geographic boundaries within an organization. Their companies are
implementing many different kinds of CoPs. Some are fairly loose groups of people who
interact only occasionally; others are much more active and tightly integrated. They also
recognize that other types of groups, such as special interest groups and networks, may
eventually evolve into CoPs although they lack all the hallmarks of a true COP. Focus

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group members therefore took a broad perspective on COP definition, suggesting that
more loosely coupled groups can serve many of the purposes of a COP and are in fact,
the breeding ground for new communities.

Within a COP, there are also different, legitimate types of participation. Wenger (1998)
points out that not all members of a COP have to be equally active. While CoPs depend
on a core group of committed and involved members, a community can also offer
peripheral forms of participation as well. This is how these groups socialize the young
and encourage newcomers. There are three stages to becoming a full member of a COP
(Sproul, 1998). The first is simply finding the community and lurking to see what is
going on. The second is learning how to get around and participate in the community.
And the third is knowing how and where to break the rules and to innovate. Signs of full
membership in a COP include shared tacit conventions, understandings, and assumptions,
and a common worldview (Wenger, 1998). Focus group members disagreed on how one
becomes a member of a COP. In one organization, membership is a badge of honour --
by invitation only and based on recognized competence. In others, membership is
typically self- selected based on interest. There was general agreement however, on the
importance and value of knowledgeable active and committed members who form the
core of the community.

CoPs and Teams

Unlike other organizational groups, CoPs are organic. At present, we have little
experience as to how to oversee and harness value from this type of organizational entity.
What we do know is that CoPs differ from other organizational groups, especially teams.
Wenger (1998) notes that there are two views of an organization:

1. The designed organization which defines the roles, qualific ations, and distribution of
authority and which establishes relations of accountability.

2. The practice(s) which give life to the organization and which are frequently a response
to the designed organization.

While we are familiar with the first view and its structures and hierarchies, the second
view suggests that there is a completely different form of organization which coexists
within and around designed organizations. Because it is based on practice and social
response, it requires a very human touch to make it grow and thrive (Macdermott,
www.co- i-l.com). In order to learn how to integrate CoPs effectively into our
organizations, it is especially important to know how they differ from other common
organizational forms with which we are more familiar.

CoPs are most often confused with teams. But unlike teams, CoPs are typically voluntary
and unstructured groups with membership that cuts across internal and/or external
organizational boundaries. While focus group members were inclined to suggest that
teams and CoPs had many areas of overlap, researchers in this area believe that it is
important to understand the principal differences between the two. These have been
summarized in Table 1.

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1 Communities of 2 Teams
Practice

To share knowledge and To complete specific


Objective promote learning in a projects
particular area
Self-selected; includes part- Selected on the basis
Membership time and marginal members of the ability to
contribute to the
teams goals; ideally
full-time
Informal, self-organizing, Hierarchical with a
Organization leadership varies according to project
the issues; leader/manager
Evolves; disbands only when When the project is
Termination there is no interest completed (in some
cases, a team may
evolve into a
community)
Group discovers value in Group delivers value
Value Proposition exchanges of knowledge and in the result it
information produces.
Making connections between Coordination of many
Management members; ensuring topics are interdependent tasks.
fresh and valuable.
Table 1. The Differences between Teams and CoPs

Teams and CoPs compete for their members time and create a tension in the
organization. However, there is general agreement that both types of groups are necessary
to the future of the modern organization.

CoPs and the 21st Century Organization


It is well understood that globalization and its related trends of deregulation,
privatization, and increased customer sophistication, have raised the competence
standards and expectations of organizations (Quinn, 1992 ). Other organizational trends
which together are producing a sea-change for businesses, include: embedding
knowledge in products and services; the increasing capacity of technology; accelerating
knowledge accumulation and depreciation rates; and the increasing demand for more
meaningful work (Snyder, 1997). These all add up to the conclusion that competition has

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increasingly come to be regarded as a learning race (Powell, 1998).

Developing learning linkages, especially externally, has become the new way to compete.
Access to knowledge is now a fundamental and pervasive concern of highly competitive
industries. It is becoming ever more important as the knowledge base becomes more
complex (e.g., as in the pharmaceutical industry) and when uncertainty is high. Thus,
collaboration is becoming a key dimension of competition. (Powell, 1998)

Within organizations, the ability to compete is also related to real-world competence.


Brown and Gray (1995) define this as a sustained capacity to outperform the
competition. They note that this form of competence is built as much on implicit know-
how and relationships, as it is on tangible products and tools because, You cant divorce
competencies from the social fabric that creates them. Put another way, companies are
discovering that there is real value in sharing ideas and insights that are not documented
and hard to articulate. CoPs are the ideal vehicles for leveraging this tacit knowledge
because they engage a whole group in advancing their field of practice. Thus, CoPs are
increasingly being seen as the best way to develop these critical real- world competencies.

CoPs and Traditional Organizational Structures

Focus group participants and researchers are in strong agreement that if CoPs are to be
developed in organizations, traditional hierarchies, business practices and management
styles will not be adequate for the job. As noted above, we know very little about how to
promote and deliver value and effectiveness in the informal, social environment of CoPs.
Wenger (1998) and Snyder call these communities the organizational frontier. They
note that there are three reasons why they arent more prevalent in todays enterprises.
First, we are only just becoming aware of their existence. Second, we are just beginning
to recognize that CoPs must be nurtured and supported. And third, it is not particularly
easy to build and sustain them or to integrate them with the rest of the organization since
they are resistant to supervision and interference. To integrate CoPs effectively into our
organizations, managers will have to find out how to do two things: how to collaborate,
and how to learn, as an organization, from collaboration (Powell, 1998).

The advent of CoPs signals that organizations are becoming more fluid than they have
been in the past. Whereas organizations have traditionally had clear borders, in the future
these will become more and more fuzzy as CoPs reach out into their members
professional communities and include the enterprises allies, partners, vendors, and
customers. Internally, organization will look more like webs of participation, again
crossing traditional project and functional boundaries (Cohen, 1998). In short, focus
group members suggested that enterprises are moving more towards operating within
spheres of influence rather than as discrete entities. As a result, it is almost inevitable
that, where implemented, CoPs will somewhat undermine traditional formal organization
structures and processes (Stewart, 1996)

This trend causes tensio n between the occupational principles of the COP and the
administrative principles of the traditional organization which has yet to be resolved.

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Focus group members did not believe that this means that CoPs are emerging as a
replacement for more tradit ional work structures. Instead, they feel they are a
complement to them adding new dimensions to work and learning. For example, CoPs
may help spread a teams learnings across the organization. Thus, while traditional
organizations take a vertical view of work (e.g., regions, lines of business, or projects),
communities take a horizontal view, integrating learning and action across vertical
boundaries (e.g., learning, practices, insights).

To manage such a two-way organization, companies will need to deve lop both the ability
to coordinate competencies to enact recognized business processes (CoPs), and the ability
to integrate multiple aspects of knowledge and skills to meet specific task requirements
(teams) (Snyder, 1997). Enterprises which learn to successfully integrate these two
different kinds of structures will be double-knit organizations because they weave
tightly knit vertically-organized teams together with loosely-knit horizontal communities
into a functional, yet flexible structure (McDermott, 1999b).

CoPs and Knowledge Management

Today in the US, most knowledge practice focuses on collecting, distributing, re-
using, and measuring existing codified knowledge and information... Most firms
efforts consist of investing in knowledge repositori es, such as intranets and data
warehouses... These activities treat knowledge pretty much like steel or any other
resource to be gathered, shared, and distributed. (Pfeffer & Sutton, 1999)

Since this approach to knowledge management captures only the mo st explicit forms of
knowledge, it results in much knowledge management effort being divorced from the
day-to-day activities of people and from how knowledge is used in practice. We now
believe that knowledge is more appropriately viewed as a dynamic ecosystem that grows
and develops, involving a complex web of interdependent parts (Cohen, 1998).
Therefore, knowledge management is really closer to knowledge ecology because
knowledge should include the physical and social environments in which informatio n
resides, social relations, trust, beliefs, practices, and meanings, in addition to explicit
information.

Because knowledge incorporates such a wide range of items, companies are now
recognizing the critical role communities play in creating, maintaining, and transferring
knowledge. Indeed, some believe CoPs are the main source of knowledge creation
(Cohen. 1998). Focus group members described CoPs as being the glue of knowledge
management. Others see them as being the building blocks of knowledge management
and a critical part of social learning systems (www.KnowledgeEcology.com). They are
knowledge in action (Snyder, 1997).

There are three principles about work in modern organizations, which are shaping our
understanding of the role of CoPs in knowledge management (Brown & Gray, 1995):

Processes dont do the work, people do. Behind the official work processes

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are the real-world practices that actually get things done. The real genius of
organizations is the informal, impromptu, often inspired ways that real people
solve real problems in ways that formal processes cant anticipate.

Learning and work are both social activities. The more you explore real
work, the more you appreciate the power of ... tacit knowledge ... i.e.,
intuition, judgment and common sense. In groups, this knowledge exists in
the practices and relationships that emerge from working together over time,
i.e., the social fabric of the community.

Organizations are webs of participation. At the core of the modern company


is participation. And at the heart of participation is the heart and spirit of the
knowledge worker. Only workers who choose to opt in can create a winning
company. When a company acknowledges the power of community and
adopts the elegantly minimal processes tha t allow communities to emerge, it is
taking a giant step towards the 21 st century.

Today, the challenge for managers is how to translate these principles into action by
facilitating CoPs.

Developing CoPs
Although CoPs are critical organizational assets, they are also a resource that can be
easily overlooked and taken for granted simply because they do not require much in
terms of institutional resources or structures. Nevertheless, they do require attention,
energy and resources to make them effective. While organizations are still learning about
how to develop and facilitate CoPs, it is clear that communities cannot simply be ignored
or left to themselves. Organizations looking to introduce CoPs must take an active role in
both identifying appropriate communities and learning how to facilitate them.

Identifying CoPs

Companies use a variety of different mechanisms to identify the communities they will
support. Wenger and Snyder (2000) stress that CoPs cannot be mandated and should not
be created in a vacuum. Thus, a common approach to identifying CoPs is to find the
informal groups that are already operating around the organizations core competencies
and help them come together as communities. However, it is important that CoPs not be
confused with competencies. They are not skills groups because they are not limited to
explicit knowledge (Stamps, 1997). Two focus group companies take a different
approach to COP identification. They begin with a business model and ask, What types
of knowledge communit ies will enhance this model?

What both these approaches have in common is that they recognize that not all interest
groups in an organization can or should become officially-sanctioned CoPs. For the focus
group organizations, a community of practice should have a strategic intent that links the

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COP in some way to organizational performance. Thus, a COP is really a community of
purpose from which the organization derives value. Once identified, it is managements
job to shape the communitys intent, he lp define its boundaries, and facilitate its
development.

Facilitating CoPs

All CoPs benefit from cultivation. Like gardens, they respond to attention that respects
their nature... You cant tug on a cornstalk to make it grow faster or taller... you can
however, till the soil, pull out the weeds, add water, and ensure ... proper nutrients.
(Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Focus group members agreed with this analogy and pointed
out that different CoPs also require different types of support. For example, CoPs which
extend beyond the organizations boundaries or which are world -wide in scope will need
different forms of cultivation than those which are more local in nature. Thus,
management has a responsibility to identify a COPs real needs and to support them
accordingly. There are three general areas in which organizations can provide support to
a COP:

1. Management. What leaders do really matters in building CoPs. Pfeffer and Sutton (1999)
believe their most important task is not necessarily to make strategic decisions, but to create
an environment in which there are a lot of people who both know and do. Through their
actions, managers create environments, reinforce norms, and help set expectations. This is a
new role for many managers and one which some focus group companies feel they are still
unprepared for.

As a first step, managers need to recognize CoPs and their importance to the
company. Then, they will feel more comfortable providing them with the resources
they need, e.g., time and encouragement to participate in a COP, and access to
meeting space and technology. Most companies find that CoPs dont need a lot of
money or time in fact, some consultants advise against providing a lot of resources,
Fund them too much and youll start to want deliverables. (Stewart, 1996).

Apart from resources, managers should focus their attention on creating a culture in
which CoPs can thrive. Mintzberg (1998) suggests that this requires covert
leadership because culture-building is not a discrete management activity but is
infused in everything a leader does. Culture is based on the core values of the
corporation. Although managers cannot create or change culture, they can enhance it
and use it to define the uniqueness of the community and its spirit.

2. Technical Infrastructure. There is no doubt that technology is a key enabler of CoPs. In


making information more widely available, what technological advances really do... is create
wider and more complex ... communities. (Wenger, 1998). However, when cons idering how
to facilitate CoPs, an organizations first reaction is all too often to buy and install technology
and then wait for the enterprise to be transformed (Moore, 1998). In short, technology is very
useful in helping a community connect but CoPs still need a very human touch (McDermott,
www.co-i-l.com.)

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Focus group members agreed that while use of technology alone is not enough to
facilitate a COP, a supportive technical infrastructure, with the following elements, is
critical:

Local practitioner support, including good communications such as, access to


telephone, fax and e-mail.
An enterprise-wide library and web-access, as well as the ability to access both expertise
and documents.
Conversational technology (beyond e-mail) facilitating access and sharing both locally
and globally.
Collaborative technology to enable people to work together. Tools which
organizations are finding useful are applications which allow members to
represent problems, build prototypes and create solutions.
Tools which make it easy to connect with, contribute to, and access the community. This might
mean making use of familiar software to reduce the difficulties and friction of
trying to work together (McDermott, www.co-i-l.com). Some focus group
members utilize tools which automatically capture, track and codify knowledge
for later reuse.

Since many of these types of tools are very different from those needed in a traditional organization, companies should also consider
forming a team to investigate, implement and maintain them for the enterprise.

3. Culture. Of all of the issues surrounding CoPs, the need for a culture which supports
communities, learning and knowledge -sharing is considered a critical success factor by both
practitioners and researchers. Moore (1998) writes, A culture hospitable to knowledge
repeatedly surfaces as the key make or break factor in [their] successful implementation. A
focus group member agreed, Having a collaborative culture where sharing is done naturally
has made it easy for us to implement CoPs. As noted above, although culture is not
something which can be changed overnight, it can be enhanced. Some of the areas where
culture can be made more supportive of communities include :

Build enough background context to enable people to better understand each


other. What people consider valuable to share depends on their own experience,
goals, problems and mental frameworks. A mismatch between two peoples contexts
has been called the biggest single reason ideas and insights are rejected. Even with
simple information-sharing, people need to build a shared context to understand how
to use it.
Use multiple forums to share knowledge. Since CoPs have many different kinds of
knowledge to share, they need multiple ways to connect. Single mediums tend to get
clogged with inappropriate information which can distract or repulse members.
(McDermott, 1999a)
Give people time. An organization which values learning and sharing will give
people time to reflect and share ideas. It will also send the message that CoPs are
okay to participate in.
Provide for face to face meetings. Focus group members felt strongly that electronic
communication should be a complement to, but not a replacement for, face-to-face
meetings. Face to face meetings both increase the likelihood of a COP developing

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and accelerate their development. Electronic communication can then be used to
sustain and deepen these relationships.

Making CoPs Work


Once an organization has identified its strategic communities and has taken steps to
create a supportive managerial, technical and cultural environment, it is still faced with
the challenge of making them work in a way which is consistent with the enterprises
needs and practices. Wenger explains that to make a COP effective, knowledge needs to
be integrated into specific business practices. What makes information into knowledge,
what makes it empowering, is the way in which it can be integrated... into practice. This
is more difficult than it sounds, because while we can try to design a culture that is
encouraging of knowledge-sharing and communities, it is the response to that design
which is what is actually incorporated into practice. The challenge of changing a
corporate culture is to work with this response, include it, and make it an opportunity for
the organization. Thus, learning cannot be designed but it can be designed for and a
culture evolved which can facilitate it. This section explores some practical advice for
knowledge managers seeking to integrate CoPs e ffectively into their organizations:

1. Understand the Hurdles. In spite of all that can be done to support and facilitate
CoPs, there are a number of significant hurdles still to be overcome in our
understanding of how to make CoPs work. For example, some researchers believe it
is unrealistic to expect knowledge to flow through organizations because peoples
time and energy are limited and they will choose to do what they believe will give
them the most return on these scarce resources (Cohen, 1998). While most of our
emphasis up to now has been on building the stock of knowledge under the
presumption that knowledge, once possessed, will be used appropriately and
efficiently. However, there is really a bigger gap between knowing and doing than
between ignorance and knowledge (Pfeffer, & Sutton, 1999). Others point out that it
is not easy to turn information into knowledge or to turn individual learning into
organizational learning. This is particularly true in fields where information is
abundant and accumulates rapidly (Powell, 1998). In short, there is still a great deal
that we dont know about how to get the most out of CoPs and deliver value to the
organization and knowledge managers would be wise to manage expectations during
this learning process.

2. Make Knowledge Easy to Use. Community space needs to be familiar and easy to
move around in. Therefore, it must be organized according to principles which reflect
the natural way in which community members think about their practice. In addition,
wherever possible, focus group members commented that they try to embed
knowledge capture and sharing into work processes. One company monitors email in
a proactive search for content and enables staff to email notes from conferences. All
content is then fully indexed so that users are only a few clicks away from the
information they need. Other companies keep track of all interactions with clients so
that as much customer knowledge as possible is retained even after individuals move

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on. Another allows users to define their own particular knowledge interface which
filters in only information they wish to learn about. These mechanisms illustrate the
conclusion that many practitioners have reached which is that the best way to build
knowledge -sharing into work is to lock documentation into peoples work tools.
Finally, Xeroxs early recognition that information is more useful when it is validated
has been reinforced by the focus groups experience. Most provide some means of
editing and eliminating old or ineffective knowledge, while highlighting what others
have found useful.

3. Measure Value . Every member of the focus group struggles with the need to
demonstrate the value of their organizations CoPs to senior management and this is
becoming more urgent with time. However, many believe that there is a different
mechanism of value operating in CoPs which needs to be better understood before
value can be identified. This proposition suggests that value comes not from hoarding
information but from sharing it (Sproul, 1998). There are unfortunately, no absolute
measures of the value of a COP as yet and there is a great deal of debate about what
kinds of measures are appropriate. Larry Prusak, for example believes that crude and
fuzzy measures (e.g., stories) capture knowledge value more effectively than more
precise ones (Cohen, 1998). Thus, he suggests companies should be looking for non-
traditional measures which recognize the value that has been added by CoPs. Others
believe that CoPs must be somehow linked to traditional and widely- understood
business metrics so that the link between sharing and outcomes can be appreciated by
senior management (Manville, 1996). One focus group member uses a balanced
scorecard to do this. To date however, there is no agreement on how to assess a CoPs
value or to connect it with organizational performance. Focus group members
recommended that senior managers begin to acquaint themselves with this issue by
periodically reviewing and assessing the work of all their CoPs. Places where
companies can begin to look for value include: business problems solved; new
knowledge created; existing knowledge leveraged; innovation in products, ideas or
processes; and improvements in process performance metrics.

4. Develop Trust. CoPs thrive on trust and building this up between members is
therefore an important way to improve their effectiveness. Trust is developed first and
foremost through face to face contact, which is a key reason why technology cannot
be used to completely replace physical get-togethers. One focus group member
commented, The issue of trust is big and it cant be built up virtually. Trust can
also be encouraged through frank discussions of real problems, and candidness
between members.

5. Establish Coordinating Roles. All focus group organizations have established a


number of coordinating roles to ensure that their CoPs work effectively. Members
identified the following roles:

Sponsor A senior manager who communicates the companys support for the
COP and helps remove any barriers which obstruct community progress.
Champion The chief organizer of events and communications for the COP.

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Facilitator/Coordinator The person who clarifies information and helps keep
discussions on topic. Good coordinators help build the one-on-one relationships
which are essential for a strong community.
Practice (or Knowledge) Leader The acknowledged leader of the COP.
Leadership is based on competence, not position. The practice leader person is
responsible for maintaining and advancing the body of knowledge in the COP and
for getting thought leaders involved in a COP from its inception. He/she is key to
building the energy of the community.
Infomediaries Some organizations also use people who are not necessarily
content experts to do much of the initial filtering of information. They could be
librarians, knowledge managers, or researchers.

6. Motivate People. Participation in a COP will not come about simply because it is
good to share. There must be incentives for individuals to participate. These can
take several forms. For example, some focus group companies have begun to reflect
contributions to knowledge, participation in a community, and use of knowledge
bases in an individuals compensation. In other companies, management makes sure
that people are motivated to try new things with knowledge. They do this by letting
staff know that its okay to take time to be part of the community and that its okay to
make mistakes. Without this assurance, people will likely be too fearful to take the
time or the risks involved in true sharing (Pfeffer & Sutton, 1999). Finally, it is
important that CoPs are used to create dialogue around issues which people really
care about, rather than simply to document best practices. This can be done by getting
the right people involved in a COP. These people will then energize and stimulate the
whole group.

7. Monitor Evolution. Focus group members were aware that our understanding and
practice surrounding CoPs is evolving continually. Therefore, it is essential that
knowledge managers monitor both research and practice to consider what others are
doing. In addition, they must also monitor their own successes and failures with CoPs
and learn from them. At present, most CoPs are internal to companies, but in the
future, with the increasing number of alliances and partnerships being developed,
CoPs will include members of other companies and take on a different character with
new benefits and risks. For example, while it is natural to develop CoPs within the
networks of companies that are created by partnerships, todays partners can become
tomorrows competitors very easily. Therefore, businesses will have to continually
reassess what is flowing out of the organization through its CoPs and determine
where a loss of intellectual capital can lead if it goes too far. This situation will
require a clear understanding on the part of COP members of what information must
be protected and what can be shared. Managers must be prepared to anticipate such
potential risks and to establish guidelines within which CoPs can work.

2.1.1.1.1.1.1.1 Conclusion

Queens Centre for Knowledge-Based Enterprises


http://www.business.queensu.ca
Communities of practice are an emerging organizational form which have the potential to
dramatically change how enterprises operate and compete. CoPs form the foundation of
knowledge management because it is through them that knowledge gets both created and
turned into action. While they have been made possible by technologies which enable
people to share insights and ideas around the world, they are first and foremost a social
mechanism. Over the next few years, we can expect to see CoPs evolve and new
management techniques develop as we learn new ways to leverage knowledge to create
value. In the meantime, knowledge managers and others must recognize and learn how to
work with the social and cultural elements of CoPs to help them realize their true
potential.

Queens Centre for Knowledge-Based Enterprises


http://www.business.queensu.ca
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Queens Centre for Knowledge-Based Enterprises


http://www.business.queensu.ca