Cultivating a Community of Practice

The resurgence of new mentoring strategies continues to spark interest in this age old practice. While many continue to ask if mentoring is worth the effort, others are striving to include techniques and strategies to make mentoring a more beneficial tool for employee growth. When seeking methods to argue the morality of adopting innovative practices, we come across the concept of developing communities of practice (CoP). CoPs are incredibly important within an organization; they develop, capture, and transfer best practices on specific topics by stimulating the active sharing of knowledge. Many now find that CoPs emerge as an effective way to handle unstructured problems and to share knowledge outside of the traditional structural boundaries in mentoring engagement.
In the early 1990’s, educational theorist Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave a social anthropologist, developed the concept and theory of Communities of Practice (CoP’s), though the original practice has existed for as long as people have exchanged stories and shown each other how to do things better. They suggested three dimensions in communicating among community members which can be seen in organizations. They stressed that members of the community should engage in interactions with each other and establish norms and relationships based on mutual engagements. Wenger and Lave also thought they should be bound together by a sense of joint enterprise and members should produce a shared repertoire of communal resources over time to forge the practice to flourish.

Why are Communities of Practice Important?

Since that time, CoP’s have emerged as a key domain in the realm of knowledge creation for organizational leadership. This continues to be highlighted as knowledge literature has become the key source of competitive advantage for organizations. As a knowledge management strategy, CoP’s provide an effective mechanism for accessing and integrating new networks. However, they may not do so quickly enough to stay abreast of competitive changes. CoP’s act as a forum for professionals to share a passion, interact regularly and learn how to do things better to provide a social context in work.

A Key for Building Organizational Leadership

A growing number of people and organizations in various business sectors are now focusing on communities of practice as a key to improving performance. Communities can be nurtured by creating the conditions for them to thrive in an organization. Some of these conditions include; (1) helping people with a shared interest find and connect with each other; (2) securing management support for the time and attention it takes to participate and lead CoPs; (3) sharing information and experiences with the group, so that the members learn from each other, and having an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.
Many believe that COP’s benefit organizations and individuals by helping build a common language, and models around specific topics. They also aide in the retention of knowledge when employees leave the organization, along with cross-fertilizing ideas that increase opportunities for innovation.
Some other examples of why communities of practice are important; is that they connect people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact. A CoP can stimulate learning by serving as a vehicle for authentic communication, mentoring, coaching, and self-reflection. At Coley & Associates, Inc. our mentoring solution allows employees in organizations to share best practices and connect with learning tools allowing the growth of a community. Members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally in mentoring relationships.

How to Use Communities of Practice to Support Mentoring

Through the introduction of mentoring programs and mentoring solutions, communities vary greatly by membership composition (e.g. very homogeneous or very diverse), and purpose (very closely-defined or broad and far-reaching). The fundamental ingredients for these communities include the domain knowledge, community, and a shared business purpose.
All Communities of Practice should have a compelling, clear business value proposition. It is also advantageous for them to have a dedicated skilled facilitator or leader to help fuel discussion. Appropriate technology mediums facilitate knowledge exchange, retrieval, and collaboration. In order to sustain the CoP in connection with your mentoring solution, a recognition plan for participants is a great asset to incorporate into the mentoring connection plans.
Finally, Communities of Practice are emerging in companies that thrive on knowledge; they are considered the new frontier. They may seem unfamiliar now, however, in five to ten years they will be as common to discussions as business units and teams that are a central part of company success today. It is important to remember to give your CoP’s something to do along the lines of goal setting and strategy design. Ultimately, community members will promote the shared knowledge, learn from each other, and pass along the acquired expertise to the next generation. Communities of practice are becoming the new norm, what has worked for your organization?