A community of practice is a phrase that explains a set or group of people whose similar interests and common language bind them together. They have a common goal of open communication and retention of knowledge (Szulanski 1996). This set of people evolves naturally because they share a common interest in a particular domain.
The members of the community acquire information or knowledge from each other thorough shared experiences. Therefore, the individual members develop themselves professionally and personally. Communities of practice occur anywhere or in any setting, for instance, in organizations, over the internet, industries and many other places. This essay focuses on two principle aspects of communities of practice. These are their role in transfer of knowledge and the role of managers in developing the communities of practice.
The role of community of practice in knowledge transfer
Knowledge transfer in an organization promotes development and learning, and is the conveying of knowledge from one part of an organization to another.
Knowledge transfer aims at managing, capturing, dispensing and generating information to make sure that knowledge is at the disposal of those people who would use it in future. It is more complex for the reason that knowledge is placed in organizational members, apparatus, tasks and their sub networks. Much knowledge in organizations is therefore difficult to articulate.
A community of practice comprises of four different components. They include the level to which members perceive the sharing of language, the extent to which the community’s goal is learning within the group, the extent of perceiving open communication and the level to which the community retains its learnt lessons. Below I will briefly explain how these categories are justified in information transfer.
The team shares vocabulary among themselves to facilitate interaction and transfer of information accordingly in the most effective way. The shared vocabulary opens a door for the group to have some exclusivity. This exclusivity adds value to an expert who has a bank of vast knowledge and information, and is motivated to belong to the group with total loyalty.
Another component is learning from one another. One of the key reasons for forming a community of practice is learning. Learning takes place through interactions with the people who have same interests and the focus of this group is to listen and share with other community members. Therefore, communities of practice provide a platform where members learn from pervious experiences. Then new information learnt speeds up new ways of applying the learnt information within the common practice.
Open communication is another component. The establishment and propagation of trust and encouragement to share information is very important in operation of a successful community of practice. In addition to that, face-to-face communication and virtual methods of socialization like e-mail and message boards establish this free communication.
This component is important since it measures the extent of trust among the members to share information and vulnerability, while interacting within the community. Lastly, there is remembering of previously learnt lessons.
For the retention of these lessons to take place, a place is established, where the best practices and lessons are shared and passed on to other members who will benefit from the new information. Actually, the community establishes benchmarks, standards and processes within itself. These benchmarks allow new community members to gain information from the experts and from others’ previous lessons.
Lack of incentive holds back knowledge transfer. Apart from that,
“Well knowledge about best practices remains broadly accessible within a firm depends upon the nature of that knowledge, from where (or whom) it comes, who gets it, and the organizational context within which any transfer occurs” (Szulanski, 1996, p. 27).
Another inhibitor is stickiness. This is the lack or difficulty in the flow of information due to lack of trust and difficulty in sharing information. It is important to be cautious of the divisions that may result from knowledge transfer. This is because it can raise ethnic considerations especially, if the leadership of an organization is imbalanced in the distribution of knowledge resources. The model below shows how knowledge transfer takes place.
Model adapted from Knowledge Transfer Method: Communities of Practice. Greenesconsulting.com. [online]. Available at http://www.greenesconsulting.com/KA/Docs/Knowledge-Transfer-Method-Communities-of-Practice-Apr-2008.doc. [Accessed 26 April 2010]
A community of practice plays a major role in the creation of knowledge processes. This will involve several steps that will ensure the formation of a process that will propagate creativity, which should be self- sustaining. First the design or an approach is necessary. It looks closely at specific actions and processes of interaction that create knowledge.
Then the team will get involved in research. Afterwards some analyses are drawn from the data collected. Interviews are suitable methods for collecting the data, after which the community involved with the creation evaluates it appropriately. From the research results, we see that by the interactions of different members of the organization, knowledge is created. Action enhances knowledge creation. The members finally present and discuss all details of any knowledge created.
The creation of knowledge has very specific practical implications. The community of practice may be able to generate knowledge thorough linkages they have with external communities.
Their joint research work will help them exploit their diverse potentials and create knowledge that is very necessary for the growth of the team. This will also benefit the organization as a whole. The process too, enhances the generation of knowledge in such communities and consequently helps the employees of such groups become more efficient in their work in the company.
The research also enhances originality in the various ideas the community of practice develops. They are predisposed to innovation as they endeavor to create knowledge through research. The most interesting part is when they come to implement the knowledge. The outcome is in terms of new products, services and value added relationships among the members of the community.
The role of managers in developing Communities of Practice
We have seen that communities of practice develop naturally. This does not mean that we cannot initiate there development and come up with polished communities of practice to add value to our organizations. Managers can therefore have a great influence in the development of communities of practice.
It is evident that they develop irrespective of any recognition from the organization, and at their sight, some organizations can strangle them. That is why it is good to have an initiative to nurture them. Some organization may leave them to fend for themselves. In this case, they will not flourish quickly to the point of becoming significant. Many of the communities of practice will benefit from deliberate attention given to them by the leadership of their organizations, as long as this attention will not hinder their self-drive in growth.
The development of these groups greatly depends on the internal leadership offered by members of the communities of practice. This applies to both situations of the development of these groups. If it is through an initiative or through spontaneity, they both require leadership.
This groups need to be legitimized and finally let to flourish freely. This will validate them as places where people share and create knowledge. This requires recognized experts who are to take part in the group in certain ways. Their participation helps a lot even if they do not do much. Nevertheless, internal leadership can exist within the group in varied and more dispensed manner. The following are some ways this leadership exists (Storey, 2004).
Those leaders that are well known provide inspiring leadership. These are the ones who are there to motivate the team and give them confidence that they are allowed to function freely in the organization. Those who put activities in order provide daily leadership. This is fundamental for continuous running of this group.
Records of communities of practice also need to be stored well to create a repository that will help the continuous development of such teams. This needs the kind of leadership that provides the classification of such record of activities and the practices of the group. There are those people who are concerned with the social well being of the community. These leaders provide interpersonal element in the group. They make sure that the social fabric is in order and people are relating cordially to each other.
Still on the forms or leadership that the community of practice requires, we have those who will link the community with other important, relevant or related communities. Those who do this provide border leadership. The community also should have linkage with the other organs and parts of institution, in order to maintain coherence in the organization at large.
For this to happen smoothly, the community should have leaders that focus on the institution. These leaders will maintain the links with the rest of the organization’s organs and there will be perfect coherence in all their activities. Finally, we have those who pioneer innovations in the community (Hislop, 2009.). These are the cutting-edge leaders who go beyond the expected and the normal to come up with initiatives that propel the community into high innovative levels.
Members may create these roles in two ways, either formally or informally. A specific group can show these roles or the roles can be extensively distributed within the community.
To make these communities very effective, managers and other leaders in the organization must internally participate in them. They should not just devise, create, and control them externally. They should therefore have intrinsic motivation to work with these groups and help them grow. Hence, they should do the following in creating and nurturing communities of practice.
The first thing they should do is to make the participations of the community of practice legitimate. The organizations therefore need to be acquainted with the activities of supporting them. This culminates to full recognition of all the things that the community is involved in. This will help the members of such a community to take part in several activities while conscious of the full freedom that they have. In this, they create an environment that values the contribution of the community.
This will require the leaders of the organization to make deliberate awareness of this unknown type of life in the organization. This awareness in any organization goes on to the level of allowing all people to evaluate their participation in communities of practice. They will henceforth give a concise description of how this involvement adds value to the organization as a whole.
The managers too, must picture how to put these communities in strategic framework. Though teams may work together for a short-lived project, they need to find a way for having a long-term experience in sharing skills and knowledge in the context of their work. Managers are supposed to work out this strategic elements in the community.
They should therefore stop focusing only on the tangible value of the short-term project work of a team, but focus on the subtle importance of community of practice. This will enable managers to let teams work together in times than spans generations. In that, they will come to appreciate the fact that communities of practice, strategically left to grow will bring efficiency in all sorts of projects in the organization.
The leaders in this case will have the task of coming up with an explicit manner of relating knowledge to business strategy. They will then use this relationship to help the communities of practice to comprehend their placement in the institution’s strategy. This entails understanding two things; understanding the requirements of knowledge and practices, and how they are related. On the other hand it also involves being keen on what upcoming communities show with regard to possible strategic moves.
The managers also need to allow the communities of practice to conform to real practice. This is where they gain knowledge that already exists from watching the way other members carryon with their activities. On this, Wenger (1998) gives an example saying
For instance, when the customer service function of a large corporation decided to combine service, sales, and repairs under the same 800 number, researchers from the Institute for Research on Learning discovered that people were already learning from each other on the job while answering phone calls (Wenger 1998, ¶ 32).
They established an educational strategy that brings together the three tasks that make use of the present practice. Wenger further says, “By leveraging what they were already doing, workers achieved competency in the three areas much faster than they would have through traditional training” (Wenger, 1998, ¶ 32).
It is therefore good to note that the knowledge required by some members of the community has always been there in the organization. Instead of a formal way of finding this information, the managers and leaders need to allow the communities of practice to thrive.
The other thing that managers need to know is that there are elements within the institution or organization that may not allow the growth of communities of practice. On the other hand, we have some that can improve growth of these organizations. On identifying these factors and elements, managers can clearly remove the inhibitors and strengthen those that encourage the growth. The key identified issue is recognizing the communities and rewarding them.
If the scheme for doing this does not facilitate the innate nature of the community, then it will definitely die off. Using such schemes as compensation and recognition to control or manipulate their existence is not the right way. The managers should therefore look for ways to make them have activities to get involved in, consequently, that the activities should be the ones to give these communities the reward they require. Factually, the success that they gain in their activities is the motivation for their existence (Bolisani, 2008).
Managers should not forget that these communities seriously need their support. Although these communities may be self-sufficient, they need several other external supports from the management of their affiliate organizations. They need things such as facilities to conduct their meetings.
This will help them plan their activities efficiently and effectively. They may also need travel facilities, to carryout their activities that involve moving from one place to the other. The other vital facility that they need is one for communication. It is therefore good that managers and leaders of the organization will help them acquire IT facility. These are just a few examples of the things the leaders of organizations should do to provide support to the communities.
The organization’s leadership should therefore establish a team to support and raise these communities. Some of the things that such a team would do are to provide necessary guidance to the community whenever they need. They may also watch out for such guidance needs required by a community and provide them before the community seeks for their help. This goes along with provision of required resources.
The other thing the team would do is to enhance coherence of the communities’ activities with the business goal of the organization. They should also encourage innovations in the communities. They will do this by giving the creative members of the community time to look through various aspects in the organization, think through and come up with innovative ideas and products (Tidd, 2006).
They will also help to have the communities comprise of the right people, and not those who hinder the progress of the community. Above all, the team should be handy in linking the community with other vital communities.
The team has an important role also in identifying and removing all the hindrances in the whole organization. These hindrances can greatly slow down the participation and growth of these communities. Such can be the differences arising from short-term requirements against the time that is at people’s disposal.
If the organization put in place such a team, the message would be very clear; that the institutions highly regards the contributions and the initiative the communities of practice have towards the organization or the institution (Cadiz, Grffitth & Sawyer, 2006).
The other important thing that the managers need to do is to balance their touch on the communities of practice. These communities do not require complete attention from the management, in terms of infrastructure but members of the community need to be given corporation.
This will help the management provide what they need and not to go beyond what they really require. This may decrease their freedom. The point is to help them acquire resources and utilize them in contribution to the organization, rather than meddling with their activities in the name of managing them. They are self-reliant and sufficient, with necessary support.
This essay has discussed two things, the way the communities of practice transfer knowledge, and how leaders should help in the development of the communities of practice. Knowledge is the fundamental aspect of such groups. They use it in growth of the teams and in the building of the institutions. Leaders too have a major role in making these communities grow. They all end up in making the organization have a better quality in all things hey do.
Bolisani, E., 2008. Building the Knowledge Society on the Internet: Sharing and Exchanging Knowledge in Networked Environments. Idea Group Inc
Cadiz, D., Grffitth, L. T & Sawyer, E. J., 2006. Experienced Community of Practice and Knowledge Transfer in a Science/Technology Company. Proceedings of the 39th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 6 (7), pp 1-9.
Hislop, D., 2009. Knowledge Management in Organizations. Oxford University Press
Knowledge Transfer Method: Communities of Practice. Greenesconsulting.com. [Online]. Retrieved from web.
Storey, J., 2004.The management of innovation. Edward Elgar Pub.
Szulanski, G., 1996. Exploring internal stickiness: Impediments to the transfer of best practice within the firm. Strategic Management Journal 17(Winter Special Issue) pp 27–43.
Tidd, J., 2006. From knowledge management to strategic competence: measuring technological, market and organisational innovation. World Scientific Pub.
Wenger, E., 1998. Communities of Practice Learning as a Social System. [Online]. Retrieved from web.