Forming Communities of Practice to Reinvigorate Business

13 September 2017

A colleague from one of New Zealand’s emerging winners in the software development market tells me that, despite its success, he is concerned about whether he is utilising the very expensive specialists in his business to best effect.

He bemoaned: “It seems the bigger we get, the more time wastage we create.

“Our best people are already frustrated at the inefficiencies and are headed to the door.

“It’s hard enough finding top people without losing the best of the best to our competitors. We pay well. We have a great environment in our offices and our customers are blue chip – what am I getting wrong?” he said.

Many companies face the same problem. The business grows and people begin to disconnect, both from each other and from the business’ strategic direction. As silos are created by management, knowledge sharing and common approaches to problem-solving are replaced by “standards and procedures”. The business becomes burdened under red tape while its creative excitement seems to be drained of energy with every additional memo.

As entrepreneurs, we all know this story and understand that as businesses grow it becomes necessary to institute a level of structure to address complexity. While bringing order and control the unintended consequence can often be a stifling of the creativity and a growing structural inability to share ideas.

People in all sorts of organisations share their experience, learn new skills and create innovations. In larger, more structured organisations these learnings can often end up remaining in the head of the individual or local team, simply because business rules, targets and individual measures make sharing ideas counterproductive to the individual.

Communities of Practice

Emerging across the business world now are “communities of practice” as a means of ensuring that the skills, experiences and ideas of our staff are constantly shared and refreshed to the benefit of the participants and, vitally, for the business
An early exponent of Communities of Practice, US-based educational theorist and practitioner Etienne Wenger, has spoken about the challenge of restructuring organisations to improve performance while avoiding the destruction of innovative capital. In essence, he believed, communities could exist within an organisation and people continue to share and create new ideas regardless of the department or team they worked in. Knowledge and strategy, it seemed, could coexist without adding further inefficiency.

So how do we establish and run these communities? With tools like mobile phones, Skype and intranets it isn’t all that difficult. All you need are willing people, a common purpose and a point of focus.

These are three main components to be considered in establishing communities of practice:

  • Domain
    The common ground that inspires members to join a community of practice drives their learning activities and gives purpose and meaning to their activities.
  • Community
    A community creates the social fabric for learning. It brings together experts and learners while encouraging meaningful interactions – a willingness to share what is in their heads, for common goals and shared growth.
  • Practice
    The community needs a point of action, or practice, around which it develops, shares and maintains its knowledge.

By implementing Communities of Practice in the work environment, you can make a difference in how key teams operate… That helps increase efficiency and stops that talent walking out the door.

Next month, I will examine domains and communities in more detail.