Communities of Practice: The Three Essential Elements

26 October 2017

Last month I introduced Communities of Practice, a model designed to help align business strategy with the evolving knowledge and experience of its people, while still taking advantage of the efficiencies that can be gained through more formal organisations and processes.

There are three elements that make up a Community of Practice. These are Domain, Community and Practice.


The common ground that inspires members to join, drives their learning activities and gives purpose and meaning to their activities.

Let’s take a simple example. Yours is a plumbing and gas fitting firm with offices across the country. The building boom has meant that Christchurch, Nelson, Auckland and Tauranga are seeing increased demand for the design and installation of sophisticated gas heating systems and appliances in new, architecturally-designed homes, shopping centres and offices.

In each of these main centres you have a mixture of apprentices, newly-qualified and experienced tradespeople working under a standard organisational structure with supervisors and a branch manager.

The domain in this instance is the design, selection and installation of new gas systems. The reason people join (purpose) is to share ideas and come up with best practice by taking advantage of the work that community members have done, whether in training at apprentice school, at their previous job or on the job last week.

The motivation (meaning) is twofold. To be recognised by your peers and to learn from the experience of others, in an environment where the company rewards these activities.


Creates the social fabric for learning.

Our plumbers and gas fitters are in a mixture of locations and have a wide variety of experience and insights and formal learning. In reality though, they do not have a great deal in common other than their learning domains.

In our imaginary firm, Jim and Rod have a common cause when it comes to the knowledge they are sharing from Jim’s last project. Jim is sharing his ideas and experience from a job where he specified and installed the latest gas appliances from a new European supplier. Rod is about to install the same equipment on his next job and is worried about getting the specification wrong. He has never seen or installed the equipment before and the job has contracted delivery milestones and quality demands.

What I haven’t mentioned is that Jim only just qualified as a gasfitter last year. He finished his apprenticeship with another company in Dunedin and only just joined the Christchurch team in January. Rod, on the other hand, has worked for the Auckland branch as a supervisor for twenty years and is regarded as the top dog in the Auckland office.

Jim wears tight jeans and sports an indie-style beard, while Rod has a beer gut and listens to Led Zeppelin. In normal circumstances, these two vastly different people with seemingly nothing in common would never have come together for the betterment of themselves or their firm. The Community of Practice that the company has established means that knowledge and skills are now becoming a part of the fabric of how things are done at work regardless of location or status.


The Practice component of a Community of Practice is the point of action around which a community develops, shares and maintains its knowledge.
A Practice is built on establishing, recording and sharing formal methods (explicit knowledge) and practical experience (tacit knowledge). It delivers reusable and constantly evolving best practice while making room for innovation. It allows the firm to continue to constantly improve its standards regardless of changes to the organisational structure or the movement of staff.

Jim’s willingness to share his drawings and installation instructions and, importantly, to take the occasional phone call from Rod has created genuine, measurable customer value on his latest job. These drawings and connections also endure for all community members and the firm. This motivates staff, creates a sense of belonging and maintains competitive advantage for the company as a whole as it evolves in a tough, competitive market. This is the basis of Communities of Practice.


Part Three of this series covers the most important question of all. How do we break down the structural, cultural and political barriers that exist to Communities of Practice while maintaining the day-to-day organisational framework that ensures the business operates in the day to day?