Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rethinking Communities of Practice

In this article, Richard McDermott, who co-authored the book "Cultivating Communities of Practice" together with Etienne Wenger and Bill Snyder, notes that a rethinking of the concept of Communities of Practice (CoPs) is needed. From a three-year study he conducted, McDermott concludes that some of his initial ideas on CoPs were wrong. He writes:

We believed that CoPs were essentially informal, voluntary groups of peers. We thought that goals and deliverables would inhibit people’s openness and the community’s ability to help each other with everyday work problems. We believed that companies could seed communities, but that they would evolve on their own over time, finding their own emerging focus and level of activity.

Communities of practice were essentially, we thought, part of the ‘underground’ organisation, operating 'under the radar', below the formal structure, and marginal to official organisational authority. We concluded, as a result, that healthy communities depended on the passion of the members, active leadership and hands-off support from the corporation.

But as more and more organisations have implemented CoPs over the past dozen or so years, our understanding of the role of communities in the organisation has changed. While some of our earlier ideas have been confirmed, others, we have found, were simply wrong.

Informal groups of peers, sharing their insights and help with the blessing of management – but little more – do sometimes continue under their own momentum. But many, contrary to our original thinking, fade away. Most of the healthy communities in these companies are more like other ‘official’ organisational structures than dramatically different from them.

McDermott continues to note that:

All of the communities had been in existence for at least two years and many for five or more. Our initial findings were mixed. About one-third of the communities of practice we examined in most of these organisations were floundering or dead.

In my opinion, the death of CoPs is mainly due to the fact that our personal networks, not CoPs, are our real knowledge homes. We tend to rely on our personal networks to learn/work, rather than participating in a CoP that is assembled through and controlled by outside forces. From my experience in participating in different CoPs, groups, and controlled networks, over time, most of these social forms have dissolved leaving place to multiple personal networks. Whereas several CoPs - that I was supposed to be a member thereof - do not exist anymore, my personal knowledge network (PKN) is still alive and has been extended over time with a myriad of selected knowledge nodes (e.g. smart people that I used to know during my work in different projects or from my blogging activities).

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