Category: Community of Practice

The Three Essential Elements of a Community of Practice—Part 3: Practice

Essential elements of a community of Practice: PracticeWhat makes a Community of Practice work? I’ve been exploring, in a three-part series, the key elements that make up a successful Community of Practice. We’ve already examined #1 domain, and #2 community, so now it’s time to dive into the final element, practice. 

In this series, we’ve seen how the domain establishes the general area of interest for the community members made up of mutual peer relationships. The practice element entails the sharing of real-life experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing problems. So in order to have a strong Community of Practice (CoP), you need strong practitioners!

In a CoP, knowledge is not created in one place by external experts and “taught” so it can be used in practice by others. In a CoP, every member of the team is a Steward of Knowledge. As guardians of their practice, each team member is an expert by virtue of already being a strong practitioner. Ideally, each member brings with them diverse experiences and over time this valuable learning gets pooled. The individual members are empowered to take any new learning back to their domain. 

This interaction also strengthens a sense of shared purpose and values between community members. How the group shares, codifies, elevates and even celebrates each person’s practice demonstrates the community’s commitment to supporting each person in developing their practice. 

Here are three ways to ensure a strong practice in your Community of Practice:

Curate members. Having a shared domain doesn’t, in and of itself, guarantee that a person belongs in a Community of Practice. In establishing a new CoP, it’s wise to set up a criteria for new members. You want to look for active practitioners who can contribute current, relevant, and valuable experiences. 

They should also possess qualities that make CoPs successful – such as openness and trustworthiness. For example, someone might be interested in the domain of leadership, however, if they have no experience as a leader and aren’t keen to learn, they probably aren’t a good fit with a community of experienced leaders committed to rapidly making a difference. 

Encourage transparency. The purpose of a CoP isn’t to impress others with your know-how. The community benefits when members honestly share mistakes as well as successes. Discuss new things you’ve learned, sometimes the hard way! Egos should be left by the door if you want to engage in creative brainstorming and problem-solving. 

I’ve also seen the benefit of sharing knowledge through real-life storytelling. Stories allow members to engage each other and illustrate what’s possible in a way that can’t easily be expressed in any other way. 

Providing flexible platforms for sharing. After seeing the value of sharing real-life experiences, how do you facilitate it? The best sharing of “practice” takes place during in-person meetings where dynamic interchanges from participants are encouraged. If possible, try to meet together regularly. If being dispersed geographically or having scheduling difficulties makes regular meetings difficult, you can explore meeting together via web or teleconferences, instant messaging, or chat rooms. 

There is also tremendous value in providing a storehouse of information via message boards, wikis, blogs, or video blogs. A member can post something and days later a colleague can provide feedback or ask a question. Consider having a way to collect success stories that include photos, video clips, and work samples to provide tangible evidence of changes in practice that led to enhanced results.

If you’ve been following this series, you’re beginning to see the benefits of participating in a fully engaged Community of Practice. You’re seeing how being part of a CoP can make you the beneficiary of best practices that you can share and apply in your extended networks or workplace. I can support you to create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

The Three Essential Elements of a Community of Practice—Part 2: Community

Essential elements of a community of Practice: CommunityDo you ever feel invisible at work or amongst colleagues? As far as most business teams are concerned, the element of “community” is often neglected. In most teams, communication only flows one way: from the top, down. Goals and decisions are made by management, with little consideration paid to those lower down on the totem pole. 

However, a Community of Practice (CoP) is different. As I mentioned in the first post of this three-part series, you can think about a CoP as being made up of three main parts: domain, community, and practice. Without all of these elements, including community, it might be a team but it’s not a CoP.

What we find is that with most business teams the focus is on the “practice” (the third element which we will be discussing in the next article), to the exclusion of the other two elements. So, let’s dive into the second element of a Community of Practice and answer the question: Why is “community” so important to the success of a CoP and how can it be fostered? 

Mutual relationships are a must.

The community element in a CoP is a web of mutual relationships within which members share their learning, perspectives, and knowledge. You can speak your truth, instead of what you think the boss or group leader wants to hear. As a community of collaborators, you can share wins, without fear of competition, and struggles without fear of judgment. 

When you’re part of a Community of Practice, you are with a community of your peers who share accountability. Decisions that affect the group are made by the community and never made by an individual member. This is due to the open exchange of dialogue and ideas. Because a Community of Practice is participatory in nature, there is more room for this transparent and bidirectional communication. 

How to foster community.

You may already have this community surrounding you without being aware of it. It’s very common for a community to develop organically around a shared domain. Wegner-Trayner shared an interesting historical example of a CoP, that of the “Impressionists” of the late 19th-century. The Impressionists would meet together at a variety of locations to discuss their new approach to painting, and while they often painted alone, their dialogue on a shared domain made them a legitimate example of a community of practice. 

Although it is true that Community of Practice members works closely together, there aren’t rules for how often communities meet—it doesn’t have to be daily. It doesn’t even have to be in person. There are very productive CoPs that meet virtually using message boards and video conferencing. Size is also not a critical component, you can have a small group made up of a handful of local people or a much larger international group.

What is necessary is a commitment to learning and sharing with each other. You’ve most likely experienced that having the same job or role doesn’t automatically create a sense of community if there is no interest in interaction. There shouldn’t be rules preventing members from entering and leaving a Community of Practice, and CoPs should remain active only as long as the members are benefiting. 

Although Communities of Practice operate with different degrees of formality, there still should be a set of agreed-upon norms. Norms are essential to building a community, without them a community cannot stabilize. These also assist with meetings. Norms provide a common language for team members to hold each other accountable during the meeting and make invisible agreements more apparent. 

Next steps

Now that you’ve established a community around a specific domain, what does a Community of Practice actually do? In my next post, I’ll be discussing the third critical element of a CoP—practice—what it is, and how you can develop it in your own community. 

In the meantime, are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? I can support you to create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

The Three Essential Elements of a Community of Practice—Part 1: Domain

Essential elements of a community of Practice: Domain. When I lead training sessions on Communities of Practice, we often begin by analyzing the groups we already belong to identify those that fit the criteria of a Community of Practice (CoP). Are you already part of a CoP, perhaps without even being aware of it? What are the defining elements? What makes it different from other business teams?

It turns out that you can think about a CoP as being comprised of three main elements: domain, community, and practice. Without even one of these elements, it might be a community or a team but it’s simply not a CoP. 

This is the first of a series of three articles on these three must-have elements of a CoP. We will dive into each one starting with—Domain. 

Domain—What is it?

A domain is that one thing all members have in common, the focus of their work, or the central, organizing principle. The domain might be housing, marketing, entertainment, education, leadership, community outreach, etc. You may be a member of a CoP through a professional affiliation, local community involvement, or in an educational endeavor. For example, in education, there are many successful CoPs build around domains such as curricula and teacher best practices.

The domain is the central idea that we call our work, but more specifically, it is the thing around which we exercise our knowledge and skills. This distinction is important for a CoP because in a CoP we document knowledge and share our practice, thus deepening our skill level in our domain. For example, in a group of leaders who come together to provide a network of ideas around the topic of leadership the “domain” would be leadership and the “practice” would be the individual leadership work they each do. 

How a Domain Focuses a Community 

Most often, it’s the domain that brings a CoP together by providing it with purpose. I discussed in a previous post on effective meetings, how without purpose your meeting almost always breaks down. The same could be said about a CoP: If your domain is weak, not specific enough, or if there are community members uncommitted to the domain, then there are likely to be problems. However, if the domain is relevant, targeted, and every member knows why they are part of the community, then it will likely flourish. 

It’s often the case that a group of people is already working together in your domain. If that’s true, you may consider exploring whether the group is a CoP or could benefit from becoming a CoP. In fact, this is how many CoPs are formed, via already existing groups. This could be a working group, a professional club, a local community association, or a message board community, but it must have a focused domain in order to be successful. 

On the other hand, if it seems that your domain of interest does not already exist in the form of a CoP, there are steps you can follow to develop a community. In my next post, I’ll be discussing the second critical element of a CoP—communities—what they are, and how they form. 

In the meantime, are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? I can support you to create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

How to Create an Effective Agenda for Your Next Community of Practice Meeting

Agendas in Communities of PracticeOne mainstay of Communities of Practice (CoPs) is that they are a collective; the focus on Community is intentional. This is one of the things that distinguishes CoPs from other business teams and why they’re my preferred model of collaboration. The meeting agenda exemplifies how a Community of Practice functions differently.

When it comes to meeting agendas no one person is solely responsible for owning or controlling the agenda. The agenda is a co-constructed and collaborative affair. When a meeting agenda is handled this way, everyone takes responsibility for the meeting outcomes. 

But of course, problems can arise when there are conflicts of interest, confusion about the meeting topic, length, etc. This leads us to the question: How can Communities of Practice create quality agendas and have productive meetings, despite the challenges that come when working with a diverse group of people? 

I’ve outlined four questions you should answer as you create an effective agenda for your next CoP meeting:

Who will be the meeting facilitator? 

One provision to ensure that you’re all on “the same page” (agenda) is to have a designated facilitator. This person is the one that will get everyone involved in the creation of the agenda for the next meeting. With online tools, it’s very easy to collaborate on a meeting agenda but the facilitator will be the one who ultimately ensures that it gets done.

I’ve noticed that experienced CoPs will rotate the job of the facilitator. That way, no one person is responsible for creating and presenting the agenda. In addition to creating the agenda, a facilitator in a CoP meeting will want to make sure each member has a chance to speak, that meetings stay on track, and meeting goals are accomplished. 

In a successful CoP meeting, all responsibilities are divided among several individuals, the facilitator is not necessarily the team leader. For example, the role of knowledge management focuses on organizing and posting community documents—such as agendas.

(Note: Add some fun to your agendas to help build community! I remember one community meeting where my colleague’s spouse arrived with their toddler who was wearing a sandwich board with the agenda. Extreme creativity points! Fun and team building all in one. This illustrates an important point, getting the group engaged sometimes takes some creativity. If you see that certain members aren’t engaged in the meeting, try to get them involved. Remember the reason why they’re there!) 

What is the purpose of your meeting?

Have you ever been at a meeting when it feels like you’re going round and round in circles and never getting anywhere? Most likely, the problem was your meeting didn’t have a purpose. When your meeting has a clear purpose, that’s outlined in the agenda, it will focus all of your community members and give your meeting direction. 

The first ten minutes or so of a meeting will often be about the question: Why does this matter? If no one in the group can answer that question, you might as well leave because the meeting is unlikely to be productive.

It’s much better to give this serious thought prior to the meeting. As you prepare the agenda, you’ll want to determine if the purpose is dealing with a short-term tactical problem or if it is more of a long-term strategic issue. Will your participants need to be prepared to brainstorm solutions or just listen? If this hasn’t been clarified by the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, things can quickly break down.

Why is each of you needed at this particular meeting?

We’re all busy and it can be difficult to schedule-out time for team meetings. Spend your time wisely! Most CoP meeting time should be spent discussing and making decisions on issues that affect the whole community and issues the whole community can take part in solving. 

You may want your agenda to specifically mention the reasons why each person should be present. Also, write out the agenda topics as questions that the team needs to answer, as opposed to statements. This will stimulate people to want to attend so their voice is heard.

If the meeting exists simply to disseminate information, put it in writing and send it out for others to read. One way informational meetings are an absolute waste of time. If you find that people aren’t reading the information, that’s a deeper issue of engagement and a true CoP might be just the solution to share more information and responsibilities and increase engagement.

How long should this meeting be?

If the meeting is too long, the interest of the group will wane. Conversely, if the meeting is too short, you could risk ending without a resolution of any kind, which will only stagnate future action. A meeting is correctly ended when all participants leave with clarity and commitment. 

As you prepare the agenda, try to schedule the right amount of time by estimating how much time each topic will take. The facilitator may need to involve others in determining how much time each item will take. Finally, make sure to distribute the meeting agenda with enough time for everyone to prepare as this will speed the meeting along. When an agenda item takes longer than estimated, engage the group in a quick agreement to either extend the time allotted for the item, and thereby reduce the amount of time for another topic, or move the item to ad hoc work, individual follow-up, or a subsequent meeting.

Done right, your next CoP meeting can be constructive, and interesting, for all involved. The best CoPs are by the people, for the people. 

Are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? I can support you to create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

4 Reasons Why You Need to Join a Community of Practice

A Community of Practice works together.What do all of the following success stories have in common?

The math department “dream team” that increased academic achievement for at-risk kids with an unheard-of 70-point gain in one year.

The team of school principals who collectively interviewed and determined which candidate was best suited at which campus across the school district.

The leadership team whose program ideas were so fruitful, they gained national recognition and became featured speakers at several high visibility conferences.

Answer: They were all the result of a Community of Practice. 

My experience with Communities of Practice has been such an overwhelmingly positive one over the years. I was involved in all of the above examples! But it begs the question:

“What does it mean to be part of a Community of Practice and how can I join one?”

I love it when people ask me this question! 

It is the furthest thing from staff development or professional development that you can imagine. It’s the space where I learn the most, where I am stretched the most, and where I become better at what I do.

I’d like to share with you four reasons to join a Community and Practice (CoP).

1. You feel accountable (in a good way).

When you’re in your Community of Practice, you are with a group of your peers, people who are accountable and hold you accountable. In a successful CoP, trust is the bedrock on which the community is built. 

There’s a sense of accountability because the group works together to co-construct their own set of norms. They also see the need for continued dialogue about the norms, or standards, to ensure that each voice is heard in the shared behaviors for the group. When you own the norms by which your community runs, a feeling of accountability naturally follows. 

2. You can be fearlessly transparent.

A Community of Practice is not the place for the “pretending” that’s so common in the business world. Successful CoPs are a place for vulnerability. Community collaborators share their practice, and even more daringly, their struggles with their practice. A great measure of effective community building is the growing sense of trust within the group. Honest and open communication within your community can greatly increase your ability, and grow your capacity for accomplishing what you need to accomplish. 

When we’re part of a genuine community, we’re reminded that we need each other in order to grow, develop, achieve, and solve the complex problems we’re facing. There’s a vulnerability in that, but that’s okay. This great article from Dara Blumenthal reminded me of the importance of transparency in the workplace. For most of us, it’s where we spend most of our time. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were given permission to be ourselves?

3. You get to be creative with your solutions. 

None of us enjoy attending a meeting where there are no new ideas or inspirations, where everyone in attendance seems to be playing their roles, and every “new” idea is predictable. Our own uniques voices can be dulled by our respective titles, the roles we are accustomed to playing, the ways we ignore our personal challenges, and social conditioning we’ve tolerated. 

A Community of Practice is a space of ideas and generation of possibilities. I find that I am more genuine, more passionate, and more understanding of the viewpoints of others’ when I’m part of a CoP. The conversations tend to be nonlinear as we give ourselves permission to explore out-of-the-box solutions.

4. You grow as an embodied leader.

In my last post, I spoke about embodied leadership. It’s about seeing the context — making sense of your story, understanding where you come from, understanding what you believe, and importantly, how your emotions are showing up in your body. Embodied leaders are more mindful of what is happening in their bodies, they are able to capably respond to stress triggers, proactively create shifts in their body, and handle difficult situations skillfully. 

The CoP environment nurtures this type of leadership since as a team you’re learning to “be” together, not just “do” together. In an increasingly independent and disconnected world, you are exploring connection and interdependence. Which is why, in my experience, a CoP is one of the best ways to practice leadership skills. 

Are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? Are you wondering how to join one? If you’re part of a team, which most of us are, either at work or as part of an organization, you can adapt this model. I work with teams to help them create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that supports both adaptive and generative learning that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

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Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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