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.

Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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