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.

Community of practice

Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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