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Learning Organization

Communities of Practice

CoP : What is that about ?

A Community of Practice is :  “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.  As they spend time together, they typically share information, insight, and advice. They solve problems. They help each other. They discuss their situation, their aspirations, their needs. They think about common issues. They explore ideas and act as sounding boards to each other. They may create tools, standards, generic designs, manuals, and other documents… Over time, they develop a unique perspective on their topic as well as a body of common knowledge, practices, and approaches.” (E. Wenger).

The main elements are : 

  • It starts from a feeling of responsibility and ownership for a specific practice in and relevant for the organization
  • Mutually sharing experiences from that ‘practice’ 
  • Interacting in very diverse ways : meeting as CoP, offline and online, in little subgroups, taking initiative for projects or other initiatives, skype, teleconferencing, coaching duo’s, peer coaching groups, etc…
  • Taking (and getting) the liberty to question and challenge the ongoing practices in the organization and taking the initiative to improve or further develop these practices, in the light of sustainable development of the organization.
  • Bottom up, coming out of the energy, initiative, concern and ownership of the professional participants and not ‘directed’ from the top leadership (but with their full support as an exercise in distributed leadership) 

We sometimes use the term ‘learning networks’ and although they can be CoP’s, sometimes they are a less intensive form of social learning where the main objective is sharing experiences and learn from each other, without necessarily taking ownership for the strategic development of the practice in the organization.

We sometimes use the term ‘learning networks’ and although they can be CoP’s, sometimes they are a less intensive form of social learning where the main objective is sharing experiences and learn from each other, without necessarily taking ownership for the strategic development of the practice in the organization.

CoP is also a form of social learning coming out of the framework of ‘social constructivism’ where learning is not seen as a ‘transfer mechanism’ of established knowledge but where learning is seen as a ‘relational practice’ where people give meaning to their experiences and common reality.  And it is specifically that element that makes a CoP a powerful tool in the process towards a Learning Organization. Read more in this short article by E. Wenger & B.Trayner (see also the video)

Why would you set up CoP’s ?

Communities of Practice are powerful instruments for ‘sustainable performance’ and ‘sustainable development’.  They have the potential to vitalize the key practices in your organization and bring about a dynamic among the professionals of such a key practice allowing to share issues, learn from each other, challenge themselves into new and creative ideas and build shared ownership for developing the practice further.

Communities of Practice tend to trigger : 

  • Distributed Leadership : it’s an emerging practice among professionals with no specific formal ‘objective or expectation’ and where they take shared ownership for the process and the innovations or learning that comes out of it.  Through CoP’s the iniative and leadership for learning and innovation is litterally distributed and dispersed throughout the organization and ownership is in the hands of those who have the experience and the expertise to deal with it.
  • Innovation and out-of-the box thinking
  • ‘Shared purpose’ and ownership in the organization for learning and innovation
  • Transversale collaboration and a broad sense of belonging
  • It litterally MAKES knowledge (it is a catalist for dispersed expertise and experience)
  • Active ‘Stakeholder Involvement’ and it is a vehicle for Multi Party Collaboration
  • Improvements and leaner processes for the existing practices in the organization
  • Organization wide support for new developments and innovations that need to be implemented in the organization

This article examines the impact of Communities of Practice and Organizational Performance. 

When would you use CoP’s?

Communities of Practice constitute a place where professionals meet around a professional practice to share knowledge and experience, develop new practices, methodologies, processes, techniques etc… and take responsibility for implementing those in the organization.  CoP formats can be used in organizations and businesses but also for local communities as a way to involve citizens and employees in ‘shaping’ their future.

We list here a few specific situations for which CoP’s might be suitable :

  • In multi-site organisations where expertise is very fragmented
  • In international organizations in order to create shared purpose and vision around key practices and develop cross-national collaboration
  • As a follow up on reorganization, mergers & acquisitions in order to share diverse experiences, expertise and practices and start to develop shared ownership for future developments
  • To position a central support function (ex : HR) as facilitator of a network of HR staff in the Business Units or sites
  • In times of extreme turnover a CoP is a way to capture and share expertise and a place to easily access that knowledge for new employees by joining an exisiting professional community.
  • It’s a format for the co-creative development of organizational strategy and it is a lever to implement that strategy throughout that organization.

A community of practice is a very diverse relational practice : with real encounters but also with the use of virtual collaboration techniques and social media, with large group activities but also projects, intervision groups, small initiatives, individual coaching,  etc… 


You have some issues to take care of when you think about setting up a CoP or Learning Network :

  • CoP’s can not be ‘put in place’, they ARE not, but they BECOME, groups of people will gradually start feeling and behaving as communities and will have to learn to share knowledge and experience, develop new and innovative approaches and feel co-ownership over their practice area. It is an ’emerging practice’ with at the end ‘shared ownership’ and the ability to function as a ‘selfmanaging’ community.
  • It is crucial that top management recognizes CoP as a viable way to manage and innovate the strategy, processes and practices within a certain key area and sees it as a form of distributed leadership. Although support is essential, top management should create the space and autonomy necessary for the professionals to develop ownership for the CoP and let the participants invent and shape the way they work.  If top management will set specific outcomes and objectives, it becomes a project and loses the innovative force of a relational practice. 
  • A CoP is neither a project nor a working group. Meaning that they do not get an assignment or objectives to reach for a ‘manager’ and then work towards that assignment. CoP’s don’t work with deadlines or specific deliverables, what doesn’t mean they don’t have a responsibility in sustainably developing their practice and contribute to the organization. As they become more of a community and develop shared ownership they will set for themselves (out of themselves) a number of ambitions. Look at this comparative table.
  • You do need people to take the initiative in your organization, who see the need and want to invest in their practice.  You also need  ‘process facilitators’ to set up a viable process, start working on company support, design, develop and facilitate the first collaborative activities of the network, etc…They create a kind of structure allowing all the professionals within the practice to start working.  They focus on the process and stay far from content issues (or objectives).
  • A CoP is not a static, closed group of people.  A lot of people can in one way or another be involved at different levels of engagement.  You could think about involving internal, but also external stakeholders of that particular practice such as : suppliers, customers, students, competitors, professionals of other practice areas that are somehow linked, etc… 
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Organization Development