Communities of Practice

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Hong Sun
Management Consultant, Canada

Communities of Practice

FORMAL COMMITTEES VERSUS COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
Formal committees and communities of practice are similar groups in an organization. They are both made of delegates who collaborate in a transversal way. People from similar functions but situated in different parts of the organization are collected to help make decisions on certain issues or serve certain purposes.
However, formal committees serve better in situations that require a lot of preparation and involve a certain level of details, formal recommendations, and decision makings with supporting evidences. Whereas communities of practice serve better in situations where the activities involved require harmonized collaborations, continuous learning and improvements with mistakes being made from time to time.
Currently, in many organizations, formal committees are the transversal structure by default and cover the problems that should be better addressed by communities of practice. That's why there is the need of a shift from formal committees to communities of practice, although the purpose is not to replace formal committees entirely.

COMPARISON OF CHARACTERISTICS
  • - With formal committees, we see more regularly planned formal meetings with predefined patterns
    - With communities of practice, spontaneous and continuous interactions are in favor, thus minimum formal administrative effort is involved.
  • - The participants of committees are the same persons who are designated based on their official functions and hierarchical positions
    - In communities of practice, the participants usually voluntarily join the communities based on their expertise and interest.
  • - Formal committees tend to bring control and standardization, and the issues involved are also more related to governance and conformity
    - In communities of practice, people are encouraged to share their expertise naturally and spontaneously, which usually leads to the natural emergence of good practices and standards.
  • - Communities of practice allow people to make mistakes and provide a perfect platform to share ideas online or face to face informally
    - Formal committees cannot provide such an environment that facilitates learning and self-improving.
COMPONENTS OF A HEALTHY COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE
  1. PEOPLE: This is the most essential component, which can be divided into three main types:
    • The experts, who have a good knowledge of the practices and still want to learn more and seek for further improvements;
    • The practitioners, who utilize the practices and benefit from their active participation;
    • The supporters, usually managers who have an important impact on the communities by helping to bring the spirit of openness and identify new opportunities for the practices.
  2. FACE-TO-FACE INTERACTION: A rather effective way to build trust among participants. It also makes certain discussions much easier and clearer.
  3. ONLINE INTERACTION: More useful in spontaneous collaboration and rapid information diffusion among numerous participants.
  4. KNOWLEDGE BASE: Serves as a kind of tool box for the participants to make notes and have summaries, which is an important way to facilitate collaboration to harmonize and enrich the practices.
SUCCESS FACTORS OF COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
  • When we launch a community of practice, it's important to have key roles such as the experts to dedicate enough time like a couple hours per week to participate in the community, in order to initiate the community with enough momentum and develop it properly in the right direction with good discussions.
  • Similarly, the communities must be well recognized and supported. There must be enough engagement of the management, sufficient budget, and validation of contribution to support the communities of practice.
  • Then there is physical meeting space, which is a base camp that may involve, for example, a white board in an empty office room.
  • We also need some social network platforms, which usually involve specific applications like Slack and Yammer. Maybe a big private Linkedin group can also work.
  • We must always seek the simplest format to pass the information. It means that we should avoid creating a knowledge system that involves an enormous repertoire of Word and Powerpoint documents. Instead, we favor the use of multi-media that can include videos, photos, audios, or links etc. as long as they are accessible and easy to use for all the participants.
  • Lastly, we must understand that the purpose of communities of practice is to bring conversation as a main way of collaboration back to organization. Very often, a good 15 minutes' conversation about work among 3, 4 people in the corner of the coffee room followed perhaps by an email, is more effective as a way of communication than a formal presentation with dozens of slides that took someone or some people days of hard work. After all conversation is the most direct way of communication.
Source: Collet, B. (2018, May 28), From Formal Committees to Communities of Practice.

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