Building Communities of Practice to Cultivate Organizational Knowledge

Communities of practice help organizations stay informed and focused on intentional, strategic growth. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Written by: Josh Brown

Published: September 24 2020

In the business world, the only constant is change.

Actually, it’d be more accurate to say the only constant in the business world is growth. In any industry, the organizations that consistently succeed are those who understand the importance of learning more — and being able to do more — with each passing day.

Companies that aren’t focused on continuous learning and growth may be able to tread water for the time being — but will eventually be swept away with the shifting tides in their industry.

Still, it’s one thing to say your organization is progressive, forward-thinking, and always looking to ramp up their efforts.

But to truly become the growth-focused organization you claim to be, your approach to said growth needs to be systematic and strategic.

Which is where communities of practice come in.

What is a Community of Practice?

In their 1991 book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Lave and Wenger define the term community of practice as a group of people who “share a concern or a passion for something they do and (aim to) learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Clearly, the term isn’t exactly new — nor is the concept. 

(Really, communities of practice have existed for as long as humans have communicated with the intentional purpose of achieving a common goal.)

In a modern, business-focused sense, a community of practice is a group of team members who work together to facilitate learning and growth in a specific area of operations. 

The members of a community of practice are active practitioners of their craft. As such, they use their expertise to facilitate further learning within the community and the organization as a whole.

(As we’ll discuss, communities of practice involve all members of a team in some capacity — ensuring all team members remain focused on purposeful growth at all times.)

As we go through this article, you’ll notice this theme of intentional, purposeful learning and growth running throughout. Again, a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and want to learn what’s needed to enhance their performance in this area.

On that note, let’s take a look at the three key aspects of a community of practice.

The 3 Key Components of a Community of Practice

A true community of practice consists of three key areas:

  • Domain
  • Community
  • Practice


Breaking these components down will help us clarify exactly what a community of practice (CoP) should look like for an organization.

Domain

The domain is the nucleus of your CoP.

It’s the “thing” your community revolves around, be it a certain topic, area of operation, or any other part of your organization or industry.

Really, your organization can house multiple communities of practice, each focusing on a different domain. 

For example, marketing might have their own CoP, while sales would have their own. On top of that, you might have a CoP focused on customer experience — which would be made up of members of your marketing, sales, and customer support staff.

A community of practice simply cannot exist without a solidly-defined domain. 

For one thing, it goes against the literal definition of the term. On a practical level, failure to clearly define a community’s domain will all but preclude your team from attaining their learning goals.

But, by nailing down your community’s domain from the start, you’ll keep all members focused on the reason they’ve come together.

Community

As redundant as it sounds, communities of practice have to actually be communities in order to truly flourish.

In other words, members of a CoP need to go beyond the “on-paper” aspects of the group, and instead work toward building a societal bond between one another. Otherwise, the “community” is really just a group of employees operating in isolation (albeit to a common goal).

The idea here is to facilitate communication, collaboration, and cooperation throughout the CoP — and to ultimately get to a point where all members share responsibility for the group’s progress. Developing the societal aspects of a community of practice creates synergy between all members, supercharging both individual and team-wide efforts.

This simply won’t happen if the relationship between CoP members is “strictly business”.

While the eventual goal is to facilitate organic community growth, getting started will require more intentional direction for your team members. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

Practice

Practice refers to a community’s overall plan of attack in terms of:

Determining what needs to be learned to accomplish the goals of the CoP

Learning what needs to be known, documenting it, and communicating it to others

Putting new learnings into action in a way that benefits the organization

Needless to say, this is a necessary part of the triad. 

Without these plans in place, the community would again devolve into a collection of employees working independently of one another while attempting to reach a common goal. Though some progress may be made this way, it’ll more likely lead to disjointed efforts that leave the group spinning its wheels.

Systematizing the community’s processes allows all members to stay on the same page at all times — whether working collaboratively or independently. This cohesion ensures the community is able to move forward in the most productive way possible.

Common Forms of Communities of Practice

A community of practice will typically take one of four forms, depending on the overall focus and goals of the team.

Helping communities are created in order to provide “always-on” support to team members whenever they’re in need of assistance. Revolving around a central domain, this support can be delivered in real-time, or can be accessed on-demand via an internal knowledge base

Typically, this support and content will involve answers to frequently-asked questions, troubleshooting common problems, and otherwise removing obstacles for team members as they work through their tasks.

Best Practice communities focus on defining and optimizing a team’s standard operating procedures in order to maximize productivity. While Helping communities focus on individual, on-the-ground issues, Best Practice communities think of the “big picture” ways to keep things moving in the right direction.

Later on, we’ll talk about how Xerox saved hundreds of millions of dollars by implementing a best practice CoP.

Knowledge-Stewarding communities are a sort of “meta” CoP, in that their focus is on improving the capabilities of an organization’s overall knowledge management strategy. Essentially, these groups are all about learning how to best learn what’s needed to succeed — and also learning how to capture this knowledge to be used by the organization.

Innovation communities are always looking to the “next big thing” within their domain — which can be any area of an organization or its processes. 

Whether it’s making developments to products, team use of technology, or customer experience design, Innovation communities exist to future-proof an organization. Without this ever-present eye looking to the future, it will be near-impossible for a business to thrive.

Community of Practice vs. Other Types of Learning Groups

In digging into the topic of communities of practice, you’ll likely come across a number of semi-related terms — and perhaps some inconsistent definitions as to what each refers to.

One such term is community of interest

The key difference, here, is in intent: While CoPs are focused on learning for practical use, CoIs are more focused on learning for the sake of learning. Because of this, members of CoIs don’t necessarily have to be practitioners in the field in question — they simply need to have an active interest in growing their knowledge in the area.

A CoP also differs from a community of innovation, as well, in that the latter can be formed organically as conditions dictate. In contrast, CoPs are always formed intentionally around a specifically-defined domain, with systematic processes created to determine how to move forward.

(Successful communities of practice will likely grow organically over time — but they must start with clear, well-documented intentions.)

The key thing to remember is a community of practice has a clearly-defined domain, an intentionally-created community, and a documented strategy for attaining their goals. Without one piece of this puzzle, a true community of practice cannot exist.

What are the Benefits of Developing Communities of Practice in Your Organization?

Creating communities of practice throughout your organization will lead to major benefits for both your individual employees and your company as a whole.

For Community Members

The individual members of a community of practice — and other team members within their sphere of influence — stand to gain a ton from their efforts, such as:

Improved Employee Performance

No matter the format, a community of practice exists to supercharge the abilities of its members.

Whether helping individuals overcome problems in real-time, optimizing overall processes, or enhancing organizational knowledge, a successful CoP will enable employees to maximize their current productivity and their potential value to the company. 

As Fontaine and Millen found when researching the benefits of CoPs, the most-cited individual benefits are improved productivity, performance, and personal knowledge.

A community of practice can equip and enable its members to put their best foot forward at all times. In addition to the intrinsic reward this provides your employees, it also has far-reaching benefits for your organization that we’ll discuss momentarily.

Improved Team Communication and Collaboration

Belonging to a community of practice will bring the importance of communication and collaboration to the forefront for all group members.

This, of course, leads to better productivity across the board. With more able hands on-deck — and all hands able to work together — a massive increase in productivity is sure to follow.

Belonging to such a productive community of like-minded individuals also improves job performance and overall motivation. Case in point, HBR found that a sense of belonging leads to a 56% increase in job performance, and a 75% reduction in sick days.

The reason communities of practice are so effective in increasing collaboration is two-fold:

On a literal level, part of creating a CoP is putting structures in place to enable and supercharge team-wide communication and collaboration. This may mean building intentional communication sessions into team procedures, introducing tools to facilitate real-time, always-on communication, and training teams on best practices for collaborating.

On a more human level, communities of practice empowers members to speak up both when in need of support and when able to provide it. Overall, this allows them to become a more active and valuable member of the community of practice.

(Again, though this will take some intentional effort on your team’s part, it will eventually become the nature of the community.)

Opportunities for Professional Growth and Development

On top of becoming more productive on a day-to-day basis, belonging to a community of practice will inherently allow members to grow in terms of their professional knowledge, skills, and abilities — as well as their careers.

For one thing, CoP members will always have more to learn — whether directly from their peers, or through the collaborative work they do together. What’s more, they’ll continuously realize the value to ongoing learning, overall — making them more likely to intentionally seek out such opportunities over time.

As individual members grow in their knowledge and abilities, they’ll become better equipped to take on a more active role both within the CoP and their organization. On an intrinsic level, this means assuming the role of leader and learner; extrinsically, developing employees put themselves in prime position for a promotion.

Had this hypothetical employee not belonged to a community of practice — or had it never existed in the first place — these opportunities for growth simply would not be there,

For the Company

Installing communities of practice throughout your organization will benefit your business as a whole, in a number of ways.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key factors, here.

Increased Productivity

Perhaps most obviously, increased individual productivity will lead to increased productivity across the board.

For one thing, the breakthroughs discovered by your CoPs will help streamline processes, minimize blockers, and overall make it easier for your team to produce. At the very least, this means you’ll be minimizing expenses, waste, and other costs as you work toward your goals.

But, it’s not just that your team will be better equipped to reach the status quo. Rather, successful communities of practice will enable teams to go above and beyond their initial goals — resulting in the team doing much more than previously possible (and spending much less while doing it).

Enhanced Employee Onboarding and Training

Since communities of practice are all about focused, intentional learning, it just makes sense that installing them within your organization will enhance your onboarding and training capabilities.

First of all, the members of said communities will almost always be learning something of value pertaining to their domain. Essentially, training becomes a routine part of their job — not just something done in sporadic, isolated sessions.

That said, CoP members will also likely get more value out of the more intensive professional development sessions they attend. Since they’ll have a better foundational and working knowledge of the topics in question, taking further steps to growth will be much more within reach.

As we said earlier, communities of practice often focus on improving the organization’s learning and training resources, as well. So, not only will CoP members get more out of the sessions they attend — but the sessions will actually provide more, overall.

Combine this with consistent delivery of — and on-demand access to — your organization’s valuable learning materials and resources, and your employees will always have what they need to ramp up their efforts.

Growth and Retention of Organizational Knowledge

Your team’s organizational knowledge is its greatest asset.

It’s this asset which your communities of practice will continuously be looking to strengthen, and to strengthen their grip on it.

In terms of strengthening your organizational knowledge, this much is obvious by now: Communities of practice exist for teams to become more knowledgeable and proficient within certain domains. Period.

But, your team will also become more proficient in terms of documenting, storing, and communicating this knowledge, as well. Since CoPs focus on learning for practical purposes, part of their duty will be to transfer the knowledge that exists in their collective minds into tangible, digestible content.

(And, once this content exists, CoPs and other members of your organization can continue to improve it as time goes on.)

Because these communities often rely on storytelling, live demonstrations, and other active ways of communicating knowledge, tacit knowledge often takes the spotlight within a CoP. Finding effective ways to communicate this more intangible knowledge allows your less-experienced employees to easily follow in the footsteps of the group’s leaders.

The key byproduct to this is that your organization will also be better able to retain the knowledge your employees possess — even after an employee resigns from their role. This minimizes any downtime or friction your team may face when replacing a former employee or otherwise getting back up to speed.

Customer Satisfaction

As the graphic above shows, installing communities of practice enables teams to make valuable improvements to the products, services, and overall experiences they provide their customers.

More than providing an enhanced baseline experience to your customers, your team will also be better equipped to help those in need of support and guidance. 

For one, your knowledge-focused content can be repurposed to provide self-service options to your audience. Secondly, these resources can help your support staff in their efforts to provide hands-on assistance to customers as needed.

Needless to say, this will go a long way toward keeping your customers satisfied — and keeping them coming back for more.

Overall Business Growth

To review, creating successful communities of practice will lead to:

  • Improved employee and team-wide productivity
  • More, and more effective, training and development opportunities
  • A better product, service, and experience for your audience


If all of this is in place, your company will essentially be on the fast-track to growth.

Remember the anecdote we mentioned earlier about Xerox saving over $100 million by implementing a community of practice in their organization?

It started as an informal group of employees discussing, over lunch, solutions to common problems and challenges they faced on a day-to-day basis. Once this learning community became formalized, the already-successful company was able to reach their true potential.

That is what building a community of practice is all about:

Unlocking your team’s true potential within specific domains in order to become a driving force in your industry.

How to Build a Successful Community of Practice

It’s pretty clear by now that creating a successful community of practice will require a significant investment from your team.

And, even then, you’ll still face a number of challenges as you continue to strengthen your CoP.

That said, let’s now shift our focus toward the key things you’ll need to do when forging communities of practice throughout your organization.

Identify and Assign CoP Leaders

(Quick note: Moving forward, we’ll assume you’ve already identified a domain to focus on, or that you’ll be creating multiple CoPs throughout your organization over time.)

One you’ve recognized the need for a community of practice within your organization, your first order of business will be to identify those who will become the community’s leaders.

The main criteria, here, is that they must be active practitioners and experts in their field. While the CoP will include those of lesser skill and ability, it’s crucial that you start with the best and brightest within your organization.

From this pool of expert talent, you’ll then want to identify those who show the most dedication to:

  • Their own professional growth
  • The professional growth of their colleagues
  • The success of the company


Note that who these individuals are — and where you pull them from within your organization — depends on your overall focus. 

For example, if you’re looking strictly to improve your sales processes, you’d likely look directly to your sales team for leaders. But, if you’re looking to improve your overall CX, you might pull leaders from your marketing, sales, customer support, and even product development teams.

In any case, it’s also vital to ensure diversity within your group of leaders, too. The more heterogeneous your group of leaders (and overall community), the more knowledge can be shared and built upon throughout the community’s existence.

(In contrast, a relatively homogenous group would likely have trouble seeing from different perspectives — and would have difficulty reaching the “a-ha” moments that CoPs are meant for.)

This first step is, of course, most critical to the success of your community of practice. Without strong leadership in place, your CoP won’t have much direction to help guide them — and simply won’t be able to achieve their goals.

Identify Your Goals, and the Benefits of Reaching Them

Speaking of your CoPs goals, you need to have a clear idea of what you intend to accomplish by establishing communities of practice.

Of course, the goal of all communities of practice is to better enable your team and employees in some way or another. Now, you’ll be nailing down the specifics in terms of how your team will become better enabled through the development of a CoP.

With your leaders, work to determine the areas of your domain that are most in need of improvement. Think about the common issues and challenges your team faces on a regular basis that continuously hinder productivity. 

Also, think of the strengths your various employees exhibit — and how the rest of your team could learn from them. Sometimes, it’s not about solving a problem, but about empowering your less-experienced employees to ramp up their efforts.

On that note, you also want to identify how your various stakeholders will benefit from your CoP’s efforts. This is an important step in order to generate buy-in from your team, and to get your individual employees onboard with the initiative.

To this end, you need to be ultra-relevant to different stakeholders’ situations. 

While your employees will want to know how their on-the-job experiences will change (and, ideally, improve), while managers will be focused on the “big picture” strategic advances to be made. Your C-level staff, of course, will want to know how the CoP’s success will impact the company’s bottom line.

The idea is to get everyone onboard with your CoP initiatives by showing them what they have to gain by doing so. Get everyone on the same page from the start, and you’ll have a much easier time getting your community of practice up and running.

Develop the Framework for Your CoP

Once you’ve identified your goals, as well as your practice leaders, you’ll now need to design the framework that your CoP will operate within.

Basically, you’re defining the “practice” part of your community of practice.

There are a number of tasks to complete at this stage.

First things first, you’ll want to create a concrete document that will act as a charter of sorts for your community. Here, you’ll define and document the goals for the community, as well as your rationale for working to reach these goals. This document can also include information regarding membership requirements and expectations, and other such “need to know” info about the community’s purpose for existing.



Source / The CDC provides an example of a CoP charter on its website.

This sets the stage for productive participation within the community, and minimizes the community’s potential of getting off track as time goes on.

After these foundational guidelines have been set, you’ll then work with your leaders to develop the various processes the community will routinely work through.

This involves defining:

  • The roles of various community members — and the tasks they’ll each be responsible for
  • How and when community members will communicate and interact with each other, and for what purposes
  • How learning will take place — and how the community will document, manage, share, and improve upon your organizational knowledge


(Check out Helpjuice’s guide to standard operating procedures to learn more about systematizing your CoP’s efforts.)

Remember:

Communities of practice are all about intentionality. The more clearly you define your community’s purposes and processes, the easier it will be for your team to stay productive and on track.

Encourage Participation Throughout Your Organization

In an ideal world, the members of your CoPs would be ultra-engaged at all times, continuously focusing on doing whatever they can to help your organization grow.

In the real world, though, not everyone is going to be so gung-ho about your CoP initiatives.

Generally speaking, your team members will exhibit one of three levels of involvement, here.

Your Leaders, as mentioned, will be the most heavily-involved members of your community — both in terms of quantity and quality. For one thing, they’ll be spending more time and energy on the CoP’s initiatives than anyone else in the group. Moreover, since they’re the most skilled and knowledgeable of the community, their efforts will be the most impactful, overall.

(And, again, the Leaders will be responsible for most of the “behind-the-scenes” work that goes into creating a successful community of practice.)

The Active Participants are your CoP’s core group of learners who have major growth potential — but who still need clear guidance from your more experienced team members. Incidentally, these individuals are more apt to seek out guidance and opportunities to grow than the “average” employee.

Finally, the Passive Members of your CoP are those who aren’t focused on intentional growth, but who have the potential to learn from their experiences within the community. Note that these individuals aren’t necessarily complacent; they may just need more help understanding the benefit of becoming more intentional in their professional development efforts.

Now, on some level, it’s important to accept that most members of your CoP will be passive, with fewer being considered “active”, and fewer still being denoted as Leaders. To this end, you need to know how to best reach individuals at each level of involvement in a way that matters to them.

(Fail to reach them at their level, and it will be difficult for them to become involved in the community in an impactful way.)

Of course, you eventually want all members of your community of practice to become active and productive within the group — and, when possible, to become full-on leaders of the CoP. 

So, in addition to reaching each member where they currently are, you also want to know how to build them up to the level you know they can be. 

This means regularly evaluating the progress your community and its members have made over time, identifying those who have shown the most growth (and potential for growth), and determining how to best help them further develop their knowledge and skills.

Enable Your Community of Practice

You need to provide sufficient resources to your community of practice in order for it to flourish.

First, think about the technology the members of your community will need to operate to its highest potential. While the list of potentially-useful tools is endless, some key pieces of technology to consider include:

  • Knowledge base software that will enable your community to manage and work with the information, content, and organizational knowledge to be created
  • Communication and collaboration software for individual and team-wide use cases
  • Project management software to maximize team-wide visibility and keep everyone on the same page


Also, consider the educational resources your team already has on hand, and those they will need for future initiatives and growth. And, again, be sure that you have the structures in place (e.g., a knowledge base, etc.) to make these resources accessible to your community members whenever they may need them.

It’s also crucial to ensure your communities have ample time and space to operate effectively. 

The work done within a CoP should not be considered “extra” by your employees. Rather, it should be built into their current responsibilities and workflows, so as to become part of their routine.

That said, giving your employees proper time to focus on their CoP-related duties is key to enabling and empowering them to put their all into their efforts.

Provide Opportunities for Ongoing — and Controlled — Growth Within the Community

As we’ve mentioned a few times throughout this article, a successful community of practice will eventually begin to experience organic growth over time.

As the community learns what works best (and what doesn’t) as its members become more experienced, it will become easier to determine the best way to proceed at any given moment.

Still, it’s important to actively manage this growth over time to ensure things stay headed in the right direction.

On the one hand, you certainly don’t want to assume that the organic growth your community experiences will be all that impactful — or that it will happen in the first place. Rather, you should always be looking for new ways for the community to do more for the team, and to get more out of their participation.

On the other hand, it is possible for a CoP’s organic growth to spiral a bit out of control — eventually causing its members to become too overwhelmed to function. It’s essential, then, to regulate the growth of your communities of practice to ensure the learning that occurs continues to be practical and valuable to its members.

To these ends, it’s important for your community to regularly come together to discuss the progress the CoP has made, and the impact this progress has had on the company. 

Specifically, your focus should be on how the CoP has impacted:

  • Your individual employees’ productivity levels, and their overall abilities
  • Your leaders’ ability to guide colleagues in best practices and the like
  • Your organization’s ability to bring its vision to life
  • Your business’ bottom line


Digging into these areas will help inform your strategies for growth within your community of practice — which, in turn, will ensure your team continues to move forward in the most productive way possible.

Wrapping Up

Developing communities of practice throughout your organization will all but guarantee your teams stay continuously focused on professional development and growth — both on an individual and company-wide basis.

More than just keeping your team members focused on growth, your communities of practice will help make this growth actionable. Your team won’t just know more about the topic in question; they’ll be able to do more with what they learn as time goes on.

As your team becomes more acclimated with the processes involved in facilitating communities of practice, these processes will become more natural throughout your organization. Eventually, your team’s growth will become self-sustaining and self-regulated — ensuring that your business will continue to thrive with each passing day.

Helpjuice’s knowledge base software is an essential part of your tech stack — especially if you’re looking to start forging communities of practice. To learn more about how we can help supercharge your efforts, schedule a demo with our team today.


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