The Power of Communities of Practice

An Inside Look at How Knowledge Sharing Happens

By Douglas Look and John Wallace

Communities of practice (CoPs) have existed for a long time, helping users share knowledge by exchanging best practices, answering questions, and exploring new practice areas. Autodesk has its own forums, but there are many communities not run or sponsored by Autodesk. In this article, we’ll share insights into non-Autodesk communities of practice — ranging from small to large communities — to understand their strengths and challenges. We’ll take a look at the different forms these groups take and how members can be motivated. We’ll look at value propositions and dive into the ways communities of practice can help you move your industry, your project, or your company forward. This article summarizes a roundtable discussion that took place at AU Las Vegas 2016, led by Douglas Look and John Wallace.

What Are Communities of Practice?

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” — Etienne & Beverly Wenger-Trayner

Etienne Wenger is generally credited with originating the term communities of practice, which he defines as having three crucial characteristics:

  • Domain: More than just a network of connections between people, communities of practice have an identity based on a shared domain of interest.
  • Community: In the pursuit of their shared interest and domain, communities of practice engage in joint activities, discussions, helping each other, and sharing information. One of the core components includes interacting and learning together.
  • Practice: A community of practice is more than a community of interest. Rather, members of a community of practice are practitioners who are able to share their best practices through their experiences, stories, tools, and approaches to problem solving.

Developing Practice

Communities of practice engage in a range of activities. At the most basic level, these activities might be simply transactional — where can I find a resource, who knows a certain skill, or connect me with the right team. With more mature communities of practice where there’s a basic level of trust, the activities evolve from simple transactions to sharing documents, ideas, and pictures with others. As even greater levels of trust are developed, individuals start to ask and also answer questions.

At an even higher level of trust and engagement, members of communities of practice pose open-ended questions and work together to create solutions that don’t yet exist — this is where the complex, more tacit types of knowledge are shared and developed. Discovering, exploring, and refining new solutions allow these communities of practice to develop best practices and workflows that are specific to the practitioners within their group. Why should we care about communities of practice? They solve problems quickly. They transfer best practices. They help develop professional skills.

Range of communities of practice.

CoPs Take Many Forms

Communities of practice take many forms, ranging from small to large, unstructured to structured, with a balance of informal and formal governance. Many CoPs start locally, some evolve to be regional or even global in reach, especially given today’s digital collaboration tools.

We mapped various types of communities of practice in a 2 x 2 matrix with the dimensions of early stage/mature tools/services versus small informal/large formal. In the early stages of technology, the communities of practice are smaller and informal. As the technology matures, the groups grow in size and maturity, though we also saw evidence of small groups continuing to exist around mature technology.

Diffusion of Innovation

Early stage technology, for example generative design today, starts out with small, informal groups of users who organically band together to help each other understand new technology and how it might be applied. As the technology matures, medium sized user groups start to form, again with the intent of sharing and developing practices. Over time, as the technology matures, sometimes these groups mature into larger bodies with sharing of known best practices and repositories of known answers within large organizations.

“Communities of practice are knowledge management’s killer app.” — Carla O’Dell, APQC
Diffusion of innovation and the role of communities of practice.

Key Themes and Insights

Social Learning
People learn through others, not just by having access to knowledge assets but by engaging socially with others who share their practices.

Mini-communities of the 5% 
Experts support each other through their own communities of practice. In addition to sharing knowledge, they establish a strong shared identity through activities that include talking trash as well as talking shop. Together these experts are co-developing solutions that don’t yet exist, especially around early stage technology. These communities of practice often start organically, start locally, and sometimes expand regionally and beyond.

Next-perts 
Next-perts are next-generation experts who are in the wings and highly motivated. Though these Next-perts may have less industry experience, often they are even more skilled, especially in newer technologies than established experts. The Next-perts, given their early or mid-career status, are motivated by professional advancement and set aside time to learn new things. Next-perts are highly plugged into social media as a way of finding resources and connecting with others.

Source of Content 
Communities of practice can provide a great source of content, especially in the areas of how technology can work in real practice. Communities of practice can fill knowledge gaps in practice and are motivated to solve problems.

Platforms 
There is a need for both public and private platforms to help communities share. Groups are looking for opportunities to share their knowledge with others, yet they also want to maintain some information and knowledge as private to within their groups. Maintaining web platforms for communicating and sharing is often too much work, especially for smaller communities of practice.

Help Users Connect 
Finding new members and understanding which individuals have certain skills and experience is difficult. Making connections with others is an important goal and outcome of communities of practice. A consistent challenge is locating new speakers and content for their regularly scheduled meetings.

Face-to-Face 
The key to successful communities of practice are the people who make up those communities, not the underlying technology platforms that support community activities.

“Behind all the technology, it’s all about building relationships.” –Emily Hooper, Interior Architects

Face-to-Face Learning and Training
Face-to-face interactions help build relationships, so in addition to gaining knowledge you also learn who knows what. Face-to-face involves learning on both sides — so it’s a win-win for all participants who are heavily involved in both sharing and learning. Sharing and helping is seen by participants as a reward in itself.

Social Knowledge Sharing Events 
Structured events enable social communication of what’s new, what’s a problem, and what are solutions. Group interaction provides ways of exchanging tacit knowledge, which is much more difficult to do without face-to-face interaction. Some of the keys to successful events include making the bar low for sharing and presenting, providing regularly scheduled events and making them fun, and providing food as a good incentive. When knowledge sharing events are held out in the open, this provides a form of ambient learning for people adjacent to the event. Regularly scheduled events build knowledge sharing into the culture.

Support Face-to-Face Meetings
Communities of practice could use additional support for basic logistics. Users value highly the opportunity to meet each other — developing shared identity is key to successful communities of practice.

Motivations
Why do individuals participate, often on their own time, in communities of practice? We heard time and time again that many of our customers participate, out of altruism, because they really enjoy helping others. They understand that if they help others, that others will reciprocate and help them as well. Customers also expressed the satisfaction gained through increased recognition, reputation, and status — this is also useful for developing their own brand and tied to professional development, especially in the case of the Next-perts.

Value
In Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Richard Arnold McDermott, William Snyder, and Étienne Wenger assert that communities of practice provide both short term and long term value, with benefits to the organization (for internally organized CoPs) and benefits to community members. We saw a high correlation between the Wenger research and what Autodesk customers expressed that they get out of participating in communities of practice.

Specific value for Autodesk customers:

  • Immediate help from colleagues
  • Comradery/shared identity
  • More powerful voice together as a community
  • Professional development
  • Builds reputation/status
  • Fun/excitement/energy
  • Shared best practices
  • Explore new topics
  • Finding the right expertise
  • Satisfaction from helping others

Guiding Principles

Based on the key themes and insights, we developed a set of guiding principles for supporting and nurturing Autodesk communities of practice.

Douglas G. Look is a senior business solution architect for the Autodesk Knowledge Platform and currently leads strategic planning, research, and design efforts to discover and create ways to help customers optimize their productivity through the acquisition, creation, and sharing of knowledge.

John Wallace is a user experience architect with the Autodesk Knowledge Platform. His current focus is on learning and knowledge sharing.

Learn more at AU online.