Communities of Practice and Its Value for Knowledge Management

The Buddhist parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’ offers a colorful way to make sense of the notion of the community of practice. The tale finds many blind men fumbling about an elephant, each trying to discover what it is they are touching. They are fixated in disagreement. One finds the elephant’s leg and believes it a tree. Another finds its trunk and believes it a rope. Yet another finds its side and believes it a wall.

The insight is that we are all trapped inside our limited experience and cannot know the truth.

If the blind men only cooperated, forming a community whose goal is inquiry into the strange object, they may begin to overcome the problematic situation and discover the true nature of the object of their respective opinions. By sharing their experiences they would be more likely to resolve the problematic situation, that object is no object at all, but it is an elephant.

Communities of practice (CoP) are one of the main building blocks of a Knowledge Management Framework. Communities of Practice are networks of employees within an organization, who interact and help each other perform better by sharing their knowledge.

When a company wishes to include communities of practice as one of the practice sharing mechanism, needs to know where to start and how to start. Which communities do you need to establish? How do you choose which communities to promote? Do you only work with existing communities, or can you start off communities in a particular knowledge area? How will the communities agree with the existing knowledge management platform? All these questions should be answered by the company’s knowledge management strategy.

A community of practice thrives on communication. Without good communication, fast exchange of knowledge and best practice within the community will be difficult or impossible. The best and easiest communication comes if the community is co-located, although the normal case is that the community is dispersed in many teams, many offices or even many countries. A community may choose a range of communications methods and tools whether using Q&As, knowledge bases from its KM platform or using some other methods.

All CoPs should have:

  1. A compelling, clear business value proposition for all involved
  2. A dedicated, skilled facilitator or leader
  3. A coherent, comprehensive knowledge map for the core content of the CoP
  4. An outlined, easy-to-follow knowledge-sharing process
  5. An appropriate technology medium that facilitates knowledge exchange, retrieval, and collaboration
  6. Communication and training plans for members and others outside of the CoP
  7. An updated, dynamic roster of CoP members
  8. Several key metrics of success to show business results
  9. A recognition plan for participants
  10. An agenda of critical topics to cover for the first three to six months of existence.

All these 10 points are important and necessary. In this case we will choose 2 of them, lets start with the value proposition. Tying the need for a CoP to the business needs should be step one. The CoP needs some goals, so it can bring some value to the company using sharing mechanisms.

Next we have the recognition plan. So why should community members share their knowledge, learn from each other, and pass along their expertise? For the organization? While community and organization leaders would like that, how it will work for the rest of the members, in the lack of some type of reward or recognition for that behavior. It certainly won’t be a lot of activity. So if we want to build success of our communities in the long term, making the recognition plan should answer the age old question of “what’s in it for me?”.

All this should underline the importance of recognizing and supporting communities of practice. Knowledge management initiatives and systems must therefore be supportive and non-disruptive.