Moving beyond team working to become a community of practice

Organisations have invested significant attention into building team working and practices which improve performance, whether it be customer services or productivity.  However, organisations are increasingly moving to a model where like-minded people share ideas and thinking, as well as tasks.  This is known as ‘communities of practice’.

What is a community of practice?

The concept of communities of practice is not new, but the terminology is more recent.  Particularly relevant for professional services (but also applicable in other organisations), the idea that like-minded groups work together to share ideas and practices is, in our opinion, a utopia which maximises performance through groups being bound together.  They can be cross functional and designed around clients or like-minded experts, such as property solicitors or groups of chartered accountants.

Groups can be designed or informal – examples could include meeting for lunch once a week, having group discussions around sharing knowledge or new ideas online, agreeing processes on how to manage a particular key account or develop consistent approaches to customer service.  The secret to success for communities of practice is that groups encourage the free flow of knowledge and information between its members.

This is more than another management fad or buzz phrase; communities of practice is a way of working.  It encourages high performance, strategic thinking and helps to develop the skills of members of the group.

Building communities of practice is not easy and is a journey, much like team work which needs nurturing and encouraging.

Our belief is that communities of practice cannot be forcefully put together but can be encouraged and facilitated by leaders.  Therefore, cultivating good communities of practice is a challenge which requires certain facilitative skills and leadership from senior leaders.    In our experience, many leaders are not familiar with the concept of communities of practice, and require guidance from experts who can help organisations begin the journey.

Team working vs communities of practice

Team work is a limited, although important, practice as teams are formed to fulfil specific projects by design.  Teams form to share tasks and elicit contribution to meeting team goals, and disband when this has been achieved.  Alternatively, communities of practice are informal, self-selecting in terms of membership and last beyond completion of projects and tasks.  Often, communities of practice can complement team working and team-based activities.

An example of a community of practice would be a team of lawyers sharing knowledge, skills and theories to help each other to develop mutual learning and understanding.  An example of team work would be a group of professionals across disciplines working together to solve a particular client problem or legal case.  The team is led by a team leader whilst the community of practice is led by an elected and mutually agreed representative.

Knowledge management as a source of competitive advantage

Professional services organisations rely on effective knowledge management as this is the intangible asset which gives the organisation value.  Clients engage with consultants, accountants and lawyers to gain expertise as well as project completion.  Therefore, building effective communities of practice is critical for maximising competitive advantage and performance.

“As communities of practice generate knowledge, they renew themselves. They give you both the golden eggs and the goose that lays them.” (Harvard Business Review, Feb 2000)

In other words, once established, communities of practice become self-managing generators of ideas and knowledge.  They also encourage self-renewal and quickly become self-help groups where the community is supportive and helpful to each other.  Problem solving and knowledge sharing are directly related to the development of work rather than specific projects, as with team working.

Building communities of practice

The task is to empower groups and practice areas to come together.  This might come from building a passion for developing an organisation’s core competency. It might be formed with the advice of a consultant who understands how to facilitate the process. The consultant becomes a facilitator who helps the organisation to understand, identify and build communities of practice, and importantly defines the skills and expertise each community needs to thrive and grow.

Our advice

  1. Consider the advantages for your organisation of building communities of practice. For example, helping to improve knowledge management, approaches to business practices and client management.
  1. Engage with experts who can help build on the organisation’s behaviours and processes which make communities of practice become sustainable.
  1. Train and coach leaders to understand what communities of practice look like so they can become facilitators and creators of new groups.
  1. Encourage, reward and celebrate the competitive advantage communities of practice can afford organisations. This is because of better knowledge management, sharing of best practice  and organisational learning.

Communities of practice are complex areas which Blackmore Four can help organisations to navigate. Contact us here or call 07734 920 222.