Communities of practice (CoPs) can develop spontaneously or at the impetus of the talent development or L&D team. Sometimes organizational teammates will, for example, desire to share knowledge and best practices around common challenges and begin to meet as a group. At other times, TD practitioners will see that a team isn’t working as effectively as they could be because lessons learned by high performers aren’t being translated to new hires.
A form of peer learning, CoPs are based on three elements, writes Maggie Romanovich in “Expand Employee Learning With Communities of Practice.” These include:
- Domain. The domain is the specific focus for the individuals. “The subject motivates and excites learners,” writes Romanovich.
- Practitioners. The topic needs to be important to the members of the CoP. It will be when they are practicing in the domain rather than the being among the casually curious.
- Community. Members of the group must trust each other, and they must interact and communicate (although this doesn’t need to be in person).
Establishing a CoPFor CoPs to be successful, members need to be open to learning from each other. Some individuals will come to the group with their specific expertise. They may share some of that knowledge one day, but they may be a learner other days by seeing the work challenge through the vantage point of someone more junior than themselves.
CoP members should come to the group willingly; this is not about coercion. “It is something for them to choose what and how they consume the content and interactions,” continues Romanovich.
Another aspect at the core of a CoP is a problem orientation. The group comes together to work on real-life difficulties or challenges.
The talent development professional establishing a CoP should be clear on what they hope comes out of the group: What is the learning objective, what is the domain, how will the community grow, and who are the practitioners?
CoPs in ActionWhen overseeing the group, the talent development professional shouldn’t leave the workings of the CoP to chance. Ensure there’s a structure in place while giving the group space for evolving. Other tips include:
- Ensure different viewpoints. While the group consists of practitioners dealing with a specific topic, it can be advantageous to bring in outsiders from time to time to offer a new perspective. This can increase CoP members’ awareness and education, providing a new lens.
- Give team members space. Not all members need to contribute at the same level. “Some individuals will observe, come in where they can, take what they need, and leave the rest,” says Romanovich.
- Ensure value. If you’re overseeing a CoP, ensure that the time is spent concentrating on key challenges. What benefits are being seen as a result of the group meeting, discussing an issue, and coming to a resolution? How is that providing value to the organization?
Managing HurdlesAs the group continues its efforts, there likely will be snags of some sort. An individual may dominate the group, for example, or scope creep may occur. The group may feel itself stagnating, and this may lead to lower participation rates.
In your role, you may step in and ask others for their input and ideas or bring in an outside expert to offer a new perspective. Low participation rates also may happen if the timing is off. Bring some of these issues to the group for discussion and agreement, such as changing the time of the meeting or some other aspect of the group dynamics.
In the end, the time for the CoP to cease meeting may occur. This doesn’t necessarily mean the group was a failure. It may simply have run its course and found solutions to the problems the group was working on.
Sharing ResultsCommunicating value to key stakeholders is an important element to successful CoP. What were the learning objectives you set up as you established the group? Revisit the baseline that led you to create the CoP and collect data on the current state. Are members more comfortable in their skills and knowledge level in the practice area? Ask leaders whether they’ve seen a difference in their direct reports’ productivity and application of skills.
Work with your communication team to convey results and with your stakeholders to obtain necessary resources as needed to help solve a problem. If you’ve done your homework early on, you will have secured a sponsor for the group that will be a firm believer in what the CoP seeks to do. Use that sponsor to bring the problem to closure: “Perhaps the group identifies a software issue that requires funding for improvement, a need for additional staff, or other challenges that it can’t solve alone.”