Employee training and development programs are essential for overcoming skill and talent shortages, retaining a competitive advantage, and supporting organizational resilience. But beyond the performance of individuals, organizations need the ability to create, connect and transfer knowledge in order to change and adapt their behavior based on the new insights. This is called organizational learning. Communities of practice (known as CoPs) can be a rich source of social learning that can facilitate organizational learning.
A community of practice is essentially a group of people who come together to learn and improve at a particular thing that they’re passionate about. CoPs help break down barriers by building relationships between teams and departments, by capturing and sharing existing knowledge, and by generating new and innovative approaches to the organization’s biggest challenges.
For a group of learners to be considered a CoP, it must have three characteristics:
- Domain: The common ground or shared passion that defines the identity of the group and guides its learning
- Community: The discussions, learning activities and relationship-building that enable the group members to learn with and from each other
- Practice: The collective knowledge, resources and ideas the group members apply when performing in the domain of expertise
Bridging the Gap Between Individual and Organizational Learning
Upskilling and reskilling will help the members of your organization improve their job performance and prepare for new roles with increasing levels of responsibility. Adding CoPs as part of your company learning strategy can help bridge the gap between individual and organizational learning by promoting the following:
CoPs are a form of social learning and can, therefore, help disseminate and amplify individual skills and knowledge across the organization. Since their learning activities can address real problems that people are facing in their work, CoP members don’t just advance their own expertise— they also work together to advance the expertise of the entire domain.
CoP members have an expert network that they can tap into for real-time collaboration on problem-solving and best practices. This way, members can make better decisions faster.
With individual learning, there’s always a risk that the benefits of skill development could be lost when people change roles. CoPs can help mitigate this as they compile and share a repository of their knowledge.
CoPs embody the four essential components of a learning culture:
- developing supportive environments
- providing clearer and more consistent feedback
- prioritizing learning
- celebrating agility.
By creating a climate that nurtures enthusiastic learners and rewards collaboration, CoPs contribute to an overall shift that can drive business impact.
How to Support CoPs at Your Organization
If you’d like to implement and maintain CoPs at your organization, here are some things you’ll need to do:
1. Check for Existing Communities
Before you start planning, check to see whether there are any CoPs already operating, and if so, ask how you can help them. CoPs can form spontaneously, and you wouldn’t want to inadvertently trample on a good thing, even with the best of intentions.
2. Define the Domain(s).
If you’re initiating a CoP, be strategic about the domain—don’t just choose something the organization values. Survey employees to find out what they need and are passionate about. And don’t fall into the trap of organizing them by role. Groups who already work together and perform similar functions are likely to already share their knowledge and points of view, so think more broadly. For example, there might be a strong idea for domains related to the organization’s strategic initiatives. These will attract more diverse points of view and existing knowledge, providing grounds for more robust discussions. This will also help ensure the CoPs form cross-functionally and contribute to greater collaboration throughout the organization.
3. Establish Roles and Expectations.
In order to build and sustain momentum, CoPs need defined roles and responsibilities, including:
- Facilitator(s): One or two people should be named as the leader(s) to identify learning needs, post content to seed learning and promote discussions, plan and facilitate events, and compile notes and records. This could be an ongoing appointment or could have a predetermined term to give multiple people the chance to lead without anyone burning out.
- Community members: Everyone in the CoP should be expected to contribute by identifying issues of importance, posting questions and content, participating in the learning activities and discussions, and so on. CoPs are social learning groups, so attending without actively participating should be discouraged.
- Company sponsor: This role is about coordinating with the organization to support the overall needs of the CoP, and the sponsor may or may not be a member of the CoP.
Establishing roles and expectations from the start ensures that everyone in the CoP knows what they are signing up for and will be happy to participate.
4. Provide the Technology.
Technology is an important component for both learning and capturing the knowledge generated. A learning management system is an ideal option that can enhance CoP activities in several ways:
- Virtual meeting tools enable synchronous meetings so members can participate in real-time learning activities regardless of location.
- Members can access and share knowledge on an as-needed basis with asynchronous learning activities, including sharing resources, having discussions, and recording and watching videos.
- Knowledge-sharing across the organization is key. Even if the learning activities themselves are exclusive to members, they can share their expertise and best practices in a central location where it can be discovered and used by others.
Providing the technology your CoPs need saves them from having to cobble together multiple solutions that could overcomplicate things and put the knowledge repository at risk.
Support Flexible and Scalable Learning at Your Organization
To learn more about how CoPs can make your workforce more innovative and resilient, join instructional designers Lynsey Duncan and Devin Sherman for a discussion on adaptive learning experiences.
Creating Adaptive Learning Experiences
Learn how to create agile, flexible and scalable learning experiences in Brightspace.
Karen Karnis has a BA in sociology from the University of Guelph. She has worked in social services, higher education, communications and journalism. Karen is currently working toward a Master of Education in Sustainability, Creativity and Innovation through Cape Breton University.
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