Communities of Practice: Creating and Capturing Organizational Learning

  • 3 Min Read

Individual and organizational types of learning are must-haves for companies to survive in the age of disruption.

The modern workplace is one of unprecedented change and upheaval. According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children in school today will graduate into jobs that don’t yet exist. By 2030, up to 375 million workers will need to switch occupational categories due to automation. Upskilling and reskilling employees are requirements for businesses to future-proof their workforces in the face of such digital disruption.

But while upskilling and reskilling individual employees are key, organizations themselves also need to learn and adapt in order to survive and thrive in the current workplace climate. Organizational learning reflects the ability of an organization to create and transfer knowledge and modify its behavior based on new knowledge and insights.

Communities of Practice are an effective mechanism for organizations to both upskill and reskill workers through individual learning and bridging the gap between individual knowledge and organizational learning.

What is a Community of Practice (CoP)?

Although the concept has been around for decades, the term “Community of Practice” was coined in the 1990s by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave, who defined these communities as “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.”

For a community to be a CoP, it must have the following three characteristics:

  1. Domain: CoPs have a shared domain of interest. This domain is the common ground that guides the learning that occurs in the group.
  2. Community: As members of CoPs pursue their shared domain of interest, they engage in discussions, information and idea sharing, relationship building, and other joint activities that enable them to learn from and with each other.
  3. Practice: Members of a CoP are not just interested in the shared domain but are also practitioners in the domain. Their practice is what they are developing through the community.

Why do CoPs matter in business?

CoPs perform and contribute to many key strategic activities within organizations, enabling businesses to develop individual employee knowledge and skill and then turn that knowledge into organizational learning that contributes to positive business outcomes. Outcomes include:

  1. Skills Development: CoPs by their very nature encourage social learning. Through joint activities, members of these communities increase their expertise as practitioners in their shared domain by improving existing skills and developing new ones. For example, at IBM, CoPs have conferences where members can build skills and share ideas.
  2. Subject Matter Networks: When employees are part of a CoP, they have easy access to a network of peers who can assist with problem solving and sharing best practices. For example, at Buckman Labs, members of CoPs respond to questions from other employees within 24 hours.
  3. Knowledge Management: CoPs are a way to share and increase knowledge throughout an organization; as such, they perform a knowledge management function. They enable knowledge to be shared cross-functionally. For example, Shell uses 13 CoPs with more than 10,000 members to enable cross-functional knowledge sharing. It has saved $200M/year through the knowledge and idea sharing enabled by its CoPs.

How can you support CoPs at your organization?

While some CoPs arise spontaneously, others are formally introduced into organizations as part of a learning strategy to achieve the outcomes described above. Some organizations have multiple CoPs whereas others only have a single CoP for the entire organization. Shell, for example, has several CoPs focused on specific domains or functions and other CoPs that are focused on cross-functional knowledge-sharing activities.

Regardless of how a CoP comes into being at your organization or how many CoPs your organization supports, technology is the key mechanism for supporting CoPs and capturing the knowledge they generate as organizational learning.

Technology, such as a next-generation learning platform, can be leveraged to support CoPs in a variety of ways:

  1. Synchronous Meetings: Next-generation learning platforms can be used to enable members of CoPs to connect synchronously through virtual meeting tools. Synchronous meetings are valuable for CoPs, as they allow members to bounce ideas off each other, ask questions, and engage in real-time conversations that serve to enhance and further the knowledge of individual members and the group as a whole.
  2. Asynchronous Information Sharing: Next-generation learning platforms can be used for asynchronous information-sharing activities such as file sharing, posting and watching videos, email, and discussion forums. These types of asynchronous information sharing are also key because they allow members to access and share knowledge via the CoP on an as-needed basis.
  3. Capturing and Transferring Subject Matter Expertise: The knowledge-generating and -sharing activities described above are key to generating organizational learning across the business. However, for this knowledge to move beyond just the members of the CoP, it must be captured and hosted in a central repository where it can easily be discovered and consumed by other members of the organization. A next-generation learning platform allows CoPs to create content, gather videos and files, post recordings and notes from their meetings, and host the knowledge they are generating in a way that can easily be accessed and consumed throughout the organization.
Find out how technology can empower workforce learning.