Jane\’s Blog

June 21, 2006

Communities of Practice

Filed under: Uncategorized — by malawijane @ 10:05 am

I am seriously behind on my workshop assignments.  Sorry folks!  Combo of work and the fact that my 7-year old is now on school break and it seems like I am constantly being asked for something or to do something with her.  Drawback of having only one child, I guess!

Anyway, I saw that communities of practice was to be a topic and thought I would post and share.  Habitat for Humanity training staff from around the world began meeting and sharing both formally and informally several years ago. Only when I went to a knowledge sharing conference in Ottawa, Canada a couple years back where Etienne Wenger did a session on CoP's did I realize that what our training 'team' was was a community of practice.  Since those early years, others with similar focus/interests/goals/responsiblities within HFH have followed the Global Training Team's example and started their own communities of practice.  Here's a short article I wrote for an internal publication:

Leveraging LearningThrough Relationships

When the line forms outside the U.S. Consulate office, an informal knowledge-sharing community develops. Hopeful visa applicants trade tips on what to say; they tell their stories about how an aunt got a visa, and a cousin got rejected. They share pointers on what to say to which consular agent.

They are not a team. They arrived with similar but individualized goals. They do not share a boss, a budget or a project. But there is little doubt that, for at least a brief period of time, these participants are gaining valuable knowledge that will help their performance on the other side of the gates.

In organizations, these groups are "communities of practice." "Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis," writes Etienne Wenger in Cultivating Communities of Practice: a Guide to Managing Knowledge.

Communities of practice (CoP) are one of the least visible, and more important ways that organizations like Habitat for Humanity share knowledge.

The intentional cultivation of communities of practice is still relatively new to many organizations, including Habitat. But the communities themselves have formed naturally for years. These communities may meet virtually to discuss the finer points of energy efficient housing; in periodic conference calls to talk about volunteer retention; or in monthly meetings with other community groups to talk about addressing the community’s needs.

What is the difference between a CoP and:

• A network? A community of practice focuses on a substantive topic rather than a set of relationships.

• A work team? The shared learning and interest of community of practice members keep it together. It is defined by knowledge rather than by an individual task, and exists because participation has value to its members.

Other communities? Community of practice members are more likely to share a common profession or work situation.

Communities have loose borders. Membership is defined more by self-selection and relevance than by assignment, and the work that happens in these communities often goes unnoticed.

"People belong to communities of practice at the same time as they belong to other organizational structures. In their business units, they shape the organization. In their teams, they take care of projects. In their networks, they form relationships. And in their communities of practice, they develop the knowledge that lets them do these other tasks," notes Wenger, a well-known expert and consultant on knowledge management and CoP. "This informal fabric of communities and shared practices makes the official organization effective and, indeed, possible."

What communities of practice exist within Habitat? PartnerNet Round Table discussion groups, training staff around the world; executive directors of affiliates and country programs who meet and continue to communicate with one another in between meetings; Church Relations volunteers and staff.

What role do these CoPs within HFH play? Here are some examples:

• Helping: Members help each other solve everyday problems. Click on the discussions on PartnerNet and you will find community members asking for and getting help from their community.

• Best practices: Members focus on developing, validating and sharing specific practices. The Program CoP and Global Training Team both have an area sharing component to their conferences that serves as a forum for sharing best practices.

• Knowledge stewarding: Members focus on developing and sharing tools, insights and approaches needed by members in their work assignments. Members of the Finance CoP spent a good portion of their most recent conference focusing on the development of approaches to carrying out global finance initiatives in the most effective way.

The topics, modes of communication and ways of accumulating knowledge vary from one community to the next. But members of any CoP will have something in common: they know that their own contribution of knowledge will come back to them, and they become informally bound by the value they find in learning together.

Jane Gruler-Johns is a global trainer and international content manager for HFHU.


1 Comment »

  1. Jane: This site may be of interest:

    Comment by Harold Jarche — July 11, 2006 @ 7:28 pm

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