Practice, Communities and Technology

Keith March 29th, 2008

Why do Communities of Practice sometimes fail?

In my experience, one common failure is just throwing technology at a problem.  I have no problem with wikis and other technology – communities probably work best when they have appropriate support technology – but communities are fundamentally about people.

So, before you think about technology, you must first think about the community.  Seems fairly obvious!  There are lots of things you can do to bring a community together that require very little in the way of technology.

However, this is not the whole story.  I was present when Dr Ron Harper, late of RMIT, spoke to a group recently (a community of practice, in fact) on this topic.  Ron made the point that the important thing for a successful CoP is, in fact, the Practice.

When I look back at successful communities I have known, this rings very true.  A successful community must have a reason to exist. 

It should be pointed out here that a CoP is not a work group or a project team.  Work groups and teams certainly have a reason to exist, but they are also motivated in a totally different way.  They exist as an entity within an organisation, with a common management structure, and defined deliverables within that structure.

A CoP is a group of people that share a common practice, but are drawn from different parts of an organisation – or indeed from different organisations.  They only come together as a group in order to share and learn from one another about their common practice.  Without this, you will not have a community.

It can also be observed that whenever an attempt is made to “control” a CoP, to give it a management structure and deliverables (as if it were a work or project team), then the community will evaporate.  It is a different entity, and to operate at all, it must be to a great extent voluntary.  As Fred Schoeps once said: “Communities are living organisms and require gardeners, not mechanics, to provide them with leadership.”

The Practice 

So what does it mean to have a common practice?  It is not enough that the community is drawn from people with similar job roles.  For a CoP to be successful, the community must become part of the practice itself.  Community members need to be able to see a direct benefit from being a member of the CoP; in fact, the community needs to become part of how they do their job.

To be successful, a CoP must be defined around a fairly narrow practice.  The broader the practice, the more diffuse the community, and the less tangible the benefits.

It can be seen that even successful communities will still have a “concentric ring” structure – at the centre, you have the Core participants, the most active members that keep the community together.  Around these, you have the Active members, those that participate and benefit from membership.  At the edge, you have the Peripheral members – similar to the lurkers in an online community.  Peripheral members may just dip in and out, but they can still learn from the community.  From time to time, they can be sparked to participate.  They may need encouragement to do this.

In order to establish a successful CoP, be very clear on the practice that is of interest, and understand the members and their motivation.  Be sure that the benefits of community membership will be very obvious to them, and ensure that they will be motivated to share with the community.  Make the community something that they find they are unable to function without, nurture it and watch it grow!

4 Responses to “Practice, Communities and Technology”

  1. Frank Connollyon 03 Apr 2008 at 10:12 pm

    It is almost worth depriving a start up community of the technology until the need and desire to graduate to it comes from the community themselves. The community that best appreciates, and therefore utilises technology is one that has established sound people practices first and is growing weary of the difficulties associated with not having access to technology.

  2. Keithon 03 Apr 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Good point, Frank. I guess that Web 2.0 technologies (wikis being most obvious for a CoP) can be a two-edged sword in this case. They can be easy to set up, and low-risk as far as investment cost goes, but they could easily lead to putting the cart before the horse…

  3. Keithon 25 Sep 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Never thought about it at the time, but another way to refer to the Core, Active and Peripheral members is the 1:10:100 rule, roughly reflecting their proportions. All of these groups are necessary for a successful CoP.

  4. [...] I wrote earlier this year about “Practice, Communities and Technology“.  This post stressed the importance of the “practice”:  For a CoP to be successful, the community must become part of the practice itself… the community needs to become part of how they do their job. [...]

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