Haley Baird Riemer
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Though the term was coined fairly recently, communities of practice have been around pretty much since humans have, in some form or another. You probably belong to a few yourself, whether you're aware or not — at work, school or in social groups you belong to. A community of practice is kind of social learning that often occurs naturally, and it can be used to your advantage, no matter your field or workplace. 

What is a community of practice?

Essentially, a community of practice is a group of people who share a unifying career, passion or other learning need.

They form a collaborative group in which they can discuss, ask questions, give advice and stay informed on issues pertaining to this common interest, learning from the contributed knowledge of everyone else. A community of practice could consist of members of a business, or something as informal as an online forum for doctors in the same specification in different practices. It is, primarily, a form of human learning. \\

There are three main components that make up this learning structure: domain, community and practice, according to Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, two experts on the topic.

Domain

The domain of a community is the interest, field of study or passion that brings them together. It is technically described as the learning need that catalyzes the forming of a learning community. If the members of an organization are community members, the domain would be their field of work and study. If new moms create a meetup group and forum to discuss how to navigate gender while raising their kids, the issue of gender and parenting would be the domain. 

Community

The element of community describes not only the physical community that a domain brings together — a workplace, a meeting group, an online chatroom, etc. — but also the bond of learning that links individual members of a community together.

Community, in the less tangible sense, happens over time and is experienced differently for each individual. If you are a core, regularly participating member of the community, you will likely experience the effect of community much differently than someone on the periphery of the group. 

Practice

As part of a learning community, members generate and share resources, advice and discourse that affect their practice. The members of a community of practice might not physically work together and can even work in different countries, but the act of information sharing through this community impacts, in individual ways, each person's practice. They may also bring this learning to their workplace, so the community, in turn, influences various workspaces and has an effect on even more people in the practice. 

Principles of a Community of Practice:

In a recent guide to social learning communities, "Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge," the authors outline guidelines for communities of practice that have been successful in their learning goals. 

They offer some  principles that have fostered rich learning environments:

1. Design for evolution.

Communities of practice are constantly changing. They often occur organically, with a less formal structure. Facilitating or leading a community of practice is often less an act of creation and active shaping than it is guiding and overseeing the community as it grows and evolves. Based on its members and the practice itself, a community of practice and the interests holding it together can change drastically over time. A business might change to include more employees with media experience and a perspective on how to incorporate more of media focus into the business model, causing the learning objective of its community to shift to adjust. 

Successful communities of practice embrace this evolution and design their structure loosely with the ability to adapt.

2. Allow and encourage different levels of participation.

Some members of a community will take a more active role, whether because of their degree of knowledge and experience, the time they have to contribute or the kind of community member they are personally. Communities of practice often have fairly permeable boundaries,  particularly if the community is not a business or company and is more loosely structured. 

The community benefits from all participation related to the field, and your community of practice should build room for different levels of participation, opportunities for leadership and opportunities to stay in a more observational role. The primary objective of the group is to create an environment of learning, and people join for different reasons and learn in different ways.

3. Cultivate private and public community spaces.

Public spaces of a community include formal meetings or regular events like meetups for networking or company-led seminars. These events provide points of unification for members and emphasize learning values and opportunities, but they should not make up the entire activity of the community. 

Equally as important are the more personal, informal connections members may have; the personal connections, smaller gatherings or the one-on-one networking that happens privately. The combination of private and public spaces strengthens the community on all fronts and enhances the depth which the community can delve into issues.

4. Emphasize value.

Communities exist to bring value to the workplaces they impact or in the lives of their members. By focusing on the output of the community's work — the tangible ways in which the community is making a difference — communities of practice can be truly effective. The value may not be evident at first and may be hard to quantify, but once members start identifying the ways in which they are applying the things they have learned from the community in their daily lives, it becomes clearer and easy to adjust accordingly. 

5. Create an engaging community rhythm.

Participation in communities of practice is often voluntary. This means that, in order to keep members active and engaged, rhythm is important.

Regular, consistent meetings are essential, as well as recurring events or check-ins. Participation in the community needs to be routine. This is especially important if the community is based mostly online, as online engagement is harder to monitor and connect through. Having regular, engaging points of contact that people can count on will instigate more active participation because it creates something people can count on.

What makes a community of practice different from a team?

Teams are unified by a common task, working together to complete something or achieve a finite goal. Communities of practice, in contrast, come together under a common learning objective, voluntarily, over a shared learning interest. 

While teams can certainly learn from collaboration, and communities of practice may often complete tasks together, the main difference between the two is in their reason for creation. Teams are often put together deliberately, for a defined purpose with an end goal. Communities of practice can occur organically, and are self-selected, often without the hierarchical leadership structure of a team. 

The pursuit of knowledge in a certain field doesn't have an end goal and is ever-adapting. Whereas teams are disbanded after the conclusion of the task at hand, communities persist as long as interest in the domain continues.

How do communities of practice benefit employees?

As an employee as a part of a community of practice within your own workplace, you can benefit from learning about the different aspects of your company you might have been isolated or excluded from. If you work in the marketing department of larger manufacturing company, you may not have a lot of contact with people in other departments. A community of practice learning model applied to your company loops everyone into the work happening in different sectors of your field and allows you to become more active and informed.

As an employee, you may also belong to a community of practice that extends beyond your workplace to other people, in other companies or places in the world, doing work in your field. Belonging to this kind of community allows you to access to a diversity of knowledge from different perspectives in your practice, learn from your peers, and bring this information back to your team at your workplace and your own individual practice.

Creating a Community of Practice

Starting a community of practice can be fairly easy. Perhaps you want to start a monthly community of practice newsletter among different sectors of your company to keep everyone up to speed about inner workings of the business and the broader field your work falls under. 

Keep in mind the principles that foster successful communities of practice, and remember that each community will be different, shaping itself according to its own needs. Learning is the goal, and collaboration is key!

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Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.

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