Considering Community: Communities of practice as vital tools for knowledge management

Social in silico includes a series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you can find all the posts in the series here

Previously on this blog, I’ve reflected on the different types of community that I’ve observed within science and specifically in the first cohort of the community engagement fellowship program that I run at AAAS. I identified four initial broad types of scientific communities – from professional associations to communities of practice. I’m currently delving deeper into communities of practice and am enjoying reading “Cultivating communities of practice” by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William M. Snyder.

Communities of practice and coffee – breaking down those silos one latte at a time…
Image credit: author’s own

What’s a community of practice – and what does it have to do with knowledge management?

A community of practice is a group of people who gather to learn more about a topic together and in doing so deepen their knowledge and expertise. The group may not have a specifically defined goal, but rather meet regularly to continually refine what they know about a subject. As such, communities of practice are key to knowledge management.

Wenger et al list 5 ways in which communities of practice are key to how we manage knowledge:

1. Knowledge is not just about gathering resources – we learn by experience

You didn’t learn to drive a car by reading a book, or learn how to swim by watching YouTube videos. Similarly, knowledge isn’t simply about gathering best practice materials or a list of papers. It’s through discussion, iteration and experience that we become more skilled in an area.

As Wenger and colleagues state:

“Knowledge is much more a living process than a static body of information. Communities of practice do not reduce knowledge to an object. They make it an integral part of their activities and interactions, and they serve as a living repository for that knowledge.”

2. Knowledge can be tacit, as well as explicit

There are two broad types of knowledge – explicit knowledge that can be captured in manuals and other tools, and tacit or hidden knowledge. Tacit knowledge can include the “institutional memory” that we lose when a long-serving member of staff leaves an organisation, as well as the contextual information about how and when to apply what we know that we might hold in our heads but never codify in an explicit manner.

Sharing tacit knowledge requires interactions. We all know what it’s like to sit down with someone more experienced in a particular area than us – whether that’s an elderly relative recounting informative stories or a colleague explaining how to use a tool they’re an expert in for our particular circumstances. Communities of practice serve as vital places to convey both explicit and tacit knowledge.

3. Knowledge generation is a communal activity

While our experience of knowing about something (learning) may be a personal activity, how that knowledge is created isn’t – it’s typically the work of many individuals who are part of a wider community. Science, for example, is a series of activities that serves to test and refine our understanding of how the world works – building on the research that’s come before.

In the same way, any successful community of practice can build up a body of knowledge that’s far richer and more complex than an individual could do alone – while debating and integrating multiple perspectives that make the final understanding more informed.

4. Knowledge is constantly being evolved and adapted

Knowledge generation is an ongoing process – whereby ideas are continually built upon, refined and adapted to new problems. However, as Wenger et al. state:

“This dynamism does not mean that a domain of knowledge lacks a stable core. In all fields there is a required baseline of knowledge. One of the primary tasks of a community of practice is to establish this common baseline and standardize what is well understood so that people can focus their creative energies on the more advanced issues.”

One example of how a community of practice in science can address the dynamic nature of knowledge is the practice of lab or departmental journal clubs. No one individual could stay on top of the key literature being published in their field, much less be up to date with related discoveries in other fields. Journal clubs share that burden of learning amongst the community members, with individuals taking turns to report back about a key paper. By creating a common venue for this each week, collective discussion of the paper can then refine and extend the knowledge it contains.

This gets back to one of the points made in section 1 – that knowledge cannot be reduced to an object but rather it exists in the relationships between group members, their understanding and skills, and not just in a series of documentation or other visible artefacts.

5. Knowledge needs to cross social structures to be maximally useful

Finally, many people are quite used to being organised into teams or departments at work where we’re placed with others working on the same project as us. But this locks up knowledge within specific parts of an organisation and doesn’t assist its sharing to other departments or individuals who may be addressing similar issues on different projects.

Communities of practice can help to cross the boundaries of the existing social structures by bringing together individuals outside of the usual constraints. A departmental seminar series at a research institute can help scientists to learn more about what’s happening in the labs around them, much as a lunch n’ learn session in an organisation can reveal expertise we may not have known we needed.

What communities of practice do you belong to? What have you learned by being a member of such a group that you might not have otherwise been exposed to? How many communities of practice exist within your current organisation?

Further reading

  • The next post in this series on CoPs looks at how the outputs from a CoP can integrate with the day-to-day activities of staff within an organisation.
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3 thoughts on “Considering Community: Communities of practice as vital tools for knowledge management

  1. As a knowledge and community management professional, I can always be found thinking of ways to link the community of practice into the knowledge management processes. The community of practice, to my understanding, is a critical portion of the knowledge management approach that also helps boost and uncover hard-to-codify tacit knowledge, precisely exemplified above. I do agree that tacit knowledge is an “institutional memory” that an institution can lose when a staff member leaves the organization. This is one of the reasons, we need to promote the community of practice which allows knowledge-holders engaging into the meaningful discussion, and the dialogue is an opportunity to unfold the hidden knowledge, in that process, we can capture and preserve the knowledge legacy for the present or future use.

    The community of practice offers members an opportunity to think together, mutually engage, efficiently interact, reasonably guide each other using their ideas, and tackle common issues. Mutual engagement, a critical tool for promoting the community of practice, helps to release the hidden wisdom dwelling in the mind of intellects, and also allows them inventing the new understanding. Believe me or not, knowledge management without a community of practice is always incomplete.

    I would also recommend reading “Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice” Second Edition, authored by Kimiz Dalkir.

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  2. Pingback: Considering Community: Communities of practice and double-knit knowledge organisations – Social in silico

  3. I used to teach dialogue skills and community building skills to geography student teachers at the graduate level at Beijing Normal University. I asked them to solve a real world problem with the skills they were learning. My team of Chinese educators who helped with the translations and cultural connections also deepen the dialogue skills and community building as well. We have a simple value-creating measuring tool and my students turned out to also create value too, beyond my expectations.

    As for your community of practice even though Chinese traditionally have a top down management style, our work at the university and the other projects we take on now are always done collaboratively. If one person has a problem with something we don’t start it until we are all comfortable we have a collaborative conclusion. We now do work together with Chinese educators in dialogue with American ones.

    I am glad there is a name for this!

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