We often say that people are the most important resource a company can have and that the success of any organization is directly connected to its people. However, it is often the case in many companies that lips are moved, words are spoken, yet arms stay crossed and actions in this way are not made.

It’s not enough for a business to say it values its employees; it also has to prove it. In a world with increasing entrepreneurial opportunities, employees won’t wait around to feel valued. They know they can jump in a different wagon at any time.

Attracting, but most importantly, retaining top talent keeps more and more CEOs and hiring managers awake at night. Making employees feel valued — especially when they come with no long-term guarantees — really is something easier said than done.

One thing that should always be part of the mix to achieving this is a sound L&D company strategy. Today’s employees focus a lot on learning and development — both personal and professional — as they know that acquiring new knowledge and skills, and always improving these, is the way to a successful career. Therefore, getting the right learning opportunities makes them feel valued.

A sound L&D strategy can mean many things: from face-to-face formal courses to mentoring relationships to full-featured learning management systems and all the technology that helps people share ideas and learn. But it must also support all the informal learning that happens organically in the workplace. And this is where Communities of Practice — or CoPs — can jump in to save the day.

What is a CoP and what it isn’t

Sometimes it’s not enough to simply define a concept, as comparing it against other more familiar concepts and explaining the differences seems more explanatory.

What it isn’t

A CoP is not a simple community. Wanger-Trayner go on to say that there are three characteristics of CoPs that makes them different from other types of communities:

  1. The domain — A CoP has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Being a member implies a commitment to the domain and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people.
  2. The community — Members develop relationships that enable them to learn from each other, engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other and share information.
  3. The practice — Members develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing a recurring problem; they are practitioners.

A CoP is not a business unit. Members participate in a CoP in different ways and at different degrees and they don’t necessarily have to belong to the same business. The boundaries of a CoP are much more flexible than those of an organizational unit.

A CoP is not a team. A team exists because of a complex project, it is defined by tasks, and once the project is completed it disappears as well. A community of practice, on the other hand, exists because participation has value to its members, it’s defined by knowledge and the shared learning and interest, and it can exist long after a certain project has been completed.

A CoP is not a network. It is more than a set of relationships; it has an identity as a community and thus shaped the identities of ts members. In a community of practice members develop the knowledge that lets them form relationships, contribute to projects and shape their organizations.

Read more on what the above mentioned CoP expert Etienne Wanger has to say about the role and importance of CoPs to organizations here.

Why should companies nurture the development of CoPs

Communities of practice are a company’s most versatile and dynamic knowledge resource and form the basis of an organization’s ability to know and learn. They are an excellent tool for developing skills, sharing tacit knowledge and shoring up retention of high-performing staff.

CoPs can provide continuous improvement through an organic collaborative process. Participants — both novices and subject matter experts — all bring valuable insights and can share stories about challenges, collaborate on tasks and share resources. These activities promote continuous learning at work and an environment of cooperation.

Companies that nurture the development of communities of practice will eventually do a better job at mentoring new hires, disseminating processes, showcasing best practices and solving emerging problems, as CoPs are key to understanding the complex knowledge challenges faced by most organizations in today’s knowledge economy.

What next?

It seems that business organizations of all sizes can benefit greatly from encouraging the development of communities of practice. But how can they do this? What tools can be used? What steps should be followed?

Well, you should keep an eye on the MATRIX Blog, as I’ll address these questions — and hopefully provide useful answers to them — in a future blog post. Stay tuned!

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