Communities of Practice as KM Tool
Lave and Wenger first introduced the concept of a Community of Practice (COP) in 1991. They saw the acquisition of knowledge as a social process where people can participate in communal learning at different levels, depending on their level of authority o
COPs became one of the central focuses of knowledge management after their first book on COPs, “Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning, and Identity,” was published in 1998. Since then, COPs have played an important role in the context of Knowledge Management (KM), especially for sharing common knowledge beyond formal divisions/departments and, indeed, as a tool to break down the barriers to knowledge flow across organisations. Definition: COPs are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. In the context of KM, COPs are formed — intentionally or spontaneously — to share and create common skills, knowledge and expertise among employees. Characteristics: COPs can exist in a division or department in an organisation, across departments in an organisation, or beyond boundaries of multiple organisations, depending upon its objective. COPs are usually for sharing and developing common skills, knowledge and expertise, such as a group of actuarists working on similar problems, a network of adjusters, insurance agents and so on, exploring novel techniques, or a gathering of first-time managers helping each other. There are also some COPs that focus on generating new knowledge and innovation. The size of COPs varies from two to three people to thousands of people, and members of expertise could be either homogeneous or heterogeneous. For example, a Community of Practice (COP) for effective/efficient problem solving on a certain technological domain would have adjusters in the same area, whereas a COP for improving quality of a certain product and servicers would have members from various areas, such as claims, risk management and underwriting staff.
The following three elements are crucial when one designs COPs. • The Domain: A COP is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore, implies a commitment to the domain and, therefore, a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people. The domain is not necessarily something recognised as "expertise" outside the community. They value their collective competence and learn from each other, even though few people outside the group may value or even recognise their expertise.
• The Community: In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other and share information. A platform that enables such activities is essential for a COP. It is based upon a relationship of trust between members that encourages frequent interactions to share and develop common knowledge. • The Practice: COPs are not merely a community of interest — they could be people that like certain kinds of movies, for instance. Members of a COP are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems — in short, a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction. It is the combination of these three elements that constitutes a COP. And it is by developing these three elements in parallel that one cultivates such a community. COPs can be either non-IT or IT-based, depending on geography considerations of the members.