Celebrating Communities of Practice

This week, my colleague Darin Eich and I had the privilege of hosting a webinar that examined how Communities of Practice help us focus on What Matters at Work. We were joined by an amazing group of people from diverse fields and backgrounds, excitedly exploring ways CoP’s can serve our organizations in these turbulent times. In that spirit, I share this excerpt from my recent book, celebrating this important approach to learning. – Harry

Communities of Practice (CoP’s) are peer-organized, self-directed learning groups that bring together those who share an interest across an organization (or beyond such boundaries). CoP’s build collaborative skills and knowledge-sharing based upon trust and cohesiveness, and do so in remarkably cost-effective ways. Not only are they intrinsically powerful and beneficial to their members, but CoP’s build relationships among diverse constituencies and world views. I’ve been fortunate to work with many CoP’s over the past twenty years, and they are truly central to the practices we are discussing here. Foremost among theorists and writers in this area is Etienne Wenger,  who has identified three core elements of these types of learning communities: 

Domain: This is the area of focus or the core challenge that members are seeking to address through their learning and meeting together.

Community: This relates to the relationship building, trust development, communication practices and identity transformation that occurs within the CoP.

Practice: This is how the CoP enhances the skills and knowledge of members so they can test and apply what they have learned to the practical challenges of their work. 

All CoP’s need to pay attention to domain, community, and practice elements in order to sustain themselves and offer contributions to the organizations in which they are embedded. Paradoxically, such attention needs to start with Community, as the trust developed among members is fundamental to a willingness to define a meaningful set of Practice opportunities within a well-defined Domain. Members bring real challenges, taking the risk to be vulnerable regarding what they don’t understand or what frightens them, and then generously offer practical strategies to safely address those issues. CoP’s are also excellent spaces for sharing recent learning, as we have previously mentioned; sharing conference materials and connections, teaching key lessons from workshops attended, testing new language for policies, etc. These ideas all gain a receptive audience that gives needed critique before taking them further into implementation. 

While management may play a catalyzing role in convening a CoP, the energy for sustaining it must come from its members. This poses a natural tension, as management understandably seeks to align the agenda and activities of staff with the goals and mission of the company, and some activities within a CoP may not necessarily come together in that manner. This is where strong communication is required between CoP leadership and formal leadership, supporting staff participation while not directing it. There are tangible ways management can express this support without undermining the independence and self-determination of the CoP: Staff often need explicit statements of support for CoP participation from their supervisors, and need channels to convey learning back to colleagues in team meetings to validate such participation and maximize its benefits. 

In my experience, management can also facilitate broader communication of ideas and concerns that emerge from CoP meetings: Central leadership can provide for the occasional financial needs of CoP groups as they engage in programs that benefit members or communicate their learning across the organization. While such needs are modest, the symbolic and tangible value of support can come at critical times.

The HR-Communities of Practice Office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (A Success Story)

I had the privilege of serving as founding Director of an innovative office that continues to develop creative leadership and skills development using a CoP approach. In the follow-up to a fundamental redesign of the Human Resources system at the University of Wisconsin, the HR-CoP Office was established. Its charge was to facilitate the training required to shift from a highly centralized, transactional approach to HR to one that is highly decentralized and relational in nature, all while nearly 700 HR and Payroll professionals at the University continued to assure that everyone received their paychecks, benefits, and accurate resolution of the varied technical challenges faced on a daily basis.

We adopted a unique community of practice approach because the new system required development of trusting, transparent, and honest relationships in a manner that had not generally existed. We also knew that many of the key members of the HR community needed to play leadership roles in gaining the engagement of colleagues, both within HR and in many other key administration sectors of this vast bureaucracy. Through the excellent work of Sarah Carroll and Joshua Schwab, the HR-CoP office quickly developed a wide array of learning experiences, both online and face-to-face, all within a creative competency-based model that Sarah crafted in consultation with the HR community. These included mastery of the required technical knowledge, to be sure, but also the important interpersonal skills needed in this new approach. Competencies were articulated in change management, collaboration, communication, ethics and integrity, problem-solving, and technical competencies, all grounded in competency in diversity and inclusion that serves as fundamental to the entire enterprise. 

Over the past four years, several hundred staff have now successfully engaged in this effort, participating in Learning Cohorts that meet for several months to learn how to apply these competencies to their work. The approach is illustrated by this Passport, demonstrating the learner’s journey through various levels of knowledge and skill in each competency area. In addition, HR-CoP staff support others across campus as they convene learning communities that address timely policy challenges and facilitate knowledge transfer across the organization. It is a true collaboration in process and substance. 

The Passport Documents the Learning Journey
Each Competency Is Defined at Three Levels of Mastery

The sustained commitment of the HR-CoP Office demonstrates how the various skills and strategies we’ve been discussing can be scaled up and implemented while remaining true to Core Values and Intentions. They have created an empowering program that engages hundreds of people, requiring diverse technical knowledge (e.g, benefits, labor relations, recruitment, international visas). HR-CoP utilizes a peer-led educational model that builds upon the Kolb Learning Cycle, development evaluation, and a full commitment to a diverse and inclusive workplace. This approach all occurs within a traditional bureaucracy with strict requirements regarding security, confidentiality, labor contracts, and transactional accuracy, demonstrating how to achieve these technical requirements while valuing trust-based, transparent relationships. 

Exercise: Understand How CoP’s Contribute to Organizational Success

WHO: Solo           

WHY: To improve our understanding of the outcomes of CoP’s by examining empirical evidence and stories from an organization.


Step 1: One way to better understand and appreciate the possibilities associated with starting a CoP is to review this engaging report and presentation by Bethany Laursen from 2015, in which she evaluated the impacts of several CoP’s that I convened at the time:  www.talent.wisc.edu and then search “CoP Impact Evaluation Report.”

Step 2: After doing so, consider your own organization: What possibilities exist to establish or otherwise support a CoP where you work? 

Step 3: Download the free CoP Design Guide created by members of the UW-Madison CoP Network (www.talent.wisc.edu), then search for “CoP Design Guide” and use it as a resource to guide your efforts. Keep in mind your broader Journey here, your efforts to identify “What Matters’” and the larger context of our learning here.

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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