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.

Sustain Your Creative Spirit by “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”

One of my favorite books is Gordon Mackenzie’s, Orbiting the Giant Hairball (1998). During his 30-year career with Hallmark Cards, Mackenzie discovered ways to retain creativity in the face of the inexorable gravitational pull towards conformity (the “hairball”), and to seek bliss while remaining dedicated to the corporate mission and vision: 

“Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mindset, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards” — all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.” (page 33)

He later quotes Joseph Campbell in service to this definition, offering “…if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all along, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Mackenzie says, “Orbiting is following your bliss.”

The ability to derive meaning from work is key to following your bliss. When we clarify our intentions and values, we define the criteria by which bliss has meaning for us. When we are determined to engage in Reflection and Synergy, not merely Task (referring back to Lesson #3 in What Matters at Work), we find our creative energies unleashed so we may be capable of “orbiting,” staying engaged without getting sucked into the Hairball of conformity. Just as importantly, we also do not fly away, escaping to save ourselves by jettisoning our creative talents from our work; all too often, many of us engage in repetitive, energy-depleting tasks at work and save our creative energies for sports, theatre, or other hobbies that occur elsewhere. 

As I look back upon my career, the ability to orbit has been key to my success and sustenance. I have been good at recognizing toxic environments and at assessing whether there was space to make them healthy. I have been capable of injecting creative energy into groups with whom I have worked, whether as a member, team lead, teacher in a course, group facilitator, or as the manager of the organization. In those few instances where I have failed to recognize the sucking, toxic energy of Hairball as quickly, I have also learned how that feels for me (exhausting, depressing, debilitating), for those around me (similar, though sometimes with different experiences of anger and betrayal at me for not protecting them), and for my customers (abandoned, disappointed, withdrawn… sometimes, when I am lucky, honest with their feelings). As Mackenzie notes, the Hairball is not the product of bad people, but a natural consequence of seeking “normal” and protecting those cultural assets we believe should be defended against the threats of creativity. But it is a misplaced loyalty, one that is derived from the assumptions of “pyramid organizations,” a concept we will explore later. 

Exercise: What is your experience with “Orbiting the Giant Hairball?” What has it taught you? How has it informed and revised your telling of the Core Story of your life? Reflect on these questions, then discuss your responses with a trusted Partner… of course, this may need to occur “virtually” these days, but that’s OK.

Communities of Practice: Focus on What Matters

Communities of Practice (CoP’s) offer an outstanding way to organize ourselves to focus on the most important issues facing us in this special time. These peer-driven learning organizations are uniquely adaptable to our virtual environments, bringing people together across organizations, professions, localities, and experiences in order to address a common learning challenge together. As they are based upon trust and adaptability, CoP’s are uniquely able to facilitate practical learning while helping members be vulnerable to one another about the challenges along the way.

On Wednesday, May 27th, I will be joining Darin Eich to facilitate a special free webinar, Communities of Practice: A Practical Way to Focus on What Matters at Work,” in which participants will have an opportunity to see how CoP’s can help them address the new and unique challenges and opportunities of this uncertain time. Whether you’ve participated in CoP’s in the past or are brand new to the topic, this will be an engaging learning opportunity. Share the link with others, so we can bring together a diverse set of experiences to learn together!

When: May 27, 2020 10:00 AM Central Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Listening Deeply During this Time of Transition

I sit at my table, working on my computer and occasionally looking out the window. My dog moans. My partner, also working at the table, notices something she feels is worth sharing with me. I halfheartedly listen to her, all the while continuing to look at the words and images on my screen. At one point, she asks, “So, do you think that’s a good idea? Any other thoughts about how we can get that done?” 

While this particular example is placed in my apartment, where we now work remotely in the age of COVID-19, it could have easily occurred at my office, or it could have been around home issues, rather than work issues. All too often, we fail to give our full attention to one another, resulting in inefficient communication regarding the questions and challenges that consume so many hours of our lives. It isn’t that we lack the skill to listen, or even the broader intention to do so. It is that we often fail to cultivate genuine empathy and curiosity, and as a result, we cannot call upon it reliably at times when it is required. 

We are definitely in a time of transition. Such times are some of the most challenging, stretching our abilities to listen to one another. As such, they offer unique opportunities to cultivate that capacity… try the following exercise. 


(1) Each morning (or whenever you begin your work day), take five minutes to close your door (or otherwise gain some privacy) to practice your Intention to be Curious. Breathe deeply, and with each breath center your body and ground yourself. Such mindful practice is easy to do, causes minimal disruption to others, and prepares you to listen. 

(2) Before concluding the breathing, remind yourself, “I seek to be fully present to listen, to be genuinely curious about what others are sharing, and to try and understand how they are experiencing their lives without judgment.” 

(3) Give yourself a simple Talisman that you can use to fulfill your Intention. This may be a physical reminder (such as a small stone you can place on your desk) or a visible reminder (such as a picture or photo) of your Intention. By touching or seeing this Talisman, you will readily return to your Intention when called upon to do so. 

(4) When someone comes into your space, or when you enter someone else’s space, take a deep breath and use the Talisman to focus and listen with openness, curiosity, and empathy. Do this as frequently as possible throughout the day. 

(5) At the end of the work day, before transitioning to the next phase of your day, take five minutes to journal your experience and learning: Did you listen in accordance with your Intention? What worked well? What was challenging? What did you learn that you can bring to the next day? 

If you repeat this exercise each day for a week, you will find that it becomes much more natural. You will also likely notice that you appreciate certain interactions and conversations much more fully than before, and that there is greater depth to some of these discussions. All told, you may also discover that there is greater clarity regarding What Matters as a result.

Kindle Version of What Matters at Work on Sale!

Please excuse this promotional announcement… The eBook version of What Matters at Work will be on a special sale on the Amazon site for the coming week. It started at $ .99 yesterday, May 11th, then increases to $3.99 and $5.99 through the next seven days before returning to its usual $9.99 price (still an excellent deal) on May 18th. If you’ve been waiting for an eBook version — or if you have friends and coworkers who might appreciate such a gift — this is your opportunity!