Communities of Practice and Organisational Strategy

An organisation I have been consulting with recently has been considering the question of to what extent communities of practice should be aligned with organisational goals and structure, and to what extent they have to be free to ‘do their own thing’.

What level of accountability should the activities of a community of practice have to the parent organisation?

A community set up with too much accountability to the parent organisation and too many strings, rules or processes may become just another organisational team in the organisation, and lose the unique benefits of harnessing the passion and excitement of a community to share knowledge and growth.

On the other hand, a community of practice with too little focus and little thought as to how to tie its activities and support in to the organisational structure, will tend to lose focus, or develop a focus that might be different than the parent organisation might like.

So what should be done?

The answer is to follow the ‘middle path’.

Communities of practice need to be set up with a clear purpose, with an organisation thinking clearly about what the communities of practice are for, what roles they may play within the organisation, how the activities of communities of practice tie in with the organisation’s strategic objectives, and how the intended activities of the organisation tie in with the organisation’s existing infrastructure.

Given these parameters, however, communities must be allowed and encouraged to grow and pursue their activities in the way they find most appropriate, so the culture of the community develops and become institutionalised amongst its members. Members must have the ability to freely pursue the objectives of the community of practice.

Setting the basic parameters and designing the supporting organisational structure for communities of practice requires, however, some careful thought and planning.

Amongst the issues to consider is the question of what purpose a community of practice is intended to serve. Is it intended to foster innovations? To help community members solve problems? To steward a body of knowledge? Each of these intended roles may engender different appropriate relationships with the host organisation.

For example, if the purpose of the community is to cultivate innovation, the organisation will want to set up clear links and appropriate performance incentive structures at the outset to ensure that ideas generated by the community of practice are fed back into the innovation infrastructure of the organisation so that ideas can be tested, selected and commercialised or applied. Consideration will need to be given to issues of intellectual property generated by community members, who might or might not be working in an official capacity during work time during their community activities. A whole range of issues will need to be considered, bearing on the design for the community of practice relationship with the host organisation.

Similarly, there are choices to be made in deciding on the organisational architecture for the community of practice. For example, should communities be supported and administered centrally by a specific unit or division? Alternatively, perhaps the organisation should relate to communities through a ‘community council’ consisting of the various community of practice leaders or other representatives from each community? There are many community of practice models that could be chosen, and it is important to choose the right one. In addition, what level of support (finance, resources, administration) should the organisation provide to the community of practice?

Once these choices are made, and the community leader and/or core members are selected, the community must be grown and cultivated. Starting a community is like growing and enculcating shared values over time, and after the initial planning is more akin to working on an organisation’s culture than designing and updating organisational charts and business processes and procedures.

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Communities of Practice and Organisational Strategy

An organisation I have been consulting with recently has been considering the question of to what extent communities of practice should be aligned with organisational goals and structure, and to what extent they have to be free to ‘do their own thing’.

What level of accountability should the activities of a community of practice have to the parent organisation?

A community set up with too much accountability to the parent organisation and too many strings, rules or processes may become just another organisational team in the organisation, and lose the unique benefits of harnessing the passion and excitement of a community to share knowledge and growth.

On the other hand, a community of practice with too little focus and little thought as to how to tie its activities and support in to the organisational structure, will tend to lose focus, or develop a focus that might be different than the parent organisation might like.

So what should be done?

The answer is to follow the ‘middle path’.

Communities of practice need to be set up with a clear purpose, with an organisation thinking clearly about what the communities of practice are for, what roles they may play within the organisation, how the activities of communities of practice tie in with the organisation’s strategic objectives, and how the intended activities of the organisation tie in with the organisation’s existing infrastructure.

Given these parameters, however, communities must be allowed and encouraged to grow and pursue their activities in the way they find most appropriate, so the culture of the community develops and become institutionalised amongst its members. Members must have the ability to freely pursue the objectives of the community of practice.

Setting the basic parameters and designing the supporting organisational structure for communities of practice requires, however, some careful thought and planning.

Amongst the issues to consider is the question of what purpose a community of practice is intended to serve. Is it intended to foster innovations? To help community members solve problems? To steward a body of knowledge? Each of these intended roles may engender different appropriate relationships with the host organisation.

For example, if the purpose of the community is to cultivate innovation, the organisation will want to set up clear links and appropriate performance incentive structures at the outset to ensure that ideas generated by the community of practice are fed back into the innovation infrastructure of the organisation so that ideas can be tested, selected and commercialised or applied. Consideration will need to be given to issues of intellectual property generated by community members, who might or might not be working in an official capacity during work time during their community activities. A whole range of issues will need to be considered, bearing on the design for the community of practice relationship with the host organisation.

Similarly, there are choices to be made in deciding on the organisational architecture for the community of practice. For example, should communities be supported and administered centrally by a specific unit or division? Alternatively, perhaps the organisation should relate to communities through a ‘community council’ consisting of the various community of practice leaders or other representatives from each community? There are many community of practice models that could be chosen, and it is important to choose the right one. In addition, what level of support (finance, resources, administration) should the organisation provide to the community of practice?

Once these choices are made, and the community leader and/or core members are selected, the community must be grown and cultivated. Starting a community is like growing and enculcating shared values over time, and after the initial planning is more akin to working on an organisation’s culture than designing and updating organisational charts and business processes and procedures.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.