Building a Healthy & Robust Community of Practice

Intent & Characteristics of a Community of Practice

If I were to look back at the progress neOOne has made these past 11 years, I would attribute it to three major factors which are, clarity of intent, faithful to a principle and the support of a Community of Practice (CoP). The first two are intrinsic while the last one is extrinsic.

It is extrinsic that requires careful consideration, unlike the intrinsic elements which are fully within our control. So, what is a CoP and what is required to build one?

By definition, a CoP is

“ a group of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or an interest in a topic and who come together to mutually grow, develop and advance in a shared domain. Community members have a shared domain of interest, competence and commitment that distinguishes them from others. This shared domain creates common ground to achieve the common objective of inspiring members to participate, guides their learning, and gives meaning to their actions.”

Therefore, according to the definition, the intent of a CoP is to mutually grow, develop and advance in a shared domain.

Within this definition, there is three main characteristics of a healthy CoP. These three characteristics are what is needed to be present in a healthy CoP and can help guide us in building one.

The first characteristic is “ a shared domain of interest”. For me, it is a prerequisite to becoming a member of a CoP. Without this primary characteristic, it will be difficult to be in a CoP. This characteristic can be used as a selection criterion for the members of the community. This doesn’t mean as a member of a CoP, you can’t have individual views and opinions. In fact, the diversity of thoughts, ideas and approaches within the shared domain of interest is encouraged for each member of the CoP to benefit fully from being in.

The second characteristic is “competency in the domain of interest”. Each member of a CoP has their very own competency in the domain of interest. This factor creates a mood of collaboration among the community. Members will inadvertently create symbiotic relationships with each other within the community rather than outside of the community. This is due to the given fact that they can trust each other due to the shared domain of interest as well as the open knowledge of each other’s competency.

The third characteristic is “commitment to enhancing each other’s development”. This commitment allows the free flow of information, insights and wisdom within the community. A sense of contribution also arises in the CoP. It is common to see the free exchange of ideas, input and knowledge in a CoP. When this characteristic is strong, you will see the CoP will grow mutually. This can be most rewarding.

As a CoP embodies all these three characteristics, authenticities, trust and genuine support will naturally develop within the community itself.

These characteristics can be created and built by anyone who is interested in building a CoP. These are not characteristics that come together coincidently. These characteristics can be nurtured deliberately.

There are five keys to building a CoP. These five keys can be represented by the acronym S.C.A.L.ESelection, Collaboration, Application, Learning, Engagement

Selection

Paramount to building a CoP is its membership. Therefore, the selection is an important task. It is vital that the members of the CoP have all the 3 main characteristics of a great CoP; a shared domain of interest, competency in the domain of interest and commitment to enhancing each other’s development. These characteristics can be detected by the CoP builder or nurtured before initiating into the CoP. Formal CoP will have built these characteristics into the joining criteria formally. However, for non-formal CoP, the builder will need to carefully sense who are eligible to be in the CoP. If the selection is done well, the CoP will grow healthy. Therefore, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to the membership of a CoP.

Collaboration

It is important for the CoP to be able to collaborate freely and autonomously with each other. Therefore, a CoP builder needs to create opportunities to collaborate among the members. These collaborations should be as far as possible self-governing among the parties collaborating, away from any stringent governance of the community. Maturity and a high level of trust are needed in this aspect. The aspect of collaboration must also be a natural and organic progression. It must not be an agenda to benefit only the CoP builder. The organic growth of collaboration will also nurture deep trust. This kind of trust is impossible to be doctored.

Application

Since one of the intents of a CoP is development and improvement, therefore, it is important for a CoP to be a fertile ground for application & deliberate practice. This can be achieved by having opportunities to apply their competency through requests and offers. Members of a CoP are ideal to be a focus or practice group because of the shared domain of interest. This allows robust and potent feedback for improving others’ competency. Members are free to request or offer opportunities to practice and improve. These opportunities can be for formal work or pro-bono. It is a “ willing buyer, willing seller” type of situation. These opportunities can come directly from members of CoP or indirectly through information and the connection of members to other opportunities out there.

Learning

Opportunities to continuously learn is vital in keeping a CoP fresh and relevant. As a builder, this can be achieved through a well-curated learning program that gives opportunities for the member of the CoP to participate and learn from each other. These opportunities must be varied and various so that everyone in the CoP feels Members of a CoP are ideal to be a focus or practice group because of the shared domain of interest. This allows robust and potent feedback for improving teaching others’ competency. Their learning need is taken care of. The learning opportunity can also come and be contributed by the member of the CoP themselves. When a CoP reaches the level where members contribute learning to one another, it indicates that the CoP is reaching maturity and ownership is beginning to be established because contribution becomes intuitive.

Engagement

As a CoP builder, it is important that engagement is continuous, deliberate and purposeful. One of the initiatives to engage that can be done is establishing a communication platform that is well managed. Some schools of thought discourage social interaction within the platform. I find a platform void of social interaction can be quite clinical and does not embody the spirit of a community. At the same time, an over social platform can also negate the intent of the CoP. Therefore, a dose of social interaction is encouraged and must be governed by mutually agreed rules of engagement. The other factor that also needs to be taken into consideration in managing an engagement platform is the frequency of the engagement. A nice balance is ideal; not too active and not too sparse. Engagement is also important in identifying the right individuals for a CoP. This kind of engagement also provides an opportunity for the public to be enticed.

With these five keys, the three main characteristics of a healthy CoP can be nurtured. The three main characteristics will also provide us with indicators of whether our CoP is healthy or not. Hopefully, building a CoP will no more be a guessing game but one that can be done deliberately by using the five keys to building a healthy CoP which is represented by the exitance of the three main characteristics.

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