Among like-minded people: The community of practice

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Whether within a company or beyond it, all experts benefit from exchanging ideas with those in their field. Problems or challenges in one’s own professional life are often experienced by others as well. Not only does coming together with like-minded people result in valuable advice and recommendations for improvement, but it can also create an understanding and encouragement for the respective situation. This inevitably means companies benefit from their employees meeting up regularly in what is known as a community of practice. In this article, we will explain what this community entails, how you can start your own and the effects it can have on your OKR process.

What is a community of practice (CoP)?

A community of practice is a self-organized group of people that comes together based on common interests, topics or company tasks, for example, as OKR Coaches. Through these meetings, they can improve their skills and knowledge within the field. Participation in a CoP is voluntary and is based purely on the desire to improve oneself and, in a broader sense, the entire company’s daily work. The entire organization benefits from this, as the advancement of one’s own knowledge improves collaboration within the company, high quality can be guaranteed and solutions to problems can be worked out more quickly.

The benefits of communities of practice for individuals

During regularly-scheduled community of practice meetings, the main goal is to discuss information and questions about specific problems from everyday professional life and find solutions together. In other words, it is about mutual support and collaboration among members. The major advantage here is that people are interacting with those they do not generally work with. During CoP meetings, participants have the opportunity to share their individual experiences with one another and, as a result, create new opportunities and master specific challenges. New ideas can only emerge from interaction of various networks, in which each party shares its own view. In turn, this influences the decisions of others and creates a learning effect. In a professional setting, working and learning always go hand in hand. A community of practice promotes this relationship.

The benefits of communities or practice for companies

Companies benefit from communities of practice in that their own employees develop their skills in an independent, self-organized manner without those responsible having to invest costly amounts on things like training. The only requirement of the company is to give its employees the time they need to regularly take part in meetings. The knowledge acquired from the meetings has a direct impact on daily work performance. As described above, collaboration and the quality of the end results will improve.

Requirements for introducing a community of practice

According to Swiss social researcher Étienne Wenger, who deals with communities of practice in his work, a CoP must exhibit various characteristics to be considered a true community of practice. These include:

  • An area of common interest (Domain)
  • A common body of knowledge, experience and techniques on the respective topic (Practice)
  • A group of people ready to regularly meet up and interact on the topic (Community)

In addition, the individuals in the group should have the same professional background so they can truly exchange ideas. That means developers have to meet with other developers or OKR Coaches should meet with other OKR Coaches in the company. In this way, all involved can learn from each other’s practical knowledge and can derive the greatest possible benefits for themselves and the company.

Virtual community of practice

The previous description may lead one to believe that a community of practice requires the physical presence of its participants. However, these meetings can also be conducted digitally and remotely, which has been happening more and more frequently since the Corona pandemic. The content of the virtual community of practice (vCoP) meetings remains the same; the meetings simply take place in a virtual space, such as Microsoft Teams or other communications tools and social media groups.

 vCoP beyond company borders

Virtual communities of practice also like to come together in large groups on social networks. Members do not necessarily have to come from the same company. The most important aspect of these meetings is to exchange ideas with experts from the same field, regardless of company or even country borders. In this way, individuals can collect even more impressions, views and input on the respective topic.

How do I develop a community of practice?

Creating a CoP, whether virtual or physical, does not require much. A community of practice evolves organically until all members of the community agree the pre-set goals have been achieved. To start, all you need is a small group of individuals who share the same area of expertise as well as a passion for lively discussion and a culture of support. There are various stages in the “life cycle” of a CoP, including:

  • Commitment phase
  • Starting up phase
  • Operating phase
  • Winding down phase
  • Shutting down phase

The different development steps of a CoP

There are five necessary steps when establishing your own community of practice, in which various individuals are assigned various tasks.

Step 1:
The first step is to find an executive sponsor for the community. Within companies, this is usually a person from the management level who assumes overriding responsibility to ensure the respective CoP can be conducted successfully. This person also ensures the goals and strategies are properly communicated.

Step 2:
Not only are the fundamentals in the form of a vision and a mission important for companies, they are also essential for CoPs. Through the development of an overall vision, the resulting mission and additional goals, it becomes clear where the journey is going. They are the guiding light of the community.

Step 3:
After defining a sponsor and goals, the CoP’s core team can be assembled. Four main roles should be established within the community.

  • CoP program manager

This person is responsible for supporting other members with their questions, problems and solutions.

  • CoP manager

This person determines the community strategy, plans the regularly-scheduled meetings and provides members with all necessary information and updates.

  • Core team members

The entire core team is responsible for the administration and everything related to the community. They are the point of contact for all other members, they invite new people into the community and assign tasks. The core team also helps prepare and conduct the meetings.

  • Remaining community members

All other community members fill the CoP with life and interaction. They take part in meetings, discuss all essential content and ensure the goals of the community are achieved.

Step 4:
The next step is to set up a content management tool that will be used to document and manage the large amount of collected information, and which should be used to review how up to date the information is at regular intervals (approximately every six months). Some organizations use their own intranet for this purpose, while others use systems such as AODocs.

Step 5:
The final step for a successful community of practice is to regularly conduct meetings. Only through regular exchange can the community continue to thrive and achieve its predefined goals.

Community of practice using an OKR example

So, what exactly does a community of practice within a company look like? This can be easily explained using OKRs as an example.

You can read more about the management framework of OKR here.

The goal of a CoP in the course of an OKR drafting is similar to the CoPs of other topics or tasks. First and foremost, it is about learning from one another, exchanging good and bad practices, and working together to find solutions and provide assistance. The formulation of Objectives and Key Results is mainly the responsibility of the respective team and the leaders of the respective draft. In addition, there is an OKR Master responsible for supporting employees throughout the entire process. This individual also organizes regular meetings to ensure all established goals are achieved. Within a company, there are generally several OKR Masters for various areas of the organization and OKRs. Together, these individuals form a community of practice within the organization for OKR Masters. The goal of this particular CoP has a special relation to outcome management and the entire OKR framework. In the regularly-conducted CoP meetings, daily tasks, challenges and emerging questions are discussed, and the findings are directly incorporated into the management of each individual's own OKRs.

  • How can my team best formulate its OKRs?
  • How can I best facilitate a successful OKR alignment phase?
  • What are the most common problems and how can they best be addressed?

These and many other questions are discussed in OKR Master meetings.

Community of practice FAQ

What is a community of practice (CoP)?

A community of practice is a self-organized group of people that comes together based on their common interest in a specific area. They exchange information, work together to improve their skills and expand their knowledge in the field of interest.

What are the necessary requirements for introducing a CoP?

According to Swiss social researcher Étienne Wenger, a CoP must exhibit various characteristics to be considered a community of practice. These are:

  • An area of common interest
  • A common body of knowledge
  • Experience and techniques on the respective topic
  • A group of people ready to regularly meet up and interact on the topic

How do I develop a community of practice?

Five steps are necessary for successful CoP establishment. These include the development of a vision, mission and additional goals that should be achieved within the community. In addition, various roles should be established within the community, a content management tool should be introduced to collect and manage information from the meetings, and regular meetings should be conducted.

How does a community of practice within a company function?

An example using OKR Masters is the best way to explain how a community of practice within a company works. Among other things, an OKR Master is responsible for defining different Objectives and Key Results. Within a company, there are several OKR Masters from various departments. Altogether, these individuals make up the CoP. With regular meetings, they can discuss daily challenges and emerging questions. The findings from these meetings are then directly incorporated into the management of the individual OKRs for each OKR Master. In this way, the CoP has a direct impact on the daily events that occur in the course of achieving company goals.