The origins of Communities of Practice (COP) date back quite some time; for the history buffs out there, the term was first coined by cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the late 1900s as they studied the impact of apprenticeships and living curriculums as learning models.

Although dating back centuries, in the last few years the modern reincarnation of COPs has become increasingly commonplace, particularly within technology functions. In the modern interpretation of the concept, teammates convene regularly via “guild-like” meetings to share learnings, discuss team vision, and ensure all members are rowing in the right direction. In one of my recent blogs (click here), I talked about how to build your own COP — from determining your cadence to establishing your meeting themes to assigning team members certain responsibilities.

Today, I want to expand upon this conversation and look at how COPs — amidst the advent of voice of customer, digital transformation, and the data revolution — are emerging as a critical strategic element in driving a high-performing organization.

Let’s dive in…

The New Frontier… What’s Fueling It?

The intersection of business, tech and data is more complex and busier than ever. As a result, it is opening the door to newfound possibilities for COPs. There are several factors driving the next era of these communities. Here are a few to keep your eyes on:

  • Beyond Just Tech: Whereas COPs used to live exclusively in tech departments (e.g., QE, product, software, and QA teams), today many different multidisciplinary and self-organizing teams come together across multiple functions and, in the process, assemble and form their own communities of practice. When one COP finds partnership with another COP within the same organization, a multiplier effect takes place: companies combine efficiencies, share learnings, and start driving towards a shared vision, while still preserving the idea of personal ownership and accountability within each team.
  • Shifting Definitions: The definition of “customer” has fundamentally changed. Whereas it used to be basic (i.e., external, and internal customers), today the concept has expanded considerably. Customers can be staff, service providers, community partners, boards of advisors… you name it. In many ways, the customer ecosystem is the most dynamic it has ever been. In fact, with the emergence of big data and AI, customers need not be exclusively human! COPs play nicely in this new ecosystem as they create space for us to bring all those who influence the customer together to share, learn, and evolve — allowing businesses to understand their customers at profound new levels of depth while eliminating barriers to knowledge sharing.
  • Cultural Change: The rise of self-organizing teams, Agile processes, and flatter hierarchical constructs pave the way for great momentum within communities of practice. What these trends tell us is that employees desire more modern ways of collaborating and convening. COPs are a natural fit here as they enable organizations to incorporate progressive approaches to empowered, self-organizing teams. The ceremonies, charters, and KPIs (key performance indicators) that are introduced with well-established COPs provide the focus and data-based objectivity to ensure direct and measurable impact of this cultural shift, without burdening the individual teams with velocity-robbing overhead.

In addition to these macro forces, leaders are continually asking questions such as “what is and isn’t working?” “How can my team better collaborate?” “How does what our team does over here influence the business over there?” “What does peak performance look like?”: in other words, specific, measurable, and actionable examination of the health and maturity of one’s organization.

COPs sit squarely between the macro forces and these questions as they allow organizations to implement better practices through experiential learning, improve the effectiveness of how each individual operates, and increase confidence in ability to deliver outcomes of value.


The Potentiality

While COPs are a critical component in building a high-performing organization, their true value is harnessed when three elements are combined with commitment from an organization and/or group of people:

  1. Practice: “What can we do about it?” This involves having a shared body of knowledge, experiences, and technologies focused on the evolution the practice.
  2. Domain: ‘What we care about” The area of interest must be shared – and owned – among team members.
  3. Community: “Who cares about it?” The group of individuals must care enough about the topic to participate in regular interactions to improve — both Self and the organization.

With these three elements established, then the focus shifts to underpinning the COP with the foundation to drive maximum impact by focusing on the most critical things. Effectiveness is best enabled by doing the following:

  • Bake data into your COP approach. Anything that can be standardized and repeatable needs to be measured. Establish your baseline COP targets, and then set some aspirational KPIs. Report regularly and create visibility to the larger organization as to how the COP is positively influencing performance, output, and productivity.
  • Infuse clarity into your charter. Ensure that your charter is not only established but also well-documented, shared and well-understood by all members of the COP. A charter ensures that your group understands scope and goals, as well as the responsibilities of each member. It is also the foundational tool that communicates the community “ethos” to outside stakeholders.
  • Keep collaboration at the center. Healthy COPs rely on robust collaboration, knowledge sharing, and active participation. With your end goals being to evolve domain knowledge and strengthen and expand expertise, think about the structure and format of each of your meetings to ensure maximum levels of synthesis. Explore periodic collaboration with other COPs to strengthen your organizational sense of community.
  • Adopt agility into your COP. The modern COP may be the child of an ancient concept, but the same Agile practices, ceremonies, and tools that have revolutionized IT can empower the COP itself. COPs should organize the initiatives they bring into scope into a prioritized backlog of features and epics. These features should be brought to fruition by tasking them to focused scrum-like teams, with oversight from the COP and its governing committee. This provides the right degree of local autonomy to encourage breakthrough thinking while providing the oversight necessary to remove blockers, thereby ensuring that the ideas forged in this crucible succeed in permeating across the organization.

The new frontier of COPs is here and, with it, opportunity to build stronger organizational bridges and enhance learning exposure, while also driving greater performance. What is one step you would like to take this week to reach your level of potentiality?

Interested in spinning up a COP within your team? Drop us a note here, and we will connect you directly with our Chief Engineer Walter McAdams who can give you some immediate tips for getting up and running.