I remember going to my first ever company conference, I had been working for a year or so in my new position as store manager for a family owned opticians which was made up of about 14 stores. We were all sat at tables with people from other stores who we had not met before so the room hummed quietly as people introduced themselves. The CEO made his entrance looking very smart as usual, he stood on stage and stripped down to a pair of shorts!!! After picking myself up off the floor, along with a number of other employees, he began to say… “we as a company must change and change starts here right now with each and everyone of us”. He proceeded to tell us of his vision of staff who were empowered to make decisions, a variety of teams which consisted of optometrists, store managers, receptionists etc should be meeting regularly to brain storm on how we as a company could not only work better but smarter, gone are the days of hierarchical structure and rigidity, we were all one team working together to achieve success. This conference was several years ago but what Mike was actually trying to create back then was a ‘Community of Practice’.
The Theory behind it……
Theorist Etienne Wenger describes Community of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. This is very different to communities where individuals communicate and interact with one another without having any particular commitment to the group for any length of time. Wenger describes the Community of practice as being made up of three essential parts;
- The Domain: membership and commitment: receptionist, Optometrist, Dispenser, Manager all interested in smooth successful operations within the store.
- The Community: relationships and interaction: the different staff members interact together regardless of job description and discuss, help and learn from one another.
- The Practice: members and sharing resources: Experiences endured which are shared and the sharing of problem solving techniques, such as; dealing with customer orders which are delayed, Optometrist absenteeism and the effects on the clinic, the best allocation of people and resources to deal with these and other situations.
By developing a Community of Practice the business gains from a overall feeling of belonging, team spirit, collaboration, and unity. Gaining this feel within the business leads to greater efficiency and effectiveness ultimately focused on the business strategy, it allows for as well as encouraging the sharing of tacit knowledge and the growth of individuals along with the team.
As businesses are fast paced entities it is imperative to ensure not to become stagnant, the Community of Practice is very much about the members of the team/organisation sharing and learning from one another to develop better systems, procedures, ideas etc… This community drives the business.
To me it all seems like a win win but everything has 2 sides! The Community of Practice can be highly successful in the right structure but this model is a total fail if the organisation is one of strong hierarchical nature. Members must be able to contribute freely to the community regardless of organisational status. From the description above it is clear this model is not something that can be implemented over night by the CEO, all members have to buy into it, understand and believe in the company strategy and want to drive the business for the gain of all the members. This takes time, commitment and lots of listening.
My experience of belonging to a Community of Practice was one of excitement, empowerment, ownership, passion and growth, both as a manager of the business and as an individual. For example, monthly meetings would take place in conference centres where a member of each store would attend and share information, best practice, problems and issues. Lots of brain storming would take place and the members would take back ideas plentiful to the stores where some of the ideas would be implemented. Due to these sessions barriers were broken down and members of the company began to be more integrated, which enabled one to call another to ask how to deal with an issue, fix a broken part etc without feeling intimidated or isolated.
Of course many businesses operate solely online and may have members scattered around the world, not just throughout the country. Again this causes problems with individuals building the Community; developing relationships, sense of belonging and trust, and actively helping one another. Although the internet provides a great tool for communication via text, web cam, conference calls, social media etc, sometimes the personal touch can be lost or take longer to develop. The development of an online community is one which would be much easier to emulate, we can see this by Facebook groups.
Thinking about it, I would say that most modern companies, as opposed to the more traditional run company, strives to achieve a Community of Practice whether they are fully aware of the concept or not. I know from my experience it definitely made for a happier work place.