Versions 2.0 and 4.0
Success and failure factors
One aspect of any discipline is to learn what works and what does not. Cultivating communities of practice is not easy. It is useful to review the key success factors and failure risks associated with the art of cultivating communities of practice.
- Passion for domain: This is the key factor. Unless members feel a strong connection to the domain, because of their personal interest, because of the challenges they face, or because it is central to their job, it is not going to work.
- Internal leadership: The dedication, skills, and legitimacy of people who take internal leadership in nurturing the community is perhaps the most important factor in determining the quality and longevity of the community. When starting a new community, finding members who are ready and willing to take on a leadership role in nurturing the community is the most important step.
- Energized core group: Community leaders are well advised to build a core group of dedicated members around them. Having the community depend on just one or two people may be OK in the beginning, but is not a good idea over time.
- Focus on practice: Interactions among members need to address real issues of practice—the way things “really” are rather than how they should be. This will generate interest and engagement. Remaining at a more superficial level of “formal knowledge” will not make the community as useful or energized as it can be.
- Trust: Members need to trust each other enough to talk about real practice. But talking about real practice is also the way to develop the trust. Someone who is well-respected needs to start this process, for instance, by asking for help on a real challenge of practice.
- Community rhythm: Each community needs to find the rhythm of interactions and activities that will work for members. Not enough and it feels like the community is not alive. Too much and people will just drop out. A good thing to remember is that being in a community is rarely a person’s first job.
- Learning trumps power: The term community may connote a harmonious group with no issues of power. But issues of power are inherent in communities of practice as they are in any social group. The hallmark of a successful community of practice is not the absence of power; it is that if there is a choice between the two, the need to learn together overrides existing relationships of power.
- Personal touch: Leaders who are successful tend to be the ones who keep in personal contact with a lot of members. This way they are aware of the issue that members face, which the community can address, and of the potential contributions members can make to the community.
- High value for time: Every time members engage with the community or take on a leadership task, they need to feel that it was a worthwhile use of their time—interesting, useful, fun—that it made a difference.
- High expectations: Even though communities of practice are often categorized as informal, the ones that are energized are the ones where members (and other stakeholders) have high expectations about the difference the community is going to make, for themselves, for an organization, or for the world.
- Engaged sponsorship: As mentioned earlier, having a sponsor who is engaged with the domain and the work of the community is very important for connecting the community to the organization.
- Skilled support: A support team that provides training, coaching, and infrastructure to communities can make a huge difference. Another responsibility of the support team is to help negotiate the relationship between communities and the formal organization, including finding sponsors, setting expectations, and assessing progress overall.
- Lack of time: This is the complaint that one hears most about communities that are struggling. An organization has to make sure that the time spent on a community is valued and recognized as work.
- Leader neglect: Most communities that die too early do so because for some reasons the leaders were not able or wiling to dedicate enough energy to nurturing the community.
- Focus on events: Just focusing on events and other visible aspects of the community often causes leaders to lose touch with the community.
- Focus on documents: Producing documents can be a very important activity but an excessive or exclusive focus on documents tends to move conversations away from practice and make the community feel like just a lot of work.
- De-energizing tasks and red tape: Some people believe that a community should never be asked to perform a task, but the reality is more nuanced. There are energizing tasks and de-energizing tasks for a community. When a community is asked to do something that inspires members, then it is a good thing. But a community will likely die if it is burdened with tasks that do not energize members or with a lot of reporting and bureaucratic duties that are disproportionate to the resources it receives.
- Logistics or IT: IT systems cannot give rise to a community but they can easily break it if they are too clumsy to use. Not being a member’s first job, a community can only command a small level of attention. If technology makes participation difficult or clumsy people are going to give up quickly.
- Command/control: Communities of practice have to be self-governed. This is how they can use practice as a curriculum. This does not mean that outside stakeholders like managers cannot make suggestions or negotiate agreements, but micro-management is not a good idea.
- Cookie-cutter approach: Each community is unique. Overspecifying how communities function or what they look like can be quite counter-productive in organizations. Members shape their community. In particular it is usually good to recognize multiple levels of formalization in relations to organizations.
- Ideology: This may seem like a strange failure factor, but the concept of community seems to cause people to become ideological about the topic. For instance, some believe that a community cannot be started or that its value should never be measured. While it is true that one needs to be careful not to kill the spirit of a community, the task of cultivating communities of practice requires a good dose of pragmatism and social intuition.