Communities of practice

A community and a practice are not the same, but they are brilliant together

Venn diagram. On one side: A community, informal. Collaboration, Psychological safety, trust and connection, social learning, tacit knowledge and support. On the other side: A practice, formal. Standards, practice direction, career progression, capability and capacity, explicit knowledge and performance. In the overlap, community of practice
Reading Time: 2 minutes

I have worked with Communities of Practice in organisations for several years. One recent trend I have seen is the use of the word community when people are talking about the more formal construct of a practice. When people overlook the attributes and values of a community, they miss out on what makes a community of practice magic.

Definition of a practice

Before I get into this, let me define what I mean by a practice, because this word is applied to different things in different organisations, or sometimes in other parts of the same organisation. 

In this instance, I’m using a practice to mean a collection of people who share a formally recognised professional role; it is sometimes called role, job family or profession. 

Many of my clients’ organisations have formally recognised practices, such as Product Design. There will be a Head of Practice responsible for the people, capability, direction and standards of that practice, for example, the Head of Product Design. Anyone joining the organisation in a Product Design role will have formal affiliations to the Product Design practice. 

There may be the need to add new practices as the needs of the organisation change, and I sometimes find emerging practices that have not been formalised by the organisation yet as only one or two people sit within it.

Definition of a community

Then we have a community. Essentially, communities are groups of people with a meaningful social connection. 

There are many different types of communities and in this post, I am focused on communities within an organisational setting.

Communities are usually facilitated by community leaders or by core members. They may be recognised and supported by an organisation but not formalised by organisational rules. They remain non-hierarchical and voluntary, and their shape can change over time to meet the needs of the people within it.

In my work, I talk explicitly about building a sense of community, rather than just assuming a bunch of people who have the same job title are a community. 

In Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory, McMillan & Chavis (1986) define a sense of community as 

A feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.” 

They also call out the four components of a sense of community: membership, influence, shared emotional connection, and fulfilment of needs.

Sense of community, membership, influence, shared emotional connection, fulfilment of needs

It’s this sense of community where the power lies. When people feel safe sharing, talking, and learning together, it raises everyone up. It leads to greater collaboration, communication and capability. Information flows more easily, people work together to solve problems, and they will go to each other for support and help.

The magic is in the overlap

A practice can exist without a community, and a community can exist without a practice, and I’m not suggesting that you always have to have both. But when you have the more formal activities of a practice supported by the more social aspects of a community, it’s brilliant.

6 Comments

  1. Wonderful description and your drawings really helped my understanding of your points.
    I wonder your views on the size of a practice vs a community?
    Is practice often tending towards larger numbers of people, and communities smaller?
    What size have you seen to be a sweet spot for a community and a practice together?

  2. Hi Emily-

    I enjoyed your article! As I read the article, and thought about my experiences being part of communities and practices, I was wondering how one moves individuals and organizations to a non-hierarchical landscape?

    1. Hi Andrew, there is too much to put in a comment here and the answer is always contextual. Any organisation going through a change like that will need strong leadership, support and a lot of patience. Check out writing by Amy Edmondson, Frederic Laloux, Esther Derby, Corporate Rebels, David Marquet, Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns amongst many others.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Emily.

    Just a quick question – is this post to be read in the context where there’s mainly one main organisation with at least one community, and at least one corresponding practice that is situated inside it?

    I get that the edges of the organisation might be a more or less blurry depending on the organisation, but this is what the post is intended to read as referring to, right?

    For example, would this apply to a group explicitly designed to across organisational boundaries, where the majority of participants don’t work for one organisation, but a number of different ones instead?

    1. Hey Chris, can I clarify, is the question: do communities of practice work across organisations? Thanks.

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