A profession and a community of practice are different – but brilliant together

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** updated 11th June 2024 to clarify some definitions **

I have worked with Communities of Practice in organisations for many years. One recent trend I have seen is people using the term community when they mean the more formal construct of a profession and vice versa.

When organisations overlook the attributes of a community, they miss out on what makes a community of practice magic.

When they expect a community to fulfil the role of a profession, people get left behind. This post will explain some of those differences.

Definition of a profession

It’s worth defining a profession (sometimes called a practice, role or discipline) because the term is applied to different things in different organisations or even sometimes in other parts of the same organisation. 

In this instance, I’m using a profession to mean a collection of people who share a formally recognised professional role.

Many of my clients’ organisations are matrix-managed; they have formally recognised professions, such as Product Design, alongside their team, programme and division organisational structures.

There will often be a Head of Profession responsible for the professional development, capability, direction, and standards of that profession, for example, the Head of the Product Management profession.

Anyone joining the organisation in a Product Manager role will be part of the Product Manager profession by default.

The profession is really important to an organisation; it formally supports people to be their best and have opportunities to develop, and it ensures that the organisation has the right people with the right capabilities to meet its goals.

Definition of a community of practice

Then, there are communities of practice, people connected through a shared passion for something they actively practice and who collectively grow as they interact regularly. As it’s a community, members have meaningful social connections. 

They are non-hierarchical, and membership is voluntary. They create support networks, enable peer learning, join up knowledge, and create opportunities for collaboration. Their shape and activities can change to meet their members’ needs over time.

They will have membership criteria, which are more likely to revolve around a practice rather than a role name.

Communities of practice are usually facilitated by community leaders or core members. An organisation may recognise and support them, but they may cross organisational boundaries, such as programmes.

For example, a product design community rather than a product designers community. This means that anyone practicing product design could be a member, even if they don’t have the job title of “product designer”. Or a facilitation community, which spans many different professions.

A sense of community

There is no community without a sense of 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.” 

McMillan & Chavis (1986) 

It’s this sense of community that holds the power. When people feel safe sharing, talking, and learning together, it raises everyone. 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.

A quick reference of the differences

A group of people who share a formally recognised professional role.

E.g. The product Manager profession

People in named roles will be automatically part of the related profession and will be included in relevant activities by default.

The profession is responsible for the members’ formal professional development, including line management, career progression, and performance, and for the direction of the profession, including quality, standards, knowledge management, capability and capacity.

A community of practice

A collection of people connected through a shared passion and active practice.

E.g. A product management community of practice or a Facilitation community of practice

Members will join voluntarily. They may have different roles, but share a practice and a sense of community.

A community of practice will informally support its members through regular community activities and interactions such as social learning, collaboration, discussing challenges, solving problems and sharing tacit knowledge.

Recognise they are different, but may overlap

A profession and a community of practice are different and can exist independently. However, they are both valuable and can complement each other.

Some communities of practice may not closely relate to one role, and in some organisations, the membership of a profession and community of practice may overlap but be different. In these cases, being explicit about what activities go where makes sense.

In smaller organisations, the membership of a profession and community of practice may be the same; in this instance, it’s worth differentiating between professional activities that everyone should take part in, such as status updates or career progression, and informal activities that are voluntary, such as peer learning or social activities.

Blending these too much can result in those who choose not to participate in community activities being left behind and not getting vital formal support from the profession. I have seen this happen more than once.

Expecting a community of practice to deliver business outcomes can mean those outcomes don’t get the focus they need, or it can break the sense of community (working groups could work here).

The magic is in the overlap

Community outputs can feed into professions where relevant, for example, conversations and collaboration around standards and approaches.

Professions can point people to communities and support involvement, which is valuable for building connections and growing the capability that supports the profession.

When organisations have the more formal activities of practice and the more informal and social aspects of a community, it’s brilliant.

Find out more about communities of practice at communitiesofpractice.work and get in touch if you’d like help with your communities or practice initiatives.

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Reeves-Hall

    4 April 2022 at 7:32 am

    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. Andrew Skendi

    8 April 2022 at 11:52 pm

    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?

    • ewebber

      9 April 2022 at 8:14 am

      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?

    • ewebber

      11 April 2022 at 7:09 am

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

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