What's a Community of Practice?

Especially since SAFe is on the rise, companies are trying to establish "Communities of Practice" (CoP) and may not even be clear on what that is supposed to be. Some try to shoehorn their old line structure into CoPs, with meager results. Here are some comments from my own experience.


Defining a Community of Practice

A CoP is nothing more or less than a group of people with a shared purpose, as the Manifesto sfor Agile Software Development states, "uncovering better ways (...) by doing and helping others do it".
That means, communities typically consist of subject matter experts and/or those professing to become such.

Shared Purpose

Every Community needs a shared purpose, and that purpose can be whatever the community makes their purpose.
Very common types of communities I see in many organizations include:

  • Testing / Quality
  • Architecture
  • DevOps
  • Data Protection & Compliance
  • User Experience
... you get the gist.

Sometimes, communities form around very specific organizational issues, such as "Customer Complaints" or "Return Shipments" - such communities tend to have the purpose of bringing themselves out of existence. This already hints that a community may also consist of non-technical people as well: Communities are not limited by department boundaries.

Voluntary Participation

Communities live from their members' participation. The best communities consist entirely of members who desire to be part of the community and have a personal interest in making their participation as useful as possible.
With such voluntarism, both attendance and non-attendance in community events are an indicator of the community's success. 
Organizational mechanic (process, decree etc.) mandating community participation will cause results and progress of communities to dwindle.

Openness

Communities are most effective when they are open to people from "outside" to bring in additional helpful ideas and carry their own results for others' benefit as well. Growing communities that have an appeal to a large audience, even many who only participate occasionally, have the biggest impact.
On the other hand, closing the community to an "elite" will limit their learning, impact and organizational acceptance.

Organizational Integration

Communities are workfloor-level organizational constructs. They consist of people who practice (hence their name), they are for people who do the work and they serve no purpose other than making the work better. As such, they do not need to be "managed", "controlled" or "reported".

Accountability

A community is a peer group built on trust, respect and growth. The community as a whole is accountable to the organization in terms of their purpose. Members are accountable to their peers in terms of whatever they decide to commit to. And finally, as community members have a "home" in a team, they are also accountable to their team to use their community time wisely and in the best interests of the team.

Management

A community of experts might have a line manager (e.g., "Head of Quality"), who may or may not be involved in the activities of the community itself.
Here is some personal advice based on my experience with managers and CoPs:

  • the manager may encourage starting a CoP, but should not enlist one, and definitely not "manage" one.
  • the manager should not attend unless invited and only speak once they have clearly understood the impact of their words and actions on the group.
  • the manager can support their community by removing impediments that the community raised.

Reporting

Members who did do experiments may report their learnings back to the community in whatever form they consider appropriate.
The concept of traditional Reporting is out of place in communities. A community "reports" to nobody, as that destroys the entire point of being self-organised and brings in a lot of dangerous power dynamics which could invalidate the entire idea of forming a community.

Team alignment

Members of communities should feel free to do any of the following, at any time, in alignment with their team:
  • Join one or more Communities
  • Invest time and effort into community activity
  • Discuss CoP topics with the team
  • Withdraw from a CoP
  • Participate as guest in other Communities
There is no obligation that every team must have one member in every community. Sometimes, half a team is already half the community - and often, many teams have no members in certain communities.

Leadership

Mature communities are peer groups that operate as a decentralized network. They do not rely on the concept of single person leadership, but rather on the concepts of personal responsibility and ownership.

Practice lead

Many Communities are led by a peer expert to keep the momentum up. Ideally, this is the person who cares most for making beneficial changes. The CoP lead is a "primus inter pares" who leads by competence and through action, not position.
As a note of caution: When "talkers, not doers" lead a Community, others' interest will wane quickly.

Coaching support

A coach can serve as facilitator to the help find out the current practices, discover levers for change, reach agreements on next steps and encouraging members to take action.
When a coach is required to keep the community alive - let it die!


Impermanence

The existence of communities should be linked to their importance. A community trying to improve the organization's biggest problem may need to be quite active, investing a significant portion of their time to make progress. When a community has no significant purpose, community activity is waste. 

Organizational Freedom

The organization should support their members to form communities at any point in time when people feel that they have an important purpose, and likewise encourage people to abandon the community when the purpose is longer important.
The organization itself should foster no form of "attachment" to specific communities.

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