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Book Review: Cultivating Communities of Practice - Wenger, McDermott and Snyder

Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Knowledge, best-practices and expertise are ubiquitous to our work environments. But can this knowledge and expertise be harnessed to improve organizations? In this book, Wenger, McDermott and Snyder argue that not only can they be harnessed, but that there are principles and practices to better develop these groups of interaction. In a nutshell, "communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis" (p. 4). These are not just people who rally around one problem, only to solve it and disband. "They find value in their interactions" (p. 4), say the authors. And this value can be encouraged and developed for the better of the organization.

How are communities of practice cultivated? While many groups like these can form naturally, the authors of this book make the case that "organizations need to cultivate communities of practice actively and systematically..." (p. 12). But how can this be done in a systematic way? Are there principles that can encourage the growth of these groups? Yes, in fact, "organizations can do a lot to create an environment in which they can prosper: valuing the learning they do, making time and other resources available for their work, encouraging participation, and removing barriers... giving them a voice in decisions and legitimacy in influencing operating units, and developing internal processes for managing the value they create" (p. 13). In fact, creating this environment is crucial in the success of the communities of practice. There are also what they call "fundamental elements" to a community of practice which include "a domain of knowledge, which defines a set of issues; a community of people who care about this domain; and the shared practice that they are developing to be effective in their domain" (p. 27). So, a domain of knowledge, a community of people who care about that domain, and the shared practice are 3 key elements that must be a part of a successful community of practice. Without each of these, there really is no community of practice. They also mention 7 principles for "guiding these communities towards life:

- Design for evolution
- Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
- Invite different levels of participation
- Develop both public and private community spaces
- Focus on value
- Combine familiarity and excitement
- Create a rhythm for the community" (p. 51)

What are the inherent down-sides (risks) involved with cultivating communities of practice, one might ask? While it is true that there are many benefits to communities of practice - shared knowledge, improved processes, better business practices - there are some downsides to this as well. "Communities of practice, like all human institutions, also have a downside" (p. 139). Not only can they have their downsides, but "a shared practice is a liability as well as a resource" (p. 147). There are several ways they can become liabilities instead of assets. They "may violate some of the basic principles" of healthy communities of practice (p. 140). Sometimes, because the group becomes too familiar and too comfortable with each other, "a lot of implicit assumptions can go unquestioned" (p. 141). "The intimacy communities develop can create a barrier to newcomers, a blinder to new ideas, or a reluctance to critique each other" (p. 141). Intimacy and comfort levels aren't the only things that can be the unraveling of the group. "Pride of ownership can induce a fall. Sometimes the enthusiasm of the domain leads to excessive zealousness" (p. 141). Sometimes that "excessive zealousness" is fleshed out because "focusing on areas members are passionate about can lead a community to think that their domain is more important than others or that their perspective on the domain should prevail" (p. 142). Now, it is natural for a community to take pride in its work, "but taken to the extreme, this can result in members being overly concerned with themselves" (p. 143). Again, a too narrowly focused attention on the importance of the group can create inherent problems. Other issues include marginality (they are not taken seriously), factionalism (deep disagreements that cause fractures in the group), clique-ish groups (group relationships dominate all other concerns), dependence, stratification, disconnectedness, localism, dogmatism and mediocrity (p. 143-149).

Leveraging knowledge and best practices is essential to any successful organization, even churches and ministries. To do this well, it takes understanding the processes of growth, and the inherent pitfalls in cultivating, encouraging, and developing communities of practice. These communities of practice can be intentionally unleashed in organizations for their benefit and the benefit of the individuals involved.

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