Understanding Organizational Learning: The Importance of Communities of Practice

Say, do you have a minute to talk about organizational learning and communities of practice? Excellent, because it bears some discussion that you really cannot have the former without the latter, and see any real level of success in organizational learning. So, even if you work in the training field, you may not be familiar with the concept of communities of practice, which was proposed by Lave and Wegner several years after the organizational learning models were proposed in the early 90s. It also bears mentioning that this is something that was conceived by cognitive anthropologists rather than training gurus or business wizards, so it’s easy for those in the training field to gloss over it and pay it little head.

So what are communities of practice? Basically, they’re a group of individuals within an organization that share a common application of skill and craft. Some may have specific and different roles within this practice, but they all closely interrelate in a self-contained system to achieve a specific meta-goal of some sort. For example, all of the cooks in a kitchen, be they tomato choppers, chefs or dish washers, are members of one community of practice, while servers, maître ‘ds and bus boys are another community of practice within the same larger organization.

But we were going to talk about organizational learning and communities of practice, not just pontificate on what a CoP actually is, weren’t we? Well, the point we’re getting to here is that CoP is incredibly important in organizational learning. Here’s why.

With most strategies and models of organizational learning, pretty much one thing is pretty constant, and that is relevance. See, while learning outside one’s range of application is a virtuous thing, and those who appreciate learning for the sake of growth are valuable to organizational learning, time is money.

Organizational Learning

In order for organizational learning to be efficient, the proper information must be directed to the proper people, and the Venn overlap match correctly and not be too minimal, otherwise superfluous information becomes an efficiency killer very quickly. This is where communities of practice come to the rescue.

After conducting your training needs assessment, another assessment ought to be undertaken which is far less involving and frustrating, and that is to label and define all of the communities of practice within your target group. The trick is, when defining these, how recursive should you be? The entire organization is a large super-community itself, and so forth. Really, just use your best judgment on what defines a finite CoP within your target set based on departments and then scale within them. Also, weigh this with the results obtained from training needs assessment. It’s all about discretion on your part as a leader, but trust your instincts here, they’re not likely to steer you wrong.

With these communities of practice clearly defined, and your proposed new learning clearly outlined, it is now easy to see what basic information sets should be assigned to each CoP. Now, it is easy to use Venn diagrams to see where overlap may exist so that some learning outside each sphere of influence should cross over.

From here, a relevant and logical flow of information can be determined, and from this a strategy formed. With CoP in the picture, strategizing for organizational learning just became exponentially easier didn’t it?

And it is thus that we see that organizational learning and communities of practice are in fact crucially integral to one another from the start.

Readers who want to learn more about organizational learning should click here to find out how to go about setting manageable goals.

Jason Silberman
Jason is the former Lead Author & Editor of TrainingStation Blog
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