We’ve been helping one of our large corporate clients this week make sense of a series of social network charts and during the process the team identified a strong community of practice which appeared to be having a conspicuous integrating effect on their division. In this case the community was a network of hygienists.
This observation started the group talking about what it takes to establish and sustain a community of practice. Of course this is an enormous and complex topic but it did remind me of a story Etienne Wenger told me which I’m fond of retelling.
Etienne was helping a car manufacturer establish a community and practice and the first thought was to connect the company’s engineers. They took this idea to potential community members and discovered there was little interest: the scope was too broad. ‘Yeh sure I’m an engineer but I have nothing in common with chemical engineers.’ The second attempt was to narrow the scope to automotive engineers: still little interest. It wasn’t until they reduced the scope to brake engineers did they find a group of people who thought they had enough in common, a shared identity, to band together as a community of practice.
I now have a simple test to gauge whether a community of practice might form. When someone says, “I would like to start a community of practice.” I ask, “Can you describe the potential members by completing the following sentence? I am a …..” If they can fill in the blank in a way that people can passionately identify with the descriptor then there is a chance a community might emerge. Let me give you an example. I was helping the Department of Defence design a community of practice for project managers. ‘I am a project manager’ was a strong descriptor and so we knew we had a chance. During the design process the client has another job type for which they wanted a community to support simply called ‘technical’. ‘I am a technical’ didn’t inspire so we knew it was unachievable. The ‘I am a …” test is easy and effective.
Our corporate client made a good point during our SNA discussions: the titles they bestow on people could effect whether someone identifies with a community or not. As it happens ‘hygienist’ is a common title and role in the organisation which might help new hygienists seek out and find one another. If you weren’t called a hygienist but did hygienist work in a large corporation you might never realise you should connect to the hygienist community. Renaming roles might be one small initiative in a portfolio of activities you might consider to get a community of practice started.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: