Communities of practice – the right brain of the organisation?

Posted by  Mark Schenk —January 5, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

Cool picture of the brainHappy New Year to everyone from the team at Anecdote.  We hope you are returning fresh and fully charged to take on 2006…

I have been thinking about a metaphor that describes communities of practice as ‘the right brain of the organisation’.  As we know, the right and left brains are described as performing different functions.  Neurosurgeon Richard Bergland describes them as follows: “…your left brain is your verbal and rational brain; it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters and words. …Your right brain is your non-verbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures, composed of ‘whole things’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers or letters or words.”  The right brain has parallel processing capacity and can detect patterns in large masses of information; it also copes more easily with vague or missing data.  Michael LeBoeuf postulates that creative thinking requires coordinating and using both sides of the brain.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see most organisations as having a predominantly left-brain focus, with hierarchical structures, emphasis on quantitative assessments and decision making based on numbers such as head count and return on investment, libraries full of strategies, doctrine, policy and procedure and formal lines of reporting and communication (to name but a few relevant characteristics).  Computers can also be described as an electronic extension of our left brains.

Communities of practice traverse most of the formal structures, processes and reporting hierarchies in organisations. They connect people and expertise irrespective of rank, location, specialisation or division.  Perhaps they allow us to access the ‘right-brain capabilities‘ of our organisations.  If this is the case, and if LeBoeuf is right, then communities of practice are not simply desirable in organisations, they are essential…

About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:


  1. Interesting post Mark. It makes me wonder what other organisational constructs might allow us to access the ‘right brain capabilities’ of an organsation. Perhaps the well connected individuals, perhaps the rare management team that is actually in touch with the front lines, perhaps something else. What do you think?

  2. Communauté de pratique : le cerveau droit de l’organisation ?

    Voici un billet de Anecdote [en] intitulé Communities of practice – the right brain of the organisation? [en]. Il nous présente une métaphore fort intéressente, soit qu’une communauté de pratique est le c&ocir…

  3. Mark Schenk says:

    Hi Andrew, good question. I also relate left brain thinking to management and right brain thinking to leadership. I don’t know where it came from, but I like the observation ‘managers read and write, leaders talk and listen’. Look for manifestations of the talk and listen approach and you will find connections to the orgainsation’s right brain. Management by wandering around (MBWA), planning activities using open space technology and activities using story and narrative are probably good examples of orgainsations trying to access their ‘right brain capabilities’.

  4. Mopsos says:

    CoPs on the right and hierarchies on the left

    Anecdote sees Communities of Practice as the right brain of a company. Interesting metaphor….

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