Will the community of practice get started? A test and the effect of titles

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 9, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

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:


  1. joitske says:

    Thanks for this practical one! I’m also struggling in defining appropriate levels at times, but have the impression for open (public) inter-organisational cops you may target a wider ‘name’ than for corporate cops. I think the naming is really important indeed!

  2. I think you are right Joitske. The ActKM (a public CoP) was named with a scope covering all of knowledge management. There have been a number of times when we think that the scope should be narrower but such a move would significantly fracture the group. In ActKM’s case the scope has emerged from the conversations. For example, you are unlikely to see a deeply technical discussion on ActKM but you will find many theoretical discussions on ways to view the discipline. The discussion act as an attractor for certain people and a repellent for others.
    It’s for this reason why I think you can’t be too rigid with defining the scope. It will adapt with the needs and interests of the members.
    Another way to look at the scope is to think about the level of abstraction occuring in the discussion. If the discussion is too detailed for the audience the audience will get bored and leave. If the discussion is too high-level and assumes everyone knows the jargon and acroymns the audience is unable to understand and will leave. Like the three bears the level of abstraction in the discussion has to be just right.

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