Vital behaviours for communities of practice

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 27, 2008
Filed in Collaboration

Over at the Influencer blog David Maxfield has written a four post series on improving teamwork based on one of the key insights from his co-authored book, also called Influencer, which is simply changing a few behaviours can drive a lot of change. David calls them vital behaviours.

For example, the two vital behaviours David believes are essential for effective teams are:

  • Whenever anyone has a concern, he or she speaks up and explains the concern in a complete, frank, and respectful way
  • Everyone holds everyone accountable for meeting expectations, for commitments, and for bad behaviour—regardless of role or position

This got me thinking. What are the vital behaviours for communities of practice?

This morning I was talking to Matt Moore about this and he suggested these two:

  • When someone asks a question members provide answers. No one is left hanging.
  • Before you ask a question you put some effort finding the answer and in doing so respect the everyone’s time

Both have a tragedy of the commons feel about them in that to continue to get value from the common (the community) you don’t just milk the system dry (ask questions but never answer).

Last night I gave a talk to the KMLF on Building a collaborative workplace and posed two vital behaviours for communities of practice:

  • community leaders meet regularly to shape and improve the community
  • community members band together in small groups to create things that are valuable to themselves and the entire community

While I think these vital behaviours are important I think we need to be mindful of the variety of orientations a community of practice might adopt of just find the orientation has emerged because there are likely to be vital behaviours for each one. The idea of community orientations was introduced to me by Nancy White. It’s an idea she has been working on with John Smith and Etienne Wenger in preparation for their new book on technology for CoPs. John has a good graphic on slideshare that lists the orientations as:

  • meetings
  • projects
  • access to expertise
  • relationships
  • context
  • community cultivation
  • individual participation
  • content publishing
  • open-ended conversation

I suspect my second vital behaviour about members banding together only makes sense in project orientations. The other three might be universal. What do you think? What are the vital behaviours for successful CoPs?

Before you answer it’s worth considering what David says about what is a vital behaviour:

Here are some “vital behaviors” that aren’t really behaviors at all: “Respect all team members,” “Achieve all team targets.” The first is a quality, while the second is a result. The vital behaviors describe actions people can perform. A good test is to ask yourself, “If I told 10 people to demonstrate this vital behavior, would they all perform the same actions?”

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. This may be an aspect of ‘respect all team members’ but active listening seems to be another vital behavior in CoP. I participate in one CoP that is turning into a talk fest and thus loosing some of its ability to be a forum for truly sharing ideas and exploring divergent viewpoints. When members aggressively listen to what the speaker is saying, whether they are asking a question or providing an answer, there is more opportunity for an exchange of knowledge than when members are merely politely silent while someone else talks.

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