Communities of Practice

It’s said that a wise person learns from his mistakes. A wiser one learns from others’ mistakes. But the wisest person of all learns from others’ successes.

—Zen proverb adapted by John C. Maxwell

Communities of Practice Abstract

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly [1]. Figure 1 illustrates how CoPs are characterized by an area of shared interest (the domain); a shared body of knowledge, experiences, and techniques (the practices); and a self-selected group of individuals who care enough about the topic to participate in regular interactions (the community).

Figure 1. Communities of practice have three distinct characteristics. All must be present for a group to meet the definition of a CoP.
Figure 1. Communities of practice have three distinct characteristics. All must be present for a group to meet the definition of a CoP.

Healthy CoPs have a very distinct ethos built on professional networking, personal relationships, shared knowledge, and a common set of skills. Combined with voluntary participation, CoPs provide knowledge workers with opportunities beyond their assigned tasks on an Agile Release Train (ART) to experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose [2]. CoPs provide practitioners with the venue to exchange knowledge and skills with community members from across the entire organization. This cross-pollination provides access to a wide range of expertise to help with technical challenges, fuels continuous improvement, and empowers more meaningful contributions to the larger goals of the enterprise. Companies benefit from rapid problem-solving, improved quality, exponential synergy across multiple domains, and increased retention of top talent.

Details

Lean-Agile promotes cross-functional teams and programs that facilitate value delivery in the Enterprise. Similarly, Lean Thinking emphasizes organizing people with different skills around a Value Stream. However, developers need to talk with other developers within or outside of the team context, testers need to talk with other testers, Product Owners need to communicate with their peers from other Agile Teams, and so on.

This is critical for leveraging the multiple experiences and different types of practical knowledge available from different people at scale. That is what drives craftsmanship and persistent knowledge acquisition and facilitates the adoption of new methods and techniques.

Such domain-focused interaction is often supported by Communities of Practice (CoPs)—informal practitioner networks designed specifically for efficient knowledge-sharing and exploration across teams, trains, and the entire organization.

Figure 2. Role based CoP: Members interact to share best practices with practitioners performing similar roles on in other teams and on other trains.
Figure 2. Role-based CoP: Members interact to share best practices with practitioners performing similar roles on other teams and on other trains.

Figure 2 provides an example of role-based CoPs, the most common form of community organization. For example, Scrum Masters from different Agile Teams may form a CoP to exchange facilitation best practices and experiences in building highly productive Agile Teams. As CoPs start to gain acceptance and participation, topic-based communities like those shown in Figure 3 often begin to emerge. The membership of these CoPs can be far more diverse. A CoP on the topic of DevOps could attract participants from almost any role in the organization.

Figure 3. Topic based CoP: Members can come from any part of the organization based on a shared interest in a variety of subjects, concepts, and practices.
Figure 3. Topic-based CoP: Members can come from any part of the organization based on a shared interest in a variety of subjects, concepts, and practices.

An automated testing CoP could be comprised of test engineers and developers who are interested in advancing these skills. An architecture and design CoP would foster the adoption of practices such as emergent design, intentional system architecture, Continuous Integration, and refactoring. It could also support the effort put into building and maintaining the Architectural Runway, foster designing for testability and deployability, deprecate old platforms, and more. Still others may be formed around Agile coaching, continuous integration, continuous delivery, coding standards, and other new practices and processes.

Organizing a Community of Practice

CoPs are highly organic. Like most living organisms, CoPs have a natural life cycle that begins with an idea for a new community and ends with the disbanding of the CoP once community members feel the group has achieved its objectives or is no longer providing value. Figure 4 depicts the typical life cycle of a CoP.

Figure 4. Like most living things, CoPs typically follow a five stage lifecycle from conceptualization to closure[3]].
Figure 4. Like most living things, CoPs typically follow a five-stage life cycle, from conceptualization to closure [3].
CoPs are formed in the committing stage by a group of 3 – 5 practitioners who share a passion and a felt need for a community based on a particular domain. As shown in Figure 5, this group forms the core team that will organize, charter, market, nurture, and operate the community in its formative stages. As momentum for the new community increases, the core team expands the circle by inviting early active participants to help shape the definition and direction of the CoP. This includes the community’s shared vision, purpose, roles, strategies for interaction, marketing, and communications. The largest group is often made up of occasional members—individuals who participate when specific topics of interest are addressed or when they have something to contribute to the group. Peripheral participants feel a connection to the community but engage on a limited basis. These could be newcomers or those who have a more casual interest in community activities. Transactional members are the least connected to the community and do not consider themselves to be members. They may connect only to access community resources or to provide a specific service to the CoP (for example, website support).

Figure 5. CoP members exhibit multiple levels of participation. Members can be move freely among each level as needs and interests evolve.
Figure 5. CoP members exhibit multiple levels of participation. Members can move freely across the levels as needs and interests evolve.

It is common for people to move in and out of various levels of participation and commitment over time. Giving members the freedom to determine their own level of interaction and interest gives CoPs a unique organic ethos that is different from other work groups, tiger teams, and committees. Natural movement among communities and levels is healthy as it allows new knowledge and fresh ideas to flow across the organization in ways that are different but complimentary to formal information-sharing constructs.

Operating a Community of Practice

Since CoPs are informal and self-organizing by nature, members are empowered to design the type and frequency of interactions that best meet the needs of the community. For developers this could involve hackathons, coding dojos, and tech talks. Other formats include meetups, brown bags, webinars, and asynchronous communications through social business platforms such as Slack, Confluence, Jive, etc.

In the operating stage the CoP members continuously evolve using periodic retrospectives similar to those used by Agile teams. Core team members focus on maintaining the health of the community by keeping things simple and informal, fostering trust, ensuring rapid flow of communication and shared awareness, and growing the shared body of knowledge developed within the CoP.

Organization leaders support CoPs by empowering and encouraging CoP formation. Leaders should continuously communicate the value of CoPs, highlight CoP success stories, and recognize the efforts of CoP volunteers. The organization can also support CoPs by providing meeting spaces, logistical support, and communications infrastructure.

Eventually individual CoPs run their course, and community members should consider retiring the CoP so that practitioners can divert their energies to other communities. Signals that a community has reached this stage include a steady decline in event participation, reduced activity on collaboration sites, and input from community retrospectives. When a CoP is retired, leaders should make it a positive event where community successes are celebrated, key contributors recognized, and ongoing participation in other CoPs encouraged. Through these celebrations, CoP experiences often become part of company lore, and it is not uncommon for a healthy CoP retirement to spawn 3 – 5 new communities.

Final Thoughts

The Innovation and Planning Iteration in the ART PI presents a great time for CoPs to hold learning sessions, formal or informal, as well as other activities such as coding dojos, coaching clinics, and the like.

It is the role of Lean-Agile Leaders to encourage and support people’s desire to improve. This helps the enterprise and builds the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers, as is discussed in SAFe Principle #8. CoPs also embody the ideals of respect for people, innovation, and relentless improvement characterized in the House of Lean.


Learn More

[1] Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
[2] Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009.
[3] The Distance Consulting Company. Community of Practice Start-Up Kit, 2000.

Last update: 23 May 2016