Communities of Practice have been around for a very long time. Many have thrived and many have suffered a horrific death. With the advent of social media there are even more opportunities for people to come together, exchange ideas and learn from each other. There is definite added value here, but do we also need to dedicate time for the face-to-face interactions that generate benefits that cannot be achieved online?
I first came across the term in the early 2000s when I read Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier by Etienne Wenger and William Snyder. The concept intrigued me because it didn’t limit working relationships and exchanges to one company, but rather opened-up the concept of working relationships to people with shared expertise. The participants can “share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems.” The authors state that “communities of practice can drive strategy, generate new lines of business, solve problems, promote the spread of best practices, develop people’s professional skills, and help companies recruit and retain talent.”
The rise of LinkedIn and other social and business networking sites have enabled individuals to more easily expand beyond the walls of their own companies. LinkedIn groups have allowed for more informal communities of practices where members can solicit feedback from a larger audience and debate topics that matter to them. Group members can exchange information in a convenient way where each can choose when to engage and when to step away from the conversation.
While there is value in this type of interaction and access to others, these virtual groups are oftentimes so large that the sense of community is lost. For many of us, we are members of so many different groups that it is impossible to be engaged in each of them in a meaningful way. How many times do we see the group emails pop up on our phone only to rapidly delete each email because we don’t have time to look at even one of the posts? Should we be a member of a group if we are not willing to be an active participant in the discussions? Maybe we joined the group to bolster our profile, add to our growing number of connections or solicit members for new job opportunities.
As the community expands and the commitment is less stringent, the intimacy of the membership is diminished. If you are not held accountable for being an active and participative member, you run the risk of only being engaged when you want something. The virtual community allows you to hide when you want to be invisible and surface on-demand.
Technology allows us to be members of multiple communities of practices, but I feel it is important to not lose sight of the value of communities that are small in number, represent different companies, meet in-person on a regular basis and hold each of the members accountable for their participation. These are communities comprised of true peers who support their own success by adding outside insight that supports the success of the other members.
UMT Consulting Group has formed a community of practice of Philadelphia area executives who own and are leading large program and portfolio management operations for some of the most prominent companies in the Tri-state area. The in-person meetings, hosted by the group members, allow for information sharing and networking with others who have similar responsibilities, objectives and challenges. The approaches used and lessons learned are meant to support the success of the group members. If the group is of interest to you please contact Kurt Foehl @ 610.247.5455.