What are Communities of Practice

What are Communities of Practice

A Community of Practice is an informal group, organized by peers, who share a collective goal to achieve. These are knowledge-sharing forums, where participants come to learn from one another with a focus on problem solving and innovation. Participation is welcomed from all UA staff, faculty and students; organizational hierarchy is checked at the door.

Although CoPs are informal, each have a facilitator to “kick off” discussions, coordinate meeting logistics and ensure an appropriate collaborative atmosphere.

It’s all about “Practice” and the Practitioner

Communities of Practice gather to discuss topics related to a specific job task or role that each member has in common.

This creates an environment of shared experience that enables participants to compare methods and processes – benefiting all. This also establishes a “safe space” for education on topics either too detailed or otherwise ill-suited to broader forums.

A note for Non-Practitioners:
Are you interested in a subject, but not in an active practitioner-peer role yourself? Not to worry! UA provides many avenues for informative engagement – such as mailing lists, workshops and formal working groups. Side-partnering with a related CoP to share educational material via these methods can be a great way to stay plugged in to a subject.

Role in knowledge distribution

Knowledge and learning can be very social in nature. Within a workspace, for example, we idea-share with one another – trying out new approaches or solutions. Ideas get tossed back and forth and are refined until they are ready to become actions. At a campus level, this creates reservoirs of tacit and explicit knowledge:

  • Tacit Knowledge is the knowledge or know-how, that resides in everyone’s head. These are skillsets built up over the years through memories, experiences and learnings.
  • Explicit Knowledge is codified knowledge that gets deliberately documented, shared and communicated.

Both are essential commodities within an organization. Establishing peer communities to help distribute these knowledge sets ensures that developed abilities and solutions are not “siloed” away from collective utility, or are lost all-together when individuals exit the University.

What Communities of Practice are not

CoPs are not formal UA committees, teams or governance groups. In those settings, major objectives are generally pre-established by management and/or administration members, with corresponding structures, goals and deadlines.

Goals within each Community of Practice are negotiated by its members – who participate because they personally identify with the subject matter and the objectives they endeavor to accomplish together. This makes the value of each CoP very much tied to the specific utility it represents to the individuals who participate.  Communities that struggle to realize this utility over time may retire – and that’s ok! Creating a CoP should always be seen as an experiment.

Building together

As we work to foster Communities of Practice at the University of Alabama, we are by no means starting from scratch.

When we established this forum, there were already a number of organically-created collaborative groups throughout campus – and their support has been indispensable. The value of the time and enthusiasm of these partners can not be overstated and we are excited to grow our communities together!

On the topic of not starting from scratch, we continue to learn extensively from our research of other CoP communities already established at sister academic institutions. Materials produced by Stanford University’s CoP community have served as messaging inspiration as we craft methods for presenting key concepts to potential facilitators and future members alike. Forums established at the University of Michigan (HR) and University of Colorado (Faculty) provide templates for the tangible value communities can deliver for the broader campus mission.

Finally, we owe a huge thank you to those who participate. CoPs are about sharing, and the time you set aside makes our campus a healthier and more effective organization. Whether our respective capacities lie in a technical, administrative or pedagogical mission – disseminating knowledge across the campus and enabling a deeper culture of collaboration develops a better University of Alabama for us all.

Questions and answers

Are you interested in growing a group, or just curious to learn more about the underlying methods behind Communities of Practice? Check out our creating a community overview as well as our resources page for a listing of materials to answer common questions.

Additional CoP forums within High Ed