community-based learning part of your organization’s plan for capturing
all that the new economy has to offer? If not, do you know why it should
be? To be a successful, high-performance organization in the new economy,
your enterprise will not only need to embrace the vision of the learning
organization; you will want to create and grow learning communities.
Etienne Wenger and William
Snyder, two leading practitioners of communities of practice, enlighten
us with their of community-based learning experience and explain through
real-world examples how and why such approaches work. It’s a helpful introduction
to the topic and a good beginning for anyone designing a new-economy learning
Most organizations fall
short when they try to reinvent themselves as learning organizations.
The typical approach to workplace learning often merely reflects traditional
school models: classrooms, rote memorization, individual study, smart
teacher-naïve student, etc. Though the "school model" is
not without merit for some kinds of learning in some kinds of situations,
it is dangerously limited if pursued as the be-all and end-all of workplace
education. It fails to recognize one of the most natural of all learning
processes, learning through interactions and relationships in networks
of others who are experiencing and working on the same challenges and
tasks. People learn in communities of other people working on the same
things. They learn from other people, and consciously or unconsciously
teach other members, through a matrix of relationships and social exchanges.
They learn from situations that arise in those communities, and through
the joint conversations, they engage in about problems to be solved.
The traditional school
model labors under two assumptions that are flawed as a universal prescription
for acquiring new knowledge. The first is that learning involves loading
up people’s brains with information, like gasoline into a car engine.
The second assumption is that learning only takes place in the context
of formal education events such as training classes or on-line teaching
modules. These assumptions suggest that life just requires us to apply
the information that has been formally poured into our heads.
Life though, is not just
application and today’s knowledge worker is not just an engine in a car.
Learning is an integral part of life itself, and the lessons come not
only from individual experience, but from the experience of others, transmitted
through relationships and networks of social interactions, and reinforced
by a sense of membership in the group that affirms and guides what any
participant knows. Learning is an often unseen, but nonetheless powerful
byproduct—or in some cases driver of—a group’s social life. Think how
much you know through participation in various communities: your native
language learned through membership in your family; the elements of sexuality
acquired through playground discussions with adolescent peers; ways of
working with customers through conversations, advice, and remonstrations
from company colleagues. Likely such lessons were very much more powerful
than if you had been told to read about them in a book or sit through
a class. In the new economy, learning architects are embracing the natural
designs of group learning experience and translating those designs to
new organizational cultures and approaches.
Social Communities and
the New Economy Organization
Many organizations are
pursuing community-based learning as a complement to the more traditional
approaches of "knowledge transfer." They do so not through some
"new age" embrace of "more human processes," but rather
out of a practical realization that this kind of learning is required
to deliver the results demanded by the higher performance imperatives
of today’s hypercompetition. Specific drivers of community-based learning
- the need for people
to share knowledge across business units due to globalization and demands
for coordination to achieve greater scale¾ and the corresponding
understanding that such sharing depends critically on social relationships.
- the growing recognition
that the most valuable knowledge in an organization is "tacit"
and not easily codified in documents or explained in a formal setting
- the increasing realization
that most fields of expertise are now too complex for any one person
to master and thus collective intelligence must be brought to bear to
solve important problems.
Examples abound of community-based
learning. In commercial or not-for-profit organizations, they typically
appear as informal or semi-formal networks of practitioners with similar
responsibilities in different geographical or functional domains or even
across organizational boundaries (e.g., safety engineers in a manufacturing
complex, Unix developers all working on a similar software problem, development
economists in different organizations working on water supply issues,
etc.). A critical dimension of such communities is the shared practice
of the members—people working with their hands, minds, and intuitions
on the same discipline or set of problems. In fact, much of the discussion
of community-based learning is in the context of so-called "communities
of practice"—and the examples that follow help highlight how important
shared practice is to the business value of these learning communities.
Our experience with such leading organizations as DaimlerChrysler, the
World Bank, Hewlett Packard, the Veterans Administration, McKinsey &
Co., and IBM—has reinforced for us the perennial truths of community-based
learning among practitioners. Moreover, the practice communities of these
enterprises have become, in all cases, either a central or very strong
component of the overall learning-organization strategy. A more detailed
look at one case—DaimlerChrysler—illustrates the power of good social
Communities of Practice
In 1989, DaimlerChrysler’s
Chrysler division shifted from a functional structure to a platform-based
structure (defined by vehicle groups such as small car, large car, Jeep,
minivan, and truck) in order to reduce cycle time and product-development
costs. In making this shift, the division found that functional competence
in component areas (chassis, electronics, body, and powertrain) was compromised
by the new structure. In an effort to increase performance by reducing
cycle time, the division unintentionally reduced functional competence
in components because the change in organizational structure brought about
a change in social context.
To avoid losing its functional
competence under the new platform-based structure, the Chrysler division
has developed communities of practice called "tech clubs." Tech
clubs are organized to maintain deep expertise in specific functional
areas across car platforms, such as brake design, seats, or windshield
wipers. Members meet regularly to discuss questions in their product development
areas. Clubs analyze variations in practice, set standards, and recommend
vendor selections and specifications. Engineers who participate in the
clubs are responsible for developing and maintaining an "Engineering
Book of Knowledge," a database that captures information on compliance
standards, supplier specifications, and best practices. New engineers
rely on attendance in tech club meetings as a means to get up to speed
more quickly, to build a professional network, and generally to find their
sense of identity as product-development engineers. These tech clubs differ
from typical formal functional structures because community-nominated
chairpersons lead them and much of their work is done on a voluntary basis.
This combination of a car-platform structure and cross-cutting communities
of practice has already cut product-development cycle time by half.
Communities of practice
are groups of people who share expertise and passion about a topic and
interact on an ongoing basis to further their learning in this domain.
This includes engineers who design brakes, artists who congregate in a
café to discuss a new style, nurses who gather at lunch and talk
about their patients, gang members who need to know how to live on the
street, or first-line managers commiserating about their delicate position
between management and the front-line. Community of practice members typically
solve problems, discuss insights, and share information. They talk about
their lives, interests, and ambitions. They mentor and coach each other,
make plans for community activities (meetings and conferences as well
as social gatherings), and develop tools and frameworks that become part
of the common knowledge of the community. Over time, these mutual interactions
and relationships build up a shared body of knowledge and a sense of identity.
In examining the Chrysler
division, and many organizations like it, we observe a number of trends:
are becoming more formally recognized and supported by their organizations.
As companies become global, they depend on their abilities to apply
their competencies more broadly than ever before.
Communities have become the
cornerstone for knowledge strategies in a growing number of organizations.
Communities are the centerpiece of the World Bank’s strategy to share
knowledge among developing countries in all aspects of development.
Specialists in urban services to the poor, for example, share their
experience across continents to fulfill their commitment to eliminate
Communities are also expanding beyond the traditional organizational
boundaries to include vendors, partners, and customers. These fluid
business-alliance and partnership networks depend on new kinds of inter-organizational
communities to develop the trust, foster the learning, and build the
new practices these networks need to thrive. These inter-organizational
communities, like communities inside companies, rely on internal leadership,
shared passion, and ongoing relationships.
E-commerce both generates and is influenced by learning communities.
Most businesses think of e-commerce in terms of efficient transactions
and new access to customers. The greatest potential of e-commerce, though,
lies in moving from a strictly market view of customer relationships
to an approach that treats customers as members of a learning community
organized around a related set of products and services.
Communities of practice
are valuable to learning organizations because they represent a completely
new layer of organizational structure previously not addressed by traditional
business units. Nevertheless, communities also present an unfamiliar challenge
for managers. They differ from traditional structures in several respects:
- You foster communities
of practice; you don’t create them. Nurturing healthy communities is
more like tending a garden than building an engine—they thrive on the
personal energies and relationships of members.
- You depend on members’
passion for the topic that brings the community together. Passion drives
people to share and advance their collective knowledge.
- You count on internal
leaders and community organizers. Thought leaders develop new ideas
and methods while organizers coordinate learning activities and initiatives
in ways that satisfy both members’ needs and stakeholder demands.
- You must learn to leverage
the strategic role of communities in the knowledge economy. In this
economy, the knowledge capital that communities steward is your most
critical strategic asset. They develop and coordinate key competencies
and enable you to focus formal structures on customers and processes.
A community-based approach
must be part of any serious learning-organization strategy. The principles
we outline represent a high-level roadmap to give a running start to anyone
interested in unlocking the social capital of their organization. There
is an urgent need to create a new set of management tools and methods
for developing communities through their lifecycle, and for designing
organizational environments that will enable communities to thrive. Look
for more insights and deeper understanding about this critical form of
learning to come forward in the future—through the shared practice of
those working together on this next frontier.
The best way to develop
community-leadership expertise is to practice what the theory teaches
and participate in communities about communities of practice. Such a community
would include a toolkit that represents the best thinking and methods
of participants from a variety of leading organizations. It would feature
regular events, on-line resources and forums, workshops on advanced topics,
and ongoing action research. We believe that such a learning system not
only offers the best way to develop expertise in this area, but also models
how future organizations will go about learning in areas critical to their
and Bill are now organizing such a learning consortium
on communities of practice. Consider this an invitation to join—and contact
them for more details. To learn more, take a look at their recent article
in the Harvard Business Review (with a conversation in their on-line forum)
or their website.
You can reach
Etienne Wenger directly at firstname.lastname@example.org,
Bill Snyder at email@example.com.