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 organization.
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 demonstrations
from company colleagues. Likely such lessons were 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.
and the New Economy Organization
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
- 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
- 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".
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 design.
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 the
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
In examining the
Chrysler division, and many organizations like it, we observe a
number of trends:
Communities 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
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 urban slums.
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
- 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.
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 competitive advantage.
Wenger and Bill Snyder are now organizing such a learning consortium
on communities of practice. Consider this an invitation to join.
To learn more, take a look at their article
in the Harvard Business Review (with a conversation in their on-line
or their website. You
can reach Etienne Wenger directly at email@example.com,
Bill Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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