by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder
Although communities of practice develop organically, a carefully crafted design can drive their evolution. In this excerpt from a new book, the authors detail seven design principles.The payoff ? Knowledge management that works.
Seven principles for cultivating communities of practice
In Silicon Valley, a community of circuit designers meets for a lively debate about the merits of two different designs developed by one of the participants. Huddling together over the circuit diagrams, they analyze possible faults, discuss issues of efficiency, propose alternatives, tease out each other’s assumptions, and make the case for their view.
In Boston, a group of social workers who staff a help line meet to discuss knotty client problems, express sympathy as they discuss difficulties, probe to understand each other’s feelings, and gently offer suggestions. Their meetings are often deeply challenging and sometimes highly emotional.
The fact-driven, sometimes argumentative, meetings of the Silicon Valley circuit designers are extremely different from the compassionate meetings of the social workers in Boston. But despite their differences, the circuit designers’ and social workers’ communities are both vibrant and full of life. Their energy is palpable to both the regular participants and visitors
Because communities of practice are voluntary...
what makes them successful over time is their ability to generate enough excitement, relevance, and value to attract and engage members. Although many factors, such as management support or an urgent problem, can inspire a community, nothing can substitute for this sense of aliveness.
How do you design for aliveness ?
Certainly you cannot contrive or dictate it. You cannot design it in the traditional sense of specifying a structure or process and then implementing it. Still, aliveness does not always happen automatically.
Many natural communities never grow beyond a network of friends because they fail to attract enough participants. Many intentional communities fall apart soon after their initial launch because they don’t have enough energy to sustain themselves. Communities, unlike teams and other structures, need to invite the interaction that makes them alive.
For example, a park is more appealing to use if its location provides a short cut between destinations. It invites people to sit for lunch or chat if it has benches set slightly off the main path, visible, but just out of earshot, next to something interesting like a flower bed or a patch of sunlight.
The structure of organizational relationships and events also invite a kind of interaction.
Meetings that contain some open time during a break or lunch, with enough space for people to mingle or confer privately, invite one-on-one discussion and relationship building. Just as a good park has varied spaces for neighborhood baseball games, quiet chats, or solitary contemplation, a well-designed community of practice allows for participating in group discussion, having one-on-one conversations, reading about new ideas, or watching experts duel over cutting-edge issues. Even though communities are voluntary and organic, good community design can invite, even evoke, aliveness.
Designing to evoke aliveness is different from most organizational design, which traditionally focuses on creating structures, systems, and roles that achieve relatively fixed organizational goals and fit well with other structural elements of the organization. Even when organizations are designed to be flexible and responsive to their environment, organic growth and aliveness are typically not primary design goals.
For communities of practice, however, they are paramount, even though communities also need to contribute to organizational goals
Designing for aliveness requires a different set of design principles. The goal of community design is to bring out the community’s own internal direction, character, and energy. The principles we developed to do this focus on the dilemmas at the heart of designing communities of practice. What is the role of design for a "human institution" that is, by definition, natural, spontaneous, and self-directed ? How do you guide such an institution to realize itself, to become "alive ?"
From our experience we have derived seven principles
1.Design for evolution.
2.Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
3.Invite different levels of participation.
4.Develop both public and private community spaces.
5.Focus on value.
6.Combine familiarity and excitement.
7.Create a rhythm for the community.
These design principles are not recipes, but rather embody our understanding of how elements of design work together. They reveal the thinking behind a design. Making design principles explicit makes it possible to be more flexible and improvisational.
Excepted with permission from Cultivating Communities of Practice : A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, 2002