Leveraging a 1000-year-old idea at work

Photo credit: Joachim Müllerchen

Photo credit: Joachim Müllerchen

If you wanted to be a metal-worker 1000 years ago, your best chance was to join a guild, a community of other metal workers from whom you would learn your craft.

Today, when you aspire to rise through the ranks in your firm, you get a short orientation and are left to figure things out on your own. Sure, you attended university but nothing prepared you for how to navigate your particular firm, understand its practices, and get things done. As a result, you may spend years, even your entire career, on a grossly unproductive meander in the hopes of becoming more effective.

Inside firms, the modern equivalent of the guild is the community of practice. It’s a construct so incredibly useful and powerful that every firm should implement it. But few do – and even those few rarely realize their full potential.

Even better than guilds

Guilds were extremely useful as centers of knowledge. Early guilds led to universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in the 13th century. Our ideas of apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen were born and institutionalized in the guilds. A masterpiece was, literally, a piece of work that you had to create to demonstrate your mastery of the craft and earn a place in the guild.

But the key to the guilds’ success was control. Control of information allowed them to preserve control over their trade. And that control, in time, actually made trade less efficient while creating rigid social structures. People as different as Adam Smith and Karl Marx grew to reject guilds.

Communities of Practice address that. Like the guilds, it’s “through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.” But now they can do so in an open, accessible way. Using modern tools, a single Community of Practice can help thousands of people in a firm get better at what they do while fostering meaningful, purposeful relationships at work.

Why so few of them?

The body of evidence about the value of communities is growing. More and more people are writing about them since Etienne Wenger’s seminal books over a decade ago. Harold Jarche, for example, writes about how they enable the integration of work and learning. Nick Milton writes about their business benefits, what makes them successful, and provides a rich set of resources for managing them.

I’ve written about communities of practice, too, as we’ve implemented them at our firm. In the year that’s passed, they’ve been valuable, but something’s been missing.

What’s makes communities of practice powerful is that they tap into people’s intrinsic motivation to become better at what they do and to connect with people like them. But in the effort to avoid impinging on that motivation, they are too often distanced from the authority and resources of the corporate hierarchy. (Nick Milton writes: “all products they create are for the benefit of the community members. Communities of practice generally are voluntary, and often have little or no funding from the host company.”)

In an attempt to make them less formal, we have too few of them in most companies. And the ones we have are too often weakened adjuncts at work instead of at the core of work.

Imagine this

I’ve experienced both the promise and the pitfalls of Communities of Practice. And so this is something I’m working on: trying to preserve communities as an important part of a more humane and effective workplace while also relating them more explicitly to existing organizational and performance management structures.

Imagine if, when you joined your firm, HR directed you to an online community of dozens (or thousands) or people who had jobs at the firm similar to yours. Imagine all the material you needed to do your job was there – the templates, the processes, the policies. But so was all of the training relevant to your job and views from peers on what was most valuable. All of the formal certifications people got to mark their advanced proficiency. All of the people who could help you when had a question about work. All of the jobs.

Imagine if HR, instead of compartmentalizing what they do for employees into different subdivisions, actually created the human centers that bring all that work together. And imagine if communities, instead of being volunteer armies off to the side, actually included community roles recognized by HR and determined, for example, HR training curricula and job certifications based on proficiency instead of corporate title.

Do you have communities of practice at your firm? If not, why not? If you do, what’s working and not working?

After 1000 years, it’s time to finally make this powerful idea a formal part of how we all get better at what we do.


About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
This entry was posted in Management, Social Business and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Leveraging a 1000-year-old idea at work

  1. Cornelia Levy-Bencheton says:

    In answer to your question about presence of CoP in my firm, the answer would be a no. That said, I positively embrace the concept and fully understand what the benefits can be.

    I am wondering, however, where/ how does a company start? Is there a way of preventing what you describe can happen to an individual in a company who, without support, embarks upon a “grossly unproductive meander in the hopes of becoming more effective.”

    You seem to place the responsibility for implementing a CoP with HR. But are there forms, templates, processes, step-by-step methods somewhere out there to help? Or, do you have to sign up for a few courses that may be time consuming and expensive?
    Thank you for your SOS.

    • John Stepper says:

      “So how do you start one?” is a very good question and speaks to exactly my point in the post.

      On the one hand, anyone can start one and lead by contribution. That might in fact be the most popular way. Yet at some point that contribution takes up a lot of time. At work, you’ll eventually need some approval/sponsorship to recognize that amount of time and contribution. Without it, you’ll hit a “grass ceiling” of grassroots movements. People care and contribute – up to a point.

      I hear this all the time at work. We’ve tried a few things to address it including divisional councils, collaboration boards, and the like but nothing has worked as well as I’d like. That’s why I’m suggesting an integration with HR – making the communities at the center of what they do – might be the transformative step I’m looking for. The trick, besides getting engagement of HR, is not killing the spirit of the communities in the process.

      Would love to talk about your exact case over coffee.

      • Sam G says:

        Here’s a different perspective… “Success means you never have to train anyone”. I think the role for Learning here is to spend their time supporting the lines of business to train themselves rather than their usual mode of delivering training. Easy peasy, right?

        In addition, learning typically reports up through HR etc. A (much) different dynamic with this type of approach would be that you would truly need the Learning people to gain the trust and buy in of people they’ve normally just “talked at”, to be able to build the communities with the tacit knowledge that is required to make them valuable.

        Ok, that’s enough for now… I care and contribute – up to a point! 🙂

      • Sam G says:

        Having said that, you are exactly right in thinking that community needs to truly be “in the flow of work” as opposed to something that people meet about once a month. So definitely your post is worth exploring further.

      • John Stepper says:

        Hello, Sam. I know you’re familiar with consulting firms. And I would think those firms, which embraced knowledge management and have a rich tradition of hiring young people and developing them from associate to partner, would be fertile environments for CoPs.

        Do you know of any in the big consulting firms?

      • Sam G says:

        I don’t know of any John but will keep on the look out… they may well exist but I’m not aware of them.

  2. John says:

    CoP’s would be good but as noted, the corporate heirarchy needs to be involved. Sadly, at my previous company the CFO/COO pitted teams/people against each other on the theory this was competitive motivation. It was an X wins Y loses atmosphere. This hurt morale and productivity. If CoP’s and other collaborative efforts were embraced much more could have been accomplished and in shorter time frames.

    Keep preaching John. Your ideas will take hold and help those willing to accept the message..

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, John. I don’t underestimate how entrenched current management practices are. Nor how little preaching does to change them. 🙂

      I’m hoping to emulate Deming in my own small way and chronicle change while I implement it.


  3. Cindy says:

    You could set up facebook groups for the different groups. Use combination of face to face and fb

  4. We’ve had some success with COPs at Virgin Media with our Training and Development department (part of HR) building communities around courses. They now tell employees that “the course is the community” and it’s working rather well. One of these days we should swap notes John!

  5. Also worth looking out for a book being published this year by Tom Standage at the Economist on social networking prior to the digital age. The book will focus quite heavily on the rise and fall of guilds.

  6. Scott Berkun says:

    Many forms of community have suffered in the modern age. While there are plenty of professional groups, including ones for software developers and designers, they rarely practice their work together. Instead the meet to talk, network and support each other in other ways.

    Professional conferences often offer a poor simulation of a guild experience in workshops and tutorials, where one expert tries to teach hands on skills, but these communities are short lived. The idea of apprenticeship doesn’t mean much if it only lasts 8 hours.

    The better managers I know see part of their job to create communities of practice in their teams. They might not be thinking about guilds, but they do hiring young people with the expectation of coaching them through work, and giving them assignments in line with their (hopefully growing) abilities.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks for your comment, Scott, and for your books which I like very much. (“Confessions of a public speaker” was particularly bold and useful for me.)

      Your last point about good managers developing employees is important because, while it does happen, it happens so rarely that companies must look elsewhere in addition.

      Instead of individuals playing manager roulette – hoping for a capable one and hoping they stay long enough and hoping they actually care – one of my aims for institutionalizing communities of practice at work is to help employees improve the odds. That, in a group of other practitioners of varying proficiency, an individual can form enough relevant, meaningful relationships (and access to knowledge) to help them develop in a way that’s suitable for them. That truly would be better for the individual and better for the firm.

      Now that you’ve reminded me to read more of your work, what’s your favorite? “Mindfire”? “Myths of Innovation?”

  7. John, thought provoking as ever! It’s interesting to consider the lifecycle of learning; guilds were initially highly successful ways ot transferring skills and knowledge, until they tipped over into control and restricted access.

    And this connects to Sam G’s comments about HR needing to get involved with learning. There, too, I have witnessed a lifecycle movign towards control and restriction. I’ve lost count of the times someone in HR has told a manager he or she needs to “go through them” on all people development matters or that only “approved vendors” can help.

    What would you see as the Influence levers for bringing HR into the fold?

    • John Stepper says:

      Moyra, I haven’t yet figured that out but I’m working on it.

      One way to inspire/motivate/cajole HR is to do it without them first. By that I mean, working with the most successful communities to expose training and jobs and develop certifications in ways that members publicly value. (You don’t need permission or IT resources to do this well.) Then, armed with a working (and very visible) example, it will be much easier to collaborate with HR to improve the connections to institutional processes and to scale the results to other roles/communities.

  8. Jon,

    Another great and informative post!!

    Am more experienced in tech than L&D. Your post keeps me thinking how technology can play a role here.

    Am just thinking, employees might need to get exposed to different group of experts from time to time, based on your business challenges. Big data makes it possible. So, which groups you should belong to temporarily or permanently can be recommended by computers. Or, computers can help HR to do this job better.

    Also, all the interaction within community of practise should be casual but well archived. I am thinking, if two or a group of people are having a great interaction around some subject, the conversation should be recorded, and then curated with relevant references. Then, knowledge within community of practise is growing, curated and controlled in an efficient and scalable way.

    What is your view? How do you think technology can make it simpler for companies to start implement CoP and avoid the pitfalls ?



    • John Stepper says:

      I think the technology, while important, is the least of the barriers. The popular collaboration platforms are all good enough. (I can imagine improvements like the ones you mention, but the basics are sufficient.)

      Above all, there is no substitute for passionate, committed, prolific contributors. If you can find and empower those people, then tools from 30 years ago will suffice. Without those people, even the tools 30 years from now won’t be good enough.

  9. moyramackie says:

    Thought provoking as always John. Just wondered if there is a lifecycle of learning and collaboration that occurs? As you say, Guilds were initially highly effective communities of practice, until they got so big (or more scattered) that the urge to control or restrict took over.

    Similarly HR departments are now often tiny compared to the size of the company, with staff spread far and wide. The urge to control or restrict seems too tempting. In command and control organisations that still want to measure everything HR can point to “training products” and lists of “approved vendors” and “cost savings”. To move to an employee-centric model, which CoP essentially is, would require giving up that control – it would be risky, it would require trust.

    I’m interested in the comments from Leon at Virgin Media, which seems to have less of a controlling management culture, and Sam G who rightly points to HR needing to move away from training to learning. Would love your thoughts John on how much room for manoevre HR has, if senior management have not bought into the community model?

    • John Stepper says:

      The things you point out could actually make it *easier than ever* for HR to support communities and social learning. If I ran L&D, instead of desperately trying to defend my budget I would cut it and use budget pressures to force the long-overdue shift to tapping more internal expertise.

      You’re right that most departments count things (training courses, number of people going through them, etc). But the thing they count most is money. HR has a golden opportunity to reduce spend and burnish their reputation as business partners while improving learning effectiveness.

  10. My introduction to a CoP begin early in my career as a person with no definable job title. This was the mid-1990’s and the term “knowledge worker” was just making its way into the corporate vernacular.

    Fortunately, this network I joined had several simple (and visual) models for us to use when self-organizing around projects. That community was deeply influenced by the tradition of architecture as a mentor-apprentice education model; the Montessori school learning environment (in which teachers are “guides”; and Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language”.

    Those three elements (models, environments, language) provide a powerful container for a CoP in which there is no top-down hierarchy—especially if the culture is open enough to allow discussion, interpretation, experimentation, and sharing.

    The challenge within an organization or corporation is that there is often an allergic reaction to such openness, especially when there might be HR and legal fears of unintended consequences, for example if customers or patients are adversely affected.

    This fear (whether warranted or not) is often magnified by the quarterly demands for ROI for any initiative.

    The organizations which I have seen successfully incubate a CoP seem to require the sponsorship, patronage and protection of an enlightened, respected leader—another 1000-year-old tradition!

    Referring back to the network I joined in the 1990s, it has survived inside and outside formal organizations precisely because the CoP was extra-organizational as well as intra-organizational, meaning that the patterns, models and language have perceived value precisely because they exist beyond any individual patron or corporately mandated structure.

    REFERENCE: “Communities of Practice and Pattern Language” by James B. Smethurst, September 24, 1997

    • John Stepper says:

      Fascinating. Thank you. Love the reference on CoPs. I’m unfamiliar with it but will change that.

      Your last paragraphs about the CoP surviving precisely because it was extra-organizational is, I’m sure, what Etienne Wenger and other experts would tell me. “Link the CoP to HR or contributions to pay and you’ll kill it.” I understand, and yet I think there’s a way – or at least it’s worth more experiments.

      For the community of practice construct to be so powerful and for firms to have so few of them is unacceptable and, well, bad business.

  11. Pingback: How Communities of Practice Survive (or Not!) Inside Formal Org Structures | Alphachimp University

  12. Adam Pope says:

    An organization’s ownership structure can be a powerful motivator for CoP’s. Where it is owned by anonymous pension funds there is no incentive to share experience; indeed sharing may mean someone else advances at your expense. Where an organization is owned by the staff that work there on the other hand, co-operative sharing of knowledge can positively impact the bottom line giving people a financial incentive to share.

    I think I’m going to write my own blog post on initiating communities of practice 8^)

  13. Adam Pope says:

    An organization’s ownership structure can be a powerful motivator for CoP’s. Where it is owned by anonymous pension funds there is no incentive to share experience; indeed sharing may mean someone else advances at your expense. Where an organization is owned by the staff that work there on the other hand, co-operative sharing of knowledge can positively impact the bottom line giving people a financial incentive to share.

    I think I’m going to write my own blog post on initiating communities of practice 8^)

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