Communities of Practice are self-forming and operating units are not…

Q: Would you include project teams or operating units as communities of practice (CoPs)?

A: Not typically. Communities form around people who share a common specialty, interest, or concern.  Project teams and operating units share some characteristics, but they are not self-forming.

Communities exist to help their members better do their jobs and to deepen their skills and expertise.  Project teams and operating units exist to get work done for the organization.

- Stan Garfield


Totally agree

You may have people from different teams…just say one from Systems and Process Control, another from Operational Services, another from IT, and another from Document Management. 

Each of these teams has it’s purpose, but the purpose is not self-forming, it’s already decided by the business, basically it is the business.

Now each person on these various teams may have a common purpose or interest ie. software development, or it could even be specific like javascript coders; this common interest and exchange can develop into a self-forming community to aid them in how to work better when they go back to their teams.

So I agree a BU team or project team are a different type of entity than a CoP…like the article says “…these units exist to get work done for the organisation”, and in order to do this we may need to consult with CoPs to get answers, so we can come back and “get work done for the organisation

Shaun Callahan’s diagram rings bells here.

As long as a guy from Operational Services is allowed time to answer a question from a guy in IT, so that guy in IT can do her IT work better, then “online” CoPs are viable. People will do this privately in IM and email anyway if an online space is denied…the informal and intangible organisation is how things get done. 

And not all information is reactive; sometimes we may proactively share information (narrate our work, tips, experiences, ideas), in order to remember for the future and also for the benefit of CoP members…”hey guys, I just worked something out, did you know….”…”thanks for that I need to do that in the future, thanks for sharing”

But BU and project teams can also have community-like dynamics. An organisational group like “document management” is not self-forming, it’s an official group, but there’s nothing stopping that team from having an online space to “deepen their skills and expertise”. So BU and project teams can have both dynamics (the typical top-down, deliverable, work on tasks dynamic; and also the facilitative, expertise building community-type dynamic).

Both official teams and CoPs produce behaviours that are about skill building and expertise, but when it comes to define the shell or form of the group, then we say CoPs are self-forming and official teams are not self-forming.

How can we put this succinctly:

CoPs are self-forming and operating units are not. But operating units can still have the qualities and behaviours we see in CoPs.

In fact some CoPs may turn into operating units.

eg. at work Bulk Materials Handling has become an official operating unit; previous to this is was scattered expertise we had that was weaved together using email, and then later CoPs. Now that it is an official operating unit they will still keep the community dynamic they have (answering questions, building skills and expertise), but they will also now have the team deliverable type dynamic where there is management and coordination of tasks.

In an official operating unit people have to churn out deliverables, that’s what they get paid for…they don’t necessarily have to answer questions, and share expertise; but if they are motivated by trust, social connections and reciprocation then this will exist…and what a fortunate operating unit that is.


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