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Communities of Practice: An Amazing Tool for Your Toolbox

Early on in my career I would rarely collaborate with others about my work. I worked hard. And I successfully delivered products and services to my customers. But, I was missing something that could have given me a boost to be even better at my job and to add a plethora of tools to my toolbox. I was missing the countless learning experiences, connections, tools and resources that you can tap when you are involved in one or more communities of practice.

What is a Community of Practice?

“Alexa, what is a community of practice?” I say loudly to the round speaker on my desk. Alexa informed me that a Community of Practice is a group of people who share a craft or a profession. But, it is so much more. A Community of Practice allows individuals to:

  • Learn from each other
  • Share case studies
  • Discuss problems and their solutions
  • Find mentors or become a mentor
  • Make connections and network
  • Think about their work from different perspectives
  • Share tools and resources

The list can go on and on. A community of practice is where we go to continuously improve. It is where we can make our products and services even better than they were before for all of our customers.

Communities of Practice are Where Best Practices are Born

When you started a new job and you began to learn the processes did you think to yourself, “Wow, this could be done so much easier if only _______________?” This is an example of that space where innovation starts. It is where we begin to improve. When you attend a community of practice you get to do that all the time! And the bonus is that you get to share your ideas with others as well as learn about their ideas. With all that idea-sharing it is no wonder that this is how ‘best practice’ is born.

If we all tried to solve the same exact problem in a vacuum, we would end up getting millions of different solutions. Some of these solutions would be good. But, would any of them be the BEST solution? My guess is that no, they would not be. Why? Because each of those solutions only had one mind working to figure it out. Now, if we take a problem and all work on it together we would have millions of minds contemplating the best solution. Those minds would keep improving the solution. Until finally, it was determined to be a ‘best practice’.

While communities of practice are usually a lot smaller than ‘millions’, even having 10, 20 or a few hundred minds working on the same problem will lead to terrific solutions. Many of these will become ‘best practice’.

Types of Communities of Practice

There are two broad categories of communities of practice: Internal and External. I believe that each of these serves a purpose and both are extremely valuable.

Internal Communities of Practice

Within the organization there is a culture that those working there understand. It is based on shared values throughout the agency. Communities of practice that are developed and implemented internally to an organization are valuable. Everyone who attends has the same foundation of understanding. They understand what will work and what may not work when it comes to solutions.

Therefore, when you bring a problem or an issue to this group of people, you don’t need to provide the history or insights to the culture. Everyone already understands and knows. When the group begins to contemplate ideas for solutions they already have a framework in their minds of what will work well and what will fall like a lead balloon.

Bringing together people within the same organization to share knowledge, mentor and share tools can lead to some very prolific outcomes.

External Communities of Practice

Reaching outside of one’s organization to find out how others do things is a phenomenal act. Benchmarking others to find out what worked for them and what didn’t work can save you a ton of time and energy making the same mistakes. Yes, it does take a bit longer to set the stage if sharing your own issue, but the return you get with astound you. Plus, simply listening to other’s case studies and what was done to achieve success gives you plenty to pull from in your own work.

If you are looking for other’s best practice to adopt be prepared to tweak it a bit for your own circumstance. As Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. You may think you found the best solution for your issue, but the culture within your own organization may think differently. Modifying what others have done to fit your organization culture is something to consider before implementing.

One Community of Practice May Not Be Enough

When I decided to write on this topic, I stopped to count how many communities of practice I currently attend or host. I primarily spend time with four different communities right now. Two of which I played a part in creating. Attending or participating in communities of practice takes time so don’t overload yourself. Pick some that align well with your interest areas. Then see if they are a good fit.

I don’t believe that you should limit yourself to attending only one, however. I have found that solutions for issues I am trying to solve are usually a mixture of what I have learned from different communities or by talking to several people. Collaboration is the key to innovation and improvement.

Get Connected Today!

If you have things in your work that you would like to improve upon, I strongly encourage you to branch out and join a few communities of practice in those areas. You will be amazed at how beneficial it is to your work and to you as an individual. Every time you learn something, find a really cool tool, or make a valuable connection, those are tools for your toolbox. And as any person knows, you can never have too many tools!

If you are interested in process improvement in the transportation industry, I encourage you to get connected with the Transportation Lean Forum. You can find out more about this community by visiting their website. If you are interested in change management in the public sector, check out the Public Sector Change Practitioners community website. These are two great communities of practice and they would love to have you.

If you want to learn more about how communities of practice can help, read Build Community – Banish Silos by Danielle Metzinger. This is a great read and it inspired me. Thank you, Danielle, for taking the time to post it!

Michelle Malloy is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She has been a devoted Colorado state employee for nearly 13 years. In that time, she had dedicated herself to being the best steward leader possible, ensuring that everyone and everything left in her care are nurtured and developed in order to provide the best value and service to the citizens of the state of Colorado today and into the future. Michelle’s expertise lies in strategy, program management, project management, change management, process improvement, facilitation and working with people. Michelle believes that people are the government’s #1 asset and the products and services we aim to provide and improve upon would not happen without them. You can read her posts here.

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