Staying competitive requires a constant focus on learning and development (L&D). Among the many different approaches to learning in the workplace, one has proven to be particularly effective, yet remains strangely elusive: communities of practice (CoPs).

Communities of practice are like secret societies for professionals. But instead of performing arcane rituals and plotting world domination, CoP members come together to share knowledge and skills, and to improve their craft. These groups have become all the rage in recent years as a way to foster collaboration, spread best practices and build trust within teams. Yet, they are often misunderstood and misused.

What is a CoP?

CoPs are informal and organic groups of individuals who share a common profession or interest and engage in regular, ongoing discussions and activities to improve their skills. They exist in a variety of settings: professional associations, online forums and within and across departments and services. Many successful CoPs have been the spontaneous, informal ones.

CoPs provide space to share experiences and knowledge with peers, which is highly valuable for onboarding new employees. By participating in a CoP, they can learn from collective intelligence and tacit knowledge, rather than relying solely on employee guides and explicit formal trainings.

CoPs are also most effective when experienced employees want to stay abreast of industry developments and best practices. By participating in discussions and activities with their peers, they continue to build knowledge and skills in their field.

Fail Early, Trust Often

The benefits of CoPs go beyond individual learning and have a significant impact on the overall performance of the organization. First and foremost, they provide a safe space for employees to share their ideas and experiences. In a CoP, people express their thoughts and opinions without fear of retribution or criticism. This can be especially important in rapidly changing industries or those with frequent disruptions. Through fostering trust and continuous knowledge sharing, CoPs help create more agile and adaptable teams.

By engaging in discussions and activities with more experienced professionals, CoP members gain new knowledge and skills and build their confidence in an environment where failing is considered an essential part of the learning process.

In addition, CoPs help build stronger connections and collaboration among team members. Patrick Lencioni paved the way with his book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” His research demonstrates how psychological safety and trust are the undisputable cornerstones of effective teams. By providing a space for individuals to come together and discuss their work without fear of failing, CoPs foster a sense of community and support necessary for trust to flourish.

Microcosms of Coaching and Mentoring

Participating in CoPs allows for quality connections with more experienced professionals who can provide guidance and support as individuals navigate their careers. These relationships can be valuable for those who may not have access to formal mentorship programs or who are seeking more diverse or specialized advice. Much like Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry in the Harry Potter series, is a microcosm for wizards in the making as they learn, CoPs are a way to offer coaching and mentoring in a corporate culture where informal learning is less common.

Interactions in CoPs are often more informal and spontaneous than in structured coaching or mentoring programs, providing incredibly valuable learning opportunities.

Clueless Newbie to Skilled Wizard

Like Hogwarts, CoPs can provide a magical space for their members to safely progress through the four stages of competence:

    • Unconscious incompetence: You’re completely unaware of how much you need to learn or improve in a particular area, or you may be clueless about where to start. Ignorance is bliss and this first stage is the most comfortable to be in.
    • Conscious incompetence: You become aware of your own incompetence. You recognize how much you need to improve, but you still don’t have the knowledge or skills to do so. It’s like realizing that you can’t turn your manager into a ferret, no matter how much you may want to. Your comfort level is suddenly at its worst.
    • Conscious competence: You’ve acquired the knowledge and skills needed to perform a particular task or function, but you still need to actively think about how to apply these skills. It’s like casting a spell correctly but only after chanting the incantation and waving your wand around a few times.
    • Unconscious competence: You’ve mastered a particular skill to the point where you can perform it automatically and without conscious effort. It’s like casting a spell without even thinking about it, like it’s second nature.

CoPs can be your Hogwarts, helping their members progress through those stages: from completely clueless (UC) to realizing they need to learn or improve (CI) to actively applying their knowledge and skills (CC) to eventually mastering these skills and performing them automatically (UC). By providing regular, ongoing opportunities for L&D, a space for support and encouragement and fostering a culture of trust and connection, CoPs help professionals acquire the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in their roles and advance their careers.

Casting Special Spells

So how can organizations encourage the development of CoPs? One way is to actively promote and support existing ones. This can include providing dedicated time and resources for CoP activities, as well as recognizing and rewarding participation in these groups. As work from home becomes the new normal, CoPs can also exist virtually or in hybrid mode, bridging that gap between those employees who may not meet each other often in real life.

Another key success factor is leadership support. By demonstrating the value of CoPs and encouraging participation, leaders feed into a culture of continuous learning.

One Magic Wand Does Not Fit All

Some of us are lone learners: Those who prefer to work from home, prepare ahead and go at our own pace without distractions from others. Others are social learners. For all of us though, learning and change can only happen if we feel safe to try and fail. So here is the secret ingredient of the secret sauce: To fully reap the benefits of participating in CoPs, learners need personalized learning! Wizards in the making won’t all flourish in the same space and under the same conditions.

In a 100-student graduate leadership seminar at a North American university, we actively encouraged students to choose a CoP to support their learning. Some chose virtual-only groups, others preferred in-person meetings. Several belonged to more than one CoP while others chose a more passive approach and asked to be integrated instead of choosing themselves.

From Astronauts to Wizards

Taibi Kahler showed in his research and his work with NASA astronauts how the right environment profoundly impacts individual performance. If we are left to gravitate toward CoPs that fit our preferences, we flourish. If we are forced into a CoP that does not fit the way we need to learn and work, we slowly disengage, or worse, sabotage.

Using the Process Communication Model® (PCM) matrix of environmental preferences (see Figure 1) helped the pedagogical team tailor CoPs to individual preferences. Who belongs to more than one CoP? Who prefers virtual get-togethers? Who actively participates and who stays in the shadows? Evaluation questionnaires filled out at the end of the semester reported 92% satisfaction with using CoPs as a learning support, even for those who experienced conflicts. Yes, there can be conflicts at Hogwarts!

Learning Needs More Magic

CoPs are a highly effective way to offer learners a sense of belonging and connection, which helps to build confidence and motivation. These relationships can be particularly valuable for newer or less experienced employees, who may feel more isolated or uncertain in their roles, much like first-year students at Hogwarts.

By actively promoting and supporting these communities to meet the needs of different teams and individuals, organizations can encourage the development of strong CoPs that drive performance and success.