In the 1980s, Xerox Corp. tried to figure out new ways to boost the productivity of its field service staff. So, the company brought in an anthropologist from its famed Palo Alto Research Center to observe how they actually did their jobs. What the anthropologist found startled Xerox executives.

Instead of spending as much time as possible with their clients, the field service representatives hung out with each other in common areas, around coffee pots or in the parts warehouse. Imagine how a Xerox manager would have viewed the situation, wrote John Seely Brown and Estee Solomon Gray in an article about the experience. "Here's 'low-hanging fruit,' easy pickings for immediate productivity gains. Simply reroute the tech reps, cut out the conversations, eliminate the dead time and pocket the savings."

But the anthropologist took an entirely different view. Field service work isn't for loners. It's a social activity, involving a community of professionals. Time spent at water coolers wasn't dead time, but a time to swap knowledge about how to repair machines better. Don't eliminate the conversations in pursuit of corporate efficiency, the anthropologist told Xerox, but expand them to bolster learning and innovation.

Xerox followed the advice. And since then, a number of other firms have also promoted these informal networks within their organizations. They include National Semiconductor, Motorola, the Federal Highway Administration and the city of Chicago. The name for these informal social structures is "community of practice," a term coined by Etienne Wenger, a learning consultant and expert on the topic.

"Underneath the traditional hierarchy of organizations lie these horizontal structures that people belong to informally to share knowledge and solve problems," he said.

The emergence of communities of practice comes at a time when the practice of knowledge management has appeared to stall, in part because of an over-emphasis on technologies to the detriment of learning how people actually share knowledge.

For example, a multinational technology firm once spent $7 million building a best-practice database for its technology consultants, only to find they never used it, nor did they contribute to the database. Writing in the journal, Organization Development Practitioner, Verna Allee, an expert on knowledge management, explained how, in the rush to install technology, the firm neglected to find out how their consultants actually create and share knowledge within their own organization and how that might be nurtured. Allee was called in to fix the problem.

Wenger recommends other organizations hoping to avoid such problems start by asking themselves a simple question: "What should people share in terms of knowledge and why?" He points out that everybody lauds the idea of knowledge sharing, "but the problem right now is that we have too much information."

Knowledge sharing should be based around the concept of a community consisting of people dealing with the same problem, explained Wenger. "That way, you know who you are going to share the knowledge with and whose information is important to you. A community of practice is a way to manage knowledge that involves the practitioners themselves."

Distinguishing a CoP

While the term community of practice (CoP) is relatively new, the concept is quite old. Wenger points out that guilds formed in the Middle Ages were a type of community of practice. So were various apprenticeship programs, and they still are now. Today, CoPs are everywhere, in various guises, at work, school, home and spread out through communities in the form of hobby groups.

But what distinguishes a CoP within an organization from a committee or task force or nonprofit association? Allee wrote that communities are "defined by knowledge rather than by task" and that a community is "determined by the value it creates for its members, not by project deadlines."

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Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor