Wenger, a CoP consists of three components:

The domain. Workers will organize around a set of problems they all face, creating a domain that brings them together. They may not all deal with the same problem on a day-to-day basis, but because they are all involved with the same practice, they have a shared identity.

The community. The workers function as a community that interacts and solves problems. Through this interaction, they build trust with each other and share ideas much more freely. Wenger said that relationship building is crucial to the success of a CoP, that's why managers don't belong to what are, in effect, peer communities that cut across many boundaries within an organization.

The practice. The community focuses on creating a certain way of solving problems. By doing so and by interacting regularly, they continue to build relationships and trust, allowing the CoP to evolve and grow.

What stands out about CoPs is their strong reliance on social interaction, relationship building and focus on a specific practice. Wenger says it's still an open question whether CoPs can only exist through face-to-face meetings. He has seen communities that have worked well through Web sites, e-mail and teleconferencing. But he emphasized that communities don't survive if they rely on databases as the source of knowledge.

And yet, it's clear that technology plays an important role in sustaining CoPs. Technology in the form of a Web site can help a community establish its identity. It allows them to interact across geographical boundaries. And it can serve as the community's external memory, accumulating the knowledge created and shared by members and storing it in a database that can be searched for future reference.

Some of the tools used by CoPs include synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools, including Lotus' Notes and QuickPlace, WebEx, Communispace and Microsoft's NetMeeting. Other technologies include portals, document-management systems, knowledge-exchange software and e-learning tools. For more information, see Wenger's survey of community-oriented technologies.

Feds Love CoPs

At the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), people like Mike Burk, the administration's chief knowledge officer, nurture communities of practice. The federal agency is one of many that has grasped the strategic importance of knowledge management in government and has assigned someone at the executive level to oversee its growth and development.

In fact, the Federal CIO Council, an interagency forum chartered to improve the management of IT in the federal government, supports both a knowledge-management special interest group and, within that, a CoP special interest group. More than 30 federal agencies have knowledge-management officers and staff participating in the Council's special interest group.

Burk, who holds one of two knowledge leader positions within FHWA, says his role is to provide leadership for knowledge management from an organizational perspective. "Right now, we're doing two things related to knowledge management," he said. One is the development of an expertise locator, so staff and the public can more easily find the right person with the right information -- or knowledge -- within the agency.

The second project is setting up communities of practice. "I find that fledgling communities are the easiest to set up," explained Burk. "They can stay in touch by mail, meetings or e-mail. We try to provide them with a virtual space to collaborate and share knowledge."

The key to launching a CoP successfully is finding the right champion who will enthusiastically build the community, creating a buzz so that other people with similar practices will gravitate toward it and participate.

One such person is Lamar Smith. His specialty is overseeing the team of FHWA workers who must plan and carry out the goals of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor