In their book “Digital Habitats“, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith bring forward a model of three dimensions of a community of practice. I’ve found these dimensions very usefull in consulting about communities, exploring its value for the organization.
The three dimensions are:
(In their book, the authors have put the “practice” dimension at 2nd, but i prefer to talk about community and domain dimension first).
The domain dimension entails the subject of the community, the “domain of interest”. What is actually that the community is about? What are we going to talk about? More important: what are we not going to talk about? Deciding what the domain is of a community is often a proces of negotiation among its (potential) members. Possibly, there are also members leaving the community while its borders become more clear. Yet, this proces will also attract new members joining the community as its value has become visible.
The community dimension is about the people that actually members of the CoP. When talking about this dimension, i like to look at organizations from a networked perspective. It is important to no longer only look at organizations as hierarchy, more as a networks of people. Jon Husband calls this a wirearchy and points to the changes in power and authority. Looking at organizations from a networked perspective often shows you that the manager is no longer the central person, there appear to be other important hubs in the organization. The work of Valdis Krebs also helps a lot in this. These hubs are people that have great influence in the organization for their connections. When starting up communities, these people are really important.
The practice dimension is about “the way we do things”. A really interesting dimension and often also deeply grounded in the “culture” of a community that allready excists for longer time. Do you recognize coming into a new community (work, or city or football team) and really needing time to adapt, learn and understand how these people do their jobs, how they do their trainings. It is about tools, but i think it certainly is also about language and is definately also a dimension that is under negotiation all the time. Reflection is important to also be able to improve the practice of the community.
From all the dimensions above, it is important to realize that they are always subject to change. Forming and facilitating communities of practice is foremost a proces of learning in itself. Communities cannot be fully designed and standardized as products to be implemented. L&D departments need to facilitate a proces of change as they want to use CoPs in their organizations. Its a proces of learning by doing.