Getting this right can be of benefit to organisations and business in particular. Wenger et al argue that communities of practice have the potential to:
- Connect local pockets of expertise and isolated professionals
- Diagnose and address recurring business problems whose root causes cross team boundaries
- Analyze the knowledge-related sources of uneven performance across units performing similar tasks and work to bring everyone up the highest standard, and
- Link and coordinate unconnected activities and initiatives addressing a similar knowledge domain
It doesn’t take a much of a leap to see that similar benefits would be very desirable in a civic context. Indeed, while the primary concern is with private companies, Wenger et al are also keen to show how communities of practice can be applied to community problems. So, for example, the approach has been used to set up family services coalitions that address the bureaucracy surrounding ‘at risk’ families seeking government assistance in the US. The learning networks that were formed as a result achieved some valuable benefits such as new after school programmes and a dramatic reduction in the forms that families needed to fill out. The point here is that these solutions were emergent and developed from the bottom up – the leadership role was to facilitate the networks not design the solutions.
If we accept the argument of Wenger et al then communities of practice clearly have the potential to provide a means for whole place partnerships to address wicked problems. But what would this mean in practice?
To help with the task of cultivating communities of practice Wenger et al break them down into three structural elements:
- The domain which creates the common ground and the sense of common identity – affirming its purpose and value.
- The community refers to the social fabric, the relationships and the human interactions.
- The practice refers to the frameworks, tool and ideas, information, stories and documents that the community members share –in order to ‘proceed efficiently in dealing with its domain.
For whole place partnerships these elements can be translated as follows:
- Domain = the outcome they want to achieve or the wicked problem they want to address
- Community = the relevant practitioners, public and politicians
- Practice = day to day delivery of projects, programmes and services
Wenger et al argue that ‘the most important factor in a community’s success is the vitality of its leadership’. In practical terms the role of ensuring that communities stay focussed on their domain, maintain their relationships and develop their practice falls upon the whole place partnership. Building on seven functions that Wenger et al suggest for the role of the community coordinator it is therefore possible to identify the core tasks for a whole place partnership that is seeking to cultivate communities of practice in order to tackle wicked problems:
- Map the important issues that need to be addressed if the agreed outcomes are to be achieved / wicked problems solved
- Plan and facilitate community events
- Promote informal networking between members in the different communities
- Foster the development of individual community members
- Ensure that the formal organisations do not prevent communities from functioning – that they give people space, time and flexibility
- Build resources to support practice such as a ‘knowledge base’, practice events etc
- Regularly assess the health of the various communities and monitor their impact