A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share thoughts and practical advice about a common skill or profession to learn how to do it better. This is a pattern that has been around for quite some time and is frequently applied in software development (especially when you have many cross-functional teams working together). I have seen CoPs for .NET developers, Agile practitioners, Scrum Masters, and Product Owners. Typically these CoPs meet at least once a month to share ideas and find out what’s going on with everyone in the community.
Over the last year I launched and maintained a Scrum Master CoP at a company I had been working for. During that time I discovered five things that CoPs should be accomplishing.
1. Build Relationships
A healthy CoP results in new and strengthened relationships by bringing people together that would usually not spend a lot of time with each other. It allows people to meet others who have common interests and struggles.
Building relationships is a vital part of any CoP because it allows people to learn whom they can go to for advice. In the Scrum Master CoP I had been involved with recently, the members reported to various managers and worked in different parts of the organization, so the CoP was how we bridged the organizational gap between us.
2. Learn from Others’ Experiences
Members of CoP should regularly share “lessons learned” so that others can benefit from that knowledge rather than having to figure it out themselves. These insights are often shared during open discussion during a meetup or by sending a quick email to the group.
3. Share Problems and Help Solve Others’ Problems
A CoP is a great way to solve problems because the most interested and experienced people within an organization will be involved.
Note that solving problems is just as important as sharing problems. A quick way for a CoP to get stale is for members to use the community as an outlet for complaining without focusing on fixing the problems that are causing the complaining.
4. Find New Techniques
Because members of a CoP are passionate about what they do, they should be researching new ways of getting stuff done and sharing their findings with the community. Often this takes the form of a presentation or workshop, but it can be as simple as sharing a link to a new practice.
5. Establish Norms and Good Practices
Members of a CoP should inspect the way they work, find common patterns, and communicate those patterns as good practices for others to follow. A CoP is an especially powerful mechanism for accomplishing this when the members come from various parts of an organization because there will be many different perspectives and opinions.