Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis [WMS02].

Communities of Practice (CoP) are rooted in self-organization. They do not appear on an organization chart. Participation is voluntary—people engage because they have a passion to learn or contribute.

Organizations cannot form or put together CoPs like they can form departments or projects. But organizations can promote them and provide support—facilitators, IT infrastructure, budget.

CoPs and LeSS work well together; both embrace volunteering and self-organization. A CoP needs an informal leader, called a CoP coordinator, who emerges from the group because of a passion for the subject. A part of cultivating CoPs is to support the CoP coordinators. Sometimes coordinating activities becomes a full-time role, and the coordinator may then move to the Support unit. However, be wary of full-time CoP coordinators; ironically, they can lose touch with their practice by no longer…practicing.

We worked with a multinational organization that had a Scrum Master CoP that was cultivated by the centralized support organization. It consisted of hundreds of Scrum Masters discussing Scrum-related issues on their mailing list. Every year, they organized an internal Scrum Gathering, which was held as an OpenSpace conference.

Use CoPs for functional learning

Many organizations come to awareness of CoPs through the transition to cross-functional teams and the elimination of the matrix. We were coaching at Lockheed-Martin some years ago during their early days of agile adoption. Project or product groups had previously (usually) been organized into functional teams (analysts, testers, and so on). Lockheed-Martin people realized that when they transitioned to an agile approach, abolished matrix management, and adopted long-lived cross-functional teams, there could be a problem in learning or knowledge sharing related to one function. For example, they asked, “How will all the specialist testers learn—as a group—about a new testing practice, when they are distributed to different cross-functional teams?” Because of this question, they discovered CoPs and put in place a support system to cultivate their growth.

The learning culture of Toyota is to “spread knowledge laterally.” This practice is called yokoten. The person who learned something novel or improved a practice is responsible for sharing this. Toyota people are supported in active sharing and pro-active seeking for ideas and practices across groups and sites. The concept of CoP is similar to yokoten.

Is a CoP not a matrix organization in new clothes? No, there are clear conceptual differences between them.

Communities of practice provide a fundamental different approach toward the same goal. The matrix structure only focuses on the distribution of authority and the coordination of resources by multiplying reporting relationships. It does not create different structures for different purposes. Whereas a matrix has reporting relationships on both arms, communities of practice provide a different kind of structure for focusing on knowledge. They are based on collegial relationships, not reporting relationships. Even community leaders [CoP coordinators] are not your bosses; they are your peers. This combination of formal and informal structures is fundamentally different from a matrix. [WMS02]