This article discusses about engineers who by nature have an insatiable need to learn. Regardless of specialty, engineers are often most comfortable in an environment that includes like-minded individuals who are not afraid to push the limits to achieve something new or original. Whether they are designing the architecture for the next generation of computer chips, evaluating the barriers that must be overcome to allow human travel to Mars, or reducing the costs of staple items to raise the standard of living in an emerging nation, engineers are constantly learning, with society reaping the rewards of their efforts. Communities of practice have potential benefits for everyone involved practitioners, the organizations they work for, and the engineering profession as a whole. Communities of practice exist in nearly every organization, whether or not they are formally recognized. Companies and their management must not expect a community of practice to be the magic solution to a business problem. Inappropriate application and cooptation of communities of practice by managers can be especially damaging.
Engineers, by nature, have an insatiable need to learn. Regardless of specialty, engineers are often most comfortable in an environment that includes like-minded individuals who aren't afraid to push the limits to achieve something new or original. Whether they are designing the architecture for the next generation of computer chips, evaluating the barriers that must be overcome to allow human travel to Mars, or reducing the costs of staple items to raise the standard of living in an emerging nation, engineers are constantly learning, with society reaping the rewards of their efforts.
Despite the considerable investment in education that engineers undertake, a freshly minted university graduate isn't usually the one most capable of pushing the limits in his or her specialty. There is still plenty to learn, and much of that learning occurs outside the classroom. It is often informal, centered around a pervasive or frequently experienced problem or situation, and is open to anyone who is capable of providing relevant, useful information or knowledge, regardless of their location or function on the company organization chart. Such loosely structured groups have given engineers much of their on-the-job training for decades, and have allowed more senior engineers to teach their junior counterparts the more qualitative, organic, and nuanced aspects of their craft. In short, these groups often provide an engineer with the opportunity to bridge the gap between the theory that is taught in the classroom and the practice that allows the work to get done in an efficient, safe, and cost-effective manner. These groups are communities of practice—informal associations of people who, over time, share information about a practical activity.
Communities of practice have potential benefits for everyone involved—practitioners, the organizations they work for, and the engineering profession as a whole. However, organizations often encourage the formation of communities of practice with the misguided impression that, like other organizationally sanctioned structures, they can also be directed for maximum efficiency (read: profitability). This is a mistake, as communities of practice have unique characteristics that distinguish them from other organizational structures, and their effectiveness can be impaired by the inappropriate interference of management.
The term “community of practice” was not formally defined until 1991, with the publication of.Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, a book by Etienne Wenger and Jane Lave. This book was essentially an effort to formally codify, describe, and offer examples of a type of learning that has existed for centuries. Within this book, and in the subsequent material that has been written on the subject, learning is described as occurring among individuals who participate in the practice or craft around which the community is centered.
Communities of practice consist of masters, those members possessing superior levels of knowledge and expertise; apprentices, newer, less experienced, or less knowledgeable members; and everyone in between. All members benefit from their association with one another, although in different ways. Apprentices benefit by accessing the collective (if not codified and formalized) knowledge that experienced engineers often have only in their heads, while masters benefit by teaching others, enjoying a certain amount of prestige through the informally conferred guru status, and perhaps learn even more through their association with the newbies. It is this sense of purpose, relevance, and socialization that maintains a given community of practice, and gives its members something to look forward to, however they may choose to meet.
Steven J. Kerno, Jr. is a parts cross-reference analyst at Deere & Company in Milan. III., and a doctoral candidate at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. His research interests include the effects of organizational culture and hierarchy on the communities of practice approach to learning.
A community of practice at an auto manufacturer might involve the engineers responsible for engine or transmission/transaxle development, or those who integrate several components, such as the complete drivetrain for the vehicle. Communities of practice might bring together engineers who have responsibility for completely separate product lines, such as economy cars, luxury cars, small pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles. Perhaps one person or group believes it has solved a vexing problem that is common across several vehicle platforms, and wants to share it. Or someone wants to compare notes with others as to what fixes have been tried in the past, or learn what machine tools are being used to produce parts or to integrate a system. Typically, only those individuals closest to or most familiar with an issue have the most complete picture of the relevant conditions and variables, and a community of practice facilitates the dissemination of such knowledge.
While organizations spend countless sums trying to document a wide array of information as accurately and precisely as possible, the effort often cannot replicate the more qualitative aspects of work, and even such statements as “How does the part feel?” or “What time of day did the problem occur?”—while often very difficult to identify in a purely objective manner—frequently have real and important bearing on the situation at hand.
These kinds of problems and their subsequent solutions illustrate the true value of a community of practice. Engineers who may have no direct responsibility to one another within a company are able to spread knowledge and innovation by informally recognizing some aspect of work that creates a common bond or link.
Whether they realize it or not, modern engineers can trace the lineage of their training to artisans and craftsmen of the past. These individuals originally undertook an apprenticeship to learn their craft. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, training gradually shifted to the university, where it tended to become more formal, codified, and structured. However, despite the somewhat outdated imagery commonly associated with the term, apprenticeships in modern society are served wherever high levels of skill, knowledge, and expertise are demanded.
The similarities between occupations of long ago that required an apprenticeship and those of modern times that are staffed by professionals are striking. Both allow for the management of increased task complexity and ambiguity by confronting it with highly skilled and knowledgeable workers, who are capable of using their skills with a high degree of flexibility, creativity, and independence. Engineers who are plugged in to the appropriate communities of practice have an opportunity to increase their knowledge, skills, and networks of business and personal contacts, all of which can result in more engaged and more productive employees.
Common Characteristics of Communities of Practice
Continuity of mutual relationships, both task- and work-related. Usually collegial, but may be strained.
Rapid flow of information between community members (very fluid grapevine).
Conversations and other interactions often have the character and "feel" as if they are being continued from where they stopped.
Problems and other issues are framed quickly. Little necessity for providing an extensive background.
Common consensus regarding membership and who belongs. Barriers to membership are minimal and very informal.
Awareness of others' competencies, strengths, weaknesses, and where one's contributions can be maximized.
Common stories, legends, "inside" jokes, humor, etc.
A shared and evolving language, including jargon, acronyms, and unique terminology. Language shortcuts often evolve to increase communication efficiency.
Common perception, viewpoint, or vantage point of relevant external environment. Viewpoint is frequently localized or parochial.
Compiled from Wenger (1998); Nickols (2007); Roberts (2006)
Engineers who have had the opportunity to absorb innovative and novel engineering experiences from peers and can apply them in subsequent situations also command a premium in the employment market. Since companies need to attract, develop, and retain talented and motivated people, association with a community of practice can be very rewarding, financially and otherwise, to an engineer.
Companies are very adept at creating departments and teams to organize the work activities of employees. Just about everyone knows their position on the organization chart, their salary grade, their title, their boss, etc. However, such organizational structures frequently do not group employees along lines that facilitate knowledge exchange, enthusiasm, or passion for what they do.
A community of practice might be regarded as plugging a gap in an organization. For example, when attempting to solve a given technical problem, would you most likely seek advice from your boss? A fellow team member? An online knowledge base? If you find yourself seeking out knowledge and advice from a particular person or group on a fairly frequent basis, it is you and these individuals who, perhaps without even recognizing it, form a community of practice.
Schlumberger Ltd., a company involved in the gas and energy exploration industry, provides a useful example. A knowledge management system called Eureka links technical experts in its Oilfield Services unit into communities of practice. It is through these communities of practice that relevant tips, tricks, and conceptual understanding are shared. Engineers, regardless of location, can access the collective knowledge of their peers within the company. Each technical expert within Schlumberger has two organizational “homes”—the formal, rational, hierarchically sanctioned home that corresponds to a position on a chart, and the Eureka technical community, the informal, natural, horizontally linked network of peers who share a common interest, goal, or passion regarding what they do to create wealth for the corporation.
The Risks of Interference
Communities of practice exist in nearly every organization, whether or not they are formally recognized. Paradoxically, when an organization tries to direct their activities, it runs the risk of reducing their usefulness.
The reason is that management often misunderstands how a community of practice creates value. If management learns that a certain group of employees has developed a collaborative relationship with one another, perhaps the worst thing to do would be to give this informal, natural network a formal job to complete. Yes, a community of practice represents a resource to a company, but the value creation process it enables cannot be quantified in terms of formally codified documents, easily presented to an audience within a three-ring binder in two-day seminar format.
Peter Hillen, a partner with Congruity Corp., a consulting firm in Los Altos, Calif., probably said it best: “The community of practice needs to do the work it thinks it needs to do, not the work some guy in a suit tells it to do.”
Source: Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W.M. 120021. Cultivating Communities of Practice, p. 42. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. Copyright © 2002 by Harvard Business School Press. Adapted with permission.
Another mistake is to assume that knowledge transfer or lessons learned from a community of practice can be seamlessly recreated in another organizational setting. Does the following scenario sound familiar?
A company observes that, although processes for common operations at several plants are identical, one seems to outperform the others. In an effort to duplicate this efficiency in a new plant, a team of engineers descends to formally codify all processes in great detail. These processes are subsequently given to a team of instructional designers to design appropriate training curricula for the workers in the new plant. Then management is disappointed to learn that, despite its efforts, the new plant fails to live up to expectations.
What happened? It is very likely that much of the value created by the employees in the top-performing plant was lost in translation. Shop-floor or line employees talk to engineers, who hand off their documentation to instructional designers, who then create the curricula to teach the employees of the new plant the lessons of the best. It is also likely that the workers, however informally, had coalesced into communities of practice centered around the relevant matters at hand.
How could such an organizational wild goose chase be avoided? One idea would be to simply send the employees from the top-performing plant to train the new workers themselves. This would ensure that both sets of workers are speaking the same language, and that the more elusive and difficult-to-document practices are appropriately communicated. The communication might create goodwill and understanding between the two plants— ingredients that might provide fertile ground for another community of practice.
Companies and their management must not expect a community of practice to be the magic solution to a business problem. Inappropriate application and cooptation of communities of practice by managers can be especially damaging. A valuable community of practice may not only cease to exist, but its former members may sour on the concept of engaging in such an informal group, and be reluctant to share the ideas and information so critical to innovation. Worse, they may leave for a competitor, whose organization is more hands-off and has a better understanding of what conditions are necessary for communities of practice to thrive.
Facilitating the effectiveness of communities of practice may be as simple as laying off the gas, so to speak, on the work output expected of engineers. Creativity and innovation cannot be forced, and pushing the limits often involves trial and error (read: failure). However, engineers are a motivated, disciplined group, and will very likely create the communities of practice they need to learn, to explore, and to get the job done. Management must learn to stand back and give communities of practice the organizational space necessary to be most effective. Time and patience are required to yield benefits, but they’re usually well worth it.