Communities of Practice as the Basis of Silos

E. Forrest Christian Organizations Leave a Comment

I am simply trying to get this down.

Communities of practice, left unmolested in a small organization, formalized and evolved (i.e., changed into the new form of) the functional silo. That’s why getting rid of the functional silo is so difficult: they keep on coming back. Walk with me on this one.

When a company is small, below the magical Dunbar number for that group of individuals, everyone can know everyone else. They all work together for a particular goal, a general goal to which they all contribute. As this small group grows past about 40 (that’s a guess, but it’s a hypothesis that I can justify in the literature), smaller subgroups along work interests start to naturally form. They form so that individuals can share expertise and sharpen each other’s skills. They grow into small communities of practice: a small community of people interested in the financials, some operations folks, a group of machine operators. As these people start meeting to talk about work issues, they form bonds and get to know who is good at what and how the posers are. They may form directly around a crisis: a problem in production rallies the production crew. Maybe a small group of them discover that something can be done better and they start working on it, ad hoc. This isn’t management driven but simply happening because people like to work.

Over time, the bureaucratization occurs along these natural lines. It’s not just division of labor but interest in certain things over others. When groups are small, they can stay interested in all things. As they grow, they become specialized in a slightly natural way.

Otto, two men, detailI suppose that I’m arguing that part (not all) of the reason that silos developed in the 19th century was not simply division of labor. Specialists had already divided communities into work practice communities much earlier. Certainly the medieval guilds (such as the Butchers’ Guild in Antwerp) form on the basis of work, but extend themselves much farther into helping or controlling other areas of their members’ lives. In this way they resemble the Roman associations, where people of like work or other combination came together for mutual support. Burials, widowhood and other life emergencies were expected to be handled by the association. Not handling them was a grave social disgrace for the group, which is part of the reason why the issue of taking care of widows and orphans occurs so frequently in the New Testament: the Christian movement became a form of association, albeit not around worklife.

As communities of practice developed in the medieval and early industrial world, they would have attracted lifetime members. In this, they differ from what we see today in CoP. Our more mobile and transient society — coupled with the fact that many of todays younger American cohorts will have five careers over their working life — mean that groups gather around a work problem, form, develop ways, and then disintegrate into fond memories. At least that’s what Ettiene Wenger said in his article on the CoP lifecycle.

As they grew, the CoP would develop at least two different forms of leader. One would be the Expert, the person who has the greatest depth of experience and skill in solving the work problems. The Expert’s social standing is tied to the particulars of that place and technology, quite often, making a new technology or process rather status-threatening. These would be respected Elders of the Community but not those who determine a new path. The other leaders would be simply those who can provide context for the work of the others.

Manuscript text detail, story of the golden fleece, Fleur d'Histoire

As the workplace grew, the CoP would naturally form around work problems or interests. These are not work teams but informal work friendships around a particular problem. (If you aren’t comfortable with the concept yet, take a look at some of the links that I’ve provided in my earlier post about Communities of Practice.) This group gets recognized by the owner of the company, who starts sending them problems in a more official manner. That leads to wanting accountability, which means putting a boss over them, and suddenly you have not only created a functional silo but you killed the CoP. More or less.

I do wonder if CoP can form across level of abstraction. Would designers and programmers be able to live inside the same CoP? It seems to me that this would cause some issues: they’re dealing with two related but very different problems. I wonder if this is the reason that CoPs in more professional areas don’t stay coherent. (There’s that story about the silicon designers at Intel that is intriguing in this regards, mostly because it would mean that I’m totally off: then again, I think that the community is just the very top experts. Need more research here.)

I’m not arguing that companies don’t create functional silos at the start nowadays, just that they have a reasonable opportunity to be created even if you left everything to “just happen”. Keeping things informal would actually take strong leadership, something W.L Grace & Associates obviously has even though most of its fans ignore it.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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