Employees at Mid-Continent Refinery [ca. 1943 Tulsa, OK (LOC). By John Vachon]

Communities of Practice Help Teams and Their Managers Perform Better

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Robert McDermott has written an excellent (if aged) introduction for people who don’t yet understand Communities of Practice (CoP). He compares and contrasts them to teams, and describes how a community of practice can complement teams in team-based organizations in a way that the Matrix Organization (“does the Matrix have YOU?”) does not.

Matrix organizations are almost always a bad idea because they make accountability cloudy at best.

In McDermott’s opinion — and he’s pretty respected — the way to handle the need of team-based organizations to have not a matrix of functional and project reporting but just project/team reporting, with communities of practice encouraged to take the place of the functional silo’s particular focus on their field.

It’s a great idea and we should all take heed. Unfortunately, he’s really short on implementation details. Maybe he put them together since then. I would reckon that this will fail in 50% of the implementations because the implementers won’t first take care of horrible reporting relationships. Okay, so I am thinking about how IT works. Because CoP need to all be thinking about the same thing, I suspect that they don’t work across Jaques’s Complexity of Information Processing (CIP) strata in Stratified Systems Theory / Requisite Organization or the things developed off that research, such as David Billis’s “worklevels” or Bioss International’s levels of work.

My surmise is that Communities of Practice are the informal organization piece which Elliott Jaques condemns so roundly in General Theory of Bureaucracy. He shouldn’t have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In a requisite organization company, you would want to still have these non-formalized mentoring relationships. I may be bossed by you, but maybe you don’t have any idea how to program a secure transaction facility in Java. Who does, really?

But that’s not the point.

I would still have to pick up the phone and talk to someone who is familiar with the technology. Sometimes the boss can do that and most of the time he can’t. There’s a point where you are hiring experts so that you don’t have to learn all of that, allowing you to keep to the generalities of the tech. You can’t stay tech focused when you’re running the show.

McDermott, Robert (1999). “Learning Across Teams: The Role of Communities of Practice in Team Organizations“. Knowledge Management Review, May/June 1999.

The article is available online in at leat a couple of formats, but the easiest to get is from Community Intelligence Labs’ Knowledge Garden.

Image Credit: “Employees at Mid-Continent Refinery” [ca. 1943 Tulsa, OK]. FSA photography by John Vachon. Via Library of Congress Collection.

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