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Designing for Communities of Practice

Facilitating knowledge sharing amongst employees is a key corporate mandate in the new millennium.

Etienne Wenger, a pioneer in the field of communities of practice once noted: “Since the beginning of history, human beings have formed communities that accumulate collective learning into social practices-communities of practice. Knowledge of an organization lives in a constellation of communities of practice each taking care of a specific aspect of the competence that the organization needs.”

Wenger’s words are particularly relevant to the modern workplace, where people need increasing quantities of knowledge in order to remain productive and create value for their organizations. The vast majority of work taking place today requires experience, abstract reasoning, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. And since learning can improve every employee’s ability to successfully engage in these activities, it has become one of the key corporate mandates of the new millennium.

The question facing most organizations today is how can they help their employees efficiently learn new skills and share that knowledge within the organization? Researchers are finding that in many organizations, the core skills that comprise that organization’s unique strengths develop within self-organized communities of practice that result from employees finding each other and exchanging ideas in informal settings. Formal learning or development strategies do not produce core skills with the same effectiveness.

According to Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science, an important component of human intelligence is based on the idea that humans are not built to figure out everything by themselves. We often learn what to do just by watching others.

Considering Meltzoff’s findings, it makes sense that in workplaces around the globe, the most effective learning programs combine personal learning experiences with the experience of watching others. The National Center on Education Statistics reports that most adults learn more from experience gained on the job rather than through information garnered from a formal educational setting.

Office design that promotes unstructured interaction leads to the development of productive communities of practice.

High-performance organizations are cognizant of this and are creating workplaces that harness the learning that originates from the experiences of their employees and the informal communities of practice that naturally form in offices. These organizations are focused more on the learning process rather than content, and they are finding that the most successful approach to learning in the workplace combines traditional learning with organic learning or learning that is taking place in focused, collaborative, and social work modes. As a result, they are giving each member of the workforce the autonomy to claim his/her starting place and forge his/her own learning pathway.

Gensler is finding that workplace design that supports and encourages informal learning within communities of practice, as well as an individual’s personal learning pathway, has a more positive impact on business performance, efficiency, and productivity. Emergence happens through connections. Therefore, the design of the workplace plays a key role in either enhancing or hindering the ability for communities of practice to come together and emerge. When we intentionally create space that allows for connection and supports learning, we are creating a powerful force for change and growth that moves high-performance organizations beyond their competitors.

The means to harness innovative learning in any organization must be considered in the workplace and the ways in which communities are linked to each other. This design should preserve and enhance the autonomy of communities of practice, while simultaneously building interconnectedness between them.

Peter Senge asserts that team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. If teams cannot learn, organizations cannot learn.

Designing the workplace to allow knowledge to flow freely, to extend learning beyond the training room, and to develop collaboration webs is one of the key ways a high performance company can ensure that its knowledge workers can be flexible, adaptable, and quick to learn.

Janine Pesci is Gensler’s director of talent development. She recognizes that knowledge sharing is a key practice of high-performance organizations. Her 25-years of experience in organizational development helped her pioneer the talent development studio at Gensler. She remains interested in the ways design can facilitate innovative professional development. Email her at janine_pesci@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (3)


I'm excited that Gensler is studying Communities of Practice. I had the pleasure of spending a week with Etienne Wenger in early July at his home in Grass Valley. We were there for BEtreat'11, a small retreat (15 people) focused on developing leadership and facilitation capabilities for cultivating communities of practice and networks. You can read more about what came out of the retreat here: http://knowledge-architecture.com/blog/2011/07/12/what-does-a-community-of-practice-actually-do/

I've got two questions about your post:

1) When you say "Gensler is finding that workplace design that supports and encourages informal learning within communities of practice, as well as an individual’s personal learning pathway, has a more positive impact on business performance, efficiency, and productivity..." are your findings intuitive or have you gathered quantitative or qualitative data on designing environments for a CoP?

2) How does design for a CoP differ from general design principles for flexible teaming and serendipitous interaction?

Chris, first of all thank you for a thoughtful reading of this post and thanks for bearing with my flight schedule as I’ve tried to get back to you!

To answer your first question, Gensler’s quantitative data (gained from extensive survey research and analysis since 2005) has shown that environments that effectively support focus, collaboration, learning, and socializing correlate to improved business performance , whether the financial, brand, employee engagement, or various other factors. For more information, see our Workplace Survey: http://www.gensler.com/uploads/documents/2008_Gensler_Workplace_Survey_US_09_30_2009.pdf

To your second question, design strategies to support learning do track well with those supporting flexible work in terms of adjacencies, transparency, informal and formal interaction, etc. But it is difficult to make generalizations because each situation is unique to a client’s culture. What works in one company, or even more broadly between industries or geographic regions, doesn’t necessarily work in another.

But I think the urgency is about the “graying” of the workforce…we've seen clients with almost 2/3 of their employees eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, so the imperative of bringing new employees up to speed very quickly is tied inextricably to not just the success but the future existence of many companies, and it means learning must extend beyond the traditional training room and into the full experience of the workplace.
07.29.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanine Pesci
This BusinessWeek article about U.S. boomers taking knowledge with them seems to echo your point, Janine -- the last point in their list should probably be the first: "Make knowledge sharing a continual, perpetual habit, not a one-time act."

08.8.2011 | Unregistered CommenterKEK

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