SCD and Intercooperation have commissioned a study called
Experiences with communities of practice in India, an important resource published in december 2005. It is a good study looking at exisiting CoPs in the development sector in India.
A wide variety of groups and networks were studied, like a farmers group producing a journal, an exchange programme, a listserv and email discussion group, and information sharing group on livelihoods and gender equity and a group championing women's rights.
The important features of the groups has been the leadership provided by a few individuals or organisations with the energy and time to contribute, not only with regard to initiation, but also for continuation. This feature was more important than financial arrangements. Most groups did not cite the need for financial resources as the major concern, most concerns were centred on roles played by the core group and alternatives to share the burden or succession arrangements (very recognisable from my experiences in Africa as well).
The study first looks at CoPs in the Indian private sector, before moving onto the development sector. The example which struck me was the example of the MBTI synergy group:
The MBTI Synergy Group was a spontaneous creation of all the people
who attended the MBTI accreditation course in April, 2004. (MBTI is a
personality or psychological type inventory developed by two
psychologists). It was built up as an e-group, participants being from 10
different Indian cities. The goal was to keep in touch with developments
and experiences of members as they continued their practice of MBTI.
The group started with around 30 members – of which most were active
through the first 6–8 months. There was no structure, as such – just
people who were excited about learning and practising MBTI and wanting
to keep in touch with each other. One of the more experienced persons
in the group took on the mantle of guiding the group including moderating
the exchanges, and another member volunteered to set up and manage
This community worked entirely through the electronic media. The
moderator suggested once or twice that people in the same city meet
up, but timing was an issue and this did not happen. Most were happy
posting their queries in the initial weeks. Since the moderator had more
hands-on experience than others, a lot of the questions were aimed at
getting his advice for specific issues. At times, the moderator took the
initiative of posting some tips that he thought people would find useful
– and always got a rich response in terms of others joining for a
‘conversation’ over a period of 10–15 days each time. The frequency was
almost daily in the initial weeks; from the third month onwards, it declined
to once a week or so. By the end of about 8 months, it became infrequent.
There was a visible shift from ‘practice’-oriented dialogue to more of
‘conceptual’ dialogue over a period of time, finally leading to dormancy.
The ‘group’ still exists (August 2005) but now has perhaps only one
exchange in several weeks.
Source: Bharat Krishnan, Note for CoP Study, Aug 2005
The interesting conclusion is that this group was not sustained beyond a certain point because the members could not practice what they were discussing. The 'tool' might also have been too specialised a subject for this group to make it a community of practice, or else the domain could have been defined much wider.
The paper ends with some lessons learned, comparing CoPs to 'Learning alliances' where a CoP would regroup peers and a learning alliances a wider diversity of people. I think this is semantics, and you'd have to find the right balance in drawing in a sufficiently wide diversity of people also within a CoP, so that you have sufficient innovation going on.
In the conclusions there is a useful distinction between the different types of knowledge that we are talking about; encoded, embedded, encultured and embrained knowledge. (cited from Blackler, 1995) Understanding the predominant type of knowledge will help to determine approaches and techniques for knowledge gathering and sharing with a CoP.