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Cultivating Vibrant Communities of Practice

Brian Jennings November 29, 2022

We have found the most effective way to scale practices across an organization is through the cultivation of vibrant communities of practice where learning, growth, and mastery of the craft are celebrated. Why? By bringing people together with a common passion, each social connection created becomes a new potential channel for learning.

Community gathering in an office

The concept behind a Community of Practice (CoP), is not a new idea. Humans have been coming together to learn from one another long before Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave coined the term in their 1991 book, Situated Learning.

In the book, Wenger and Lave identified that learning, at its core, is a social process and not something that can happen in a learner’s mind alone. Their book is a commentary on how a community allows practitioners of varying skill levels to connect, speak about activities, and share knowledge in a way that propels their learning and growth.

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Introduction to Communities of Practice by Etienne & Beverly Wenger-Trayner

Even though Wenger and Lave focused on communities of midwives, tailors, and butchers, the process of learning through communities is powerful and can be applied to any craft!

At VMware Tanzu Labs, we work with client organizations to strengthen their software development practices. “Software Development” is typically broken down into several roles or disciplines depending on the organization. Each discipline has its own craft or mastery. There is the mastery of operating a platform, writing software, designing applications, and managing a product, just to name a few.

Communities create support networks where practitioners are both teachers and students alike. You might be teaching someone about continuous integration one minute and learning about source control from someone else the next. The larger the community, the larger the support network, and the easier it is to take on newcomers and help the organization grow.

A group at a table

We not only recommend this method to our customers, we also heavily invest in our own communities of practice within VMware. Internally, we have communities of practice for design, engineering, product, and program management among others! Community organizers host talks, workshops, and book clubs where members meet and develop in their craft. As VMware shifted to a distributed workforce, Slack became integral for connecting members across geographic boundaries. Communities have Slack channels where members ask questions, receive support, and regularly hold discourse on emerging trends in the industry.

Just because a community exists doesn’t necessarily mean it is effective at helping practitioners grow and develop. Community effectiveness can ebb and flow over time as group membership, interests, and the nature of the work changes.

What does a “healthy” community look like? Well, it’s no surprise that a healthy community of practice is built upon an underpinning of psychological safety. Practitioners need to feel safe asking questions and saying when they need help. In turn, mentors should willingly share their experiences to help others and improve the knowledge of the community as a whole. A healthy community should be continuously evaluating and evolving its practices as they learn from their own experiences and those of experts in the industry.

A group chatting

At Tanzu Labs, we have observed many thriving communities of practice fail to adapt from an in-person working model to a distributed working model during the COVID pandemic. When in person, there were clear channels for communication and interaction with others in the group. When organizations became remote overnight, in-person communication channels disappeared and some organizations failed to re-create a good distributed analog. For many practitioners, they lost their support network, and their ability to learn from others and felt disconnected from their community.

Like any agile practice, the community itself should be designed to evolve and adapt over time as group membership, interests and goals change.

“What makes a community of practice succeed depends on the purpose and objective of the community as well as the interests and resources of the members of that community.”

Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge by Etienne Wenger, Richard Arnold McDermott, and William Snyder

VMware Tanzu Labs offers a Practice Leadership consulting service where we work alongside customer leadership teams and help build stronger communities of practice within their organizations. VMware Practice Leads have expertise in a particular discipline of software development and work to strengthen the practices of that particular discipline. For example, a VMware Design Practice Lead might work with a customer Design Director to strengthen the design community in that customer’s organization. We typically recommend staffing a “balanced team” of Practice Leads to ensure all disciplines see the benefit from investments made into their communities of practice.

Here’s a list of tips and activities that are a favorite among VMware Tanzu Labs Practice Leads:

  1. Integrate agile practices (like retrospectives) into the community so it evolves over time as group membership and interests change. Community value to individuals should be your north star.
  2. Build social connections during group time so that practitioners collaborate outside of group time. If a community is large, smaller breakout groups will allow members to form more personal bonds.
  3. Run activities to understand the diverse experience levels of the group. Use this information to connect mentors with mentees.
  4. Organize a variety of activities that appeal to the various learning styles and desired levels of participation within the group - talks, workshops, book clubs, feedback sessions, hack sessions, etc.
  5. Align activity topics to the interests and experience levels of the group. Offer options when possible so that both old-timers and new-comers are getting value out of community events. Rather than holding a large group discussion on a single topic, consider an “Unconference” style discussion where smaller groups organically form around topics that interest them.
  6. Although the members themselves are the most valuable part of the community, find ways to incorporate outside ideas (eg, from industry thought-leaders) to provide diverse perspectives.