Leveraging a 1000-year-old idea at work

Photo credit: Joachim Müllerchen If you wanted to be a metal-worker 1000 years ago, your best chance was to join a guild, a community of other metal workers from whom you would learn your craft.

Today, when you aspire to rise through the ranks in your firm, you get a short orientation and are left to figure things out on your own. Sure, you attended university but nothing prepared you for how to navigate your particular firm, understand its practices, and get things done. As a result, you may spend years, even your entire career, on a grossly unproductive meander in the hopes of becoming more effective.

Inside firms, the modern equivalent of the guild is the community of practice. It’s a construct so incredibly useful and powerful that every firm should implement it. But few do - and even those few rarely realize their full potential.

Even better than guilds

Guilds were extremely useful as centers of knowledge. Early guilds led to universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in the 13th century. Our ideas of apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen were born and institutionalized in the guilds. A masterpiece was, literally, a piece of work that you had to create to demonstrate your mastery of the craft and earn a place in the guild.

But the key to the guilds’ success was control. Control of information allowed them to preserve control over their trade. And that control, in time, actually made trade less efficient while creating rigid social structures. People as different as Adam Smith and Karl Marx grew to reject guilds.

Communities of Practice address that. Like the guilds, it’s “through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.” But now they can do so in an open, accessible way. Using modern tools, a single Community of Practice can help thousands of people in a firm get better at what they do while fostering meaningful, purposeful relationships at work.

Why so few of them?

The body of evidence about the value of communities is growing. More and more people are writing about them since Etienne Wenger’s seminal books over a decade ago. Harold Jarche, for example, writes about how they enable the integration of work and learning. Nick Milton writes about their business benefits, what makes them successful, and provides a rich set of resources for managing them.

I’ve written about communities of practice, too, as we’ve implemented them at our firm. In the year that's passed, they've been valuable, but something’s been missing.

What’s makes communities of practice powerful is that they tap into people’s intrinsic motivation to become better at what they do and to connect with people like them. But in the effort to avoid impinging on that motivation, they are too often distanced from the authority and resources of the corporate hierarchy. (Nick Milton writes: “all products they create are for the benefit of the community members. Communities of practice generally are voluntary, and often have little or no funding from the host company.")

In an attempt to make them less formal, we have too few of them in most companies. And the ones we have are too often weakened adjuncts at work instead of at the core of work.

Imagine this

I’ve experienced both the promise and the pitfalls of Communities of Practice. And so this is something I’m working on: trying to preserve communities as an important part of a more humane and effective workplace while also relating them more explicitly to existing organizational and performance management structures.

Imagine if, when you joined your firm, HR directed you to an online community of dozens (or thousands) or people who had jobs at the firm similar to yours. Imagine all the material you needed to do your job was there - the templates, the processes, the policies. But so was all of the training relevant to your job and views from peers on what was most valuable. All of the formal certifications people got to mark their advanced proficiency. All of the people who could help you when had a question about work. All of the jobs.

Imagine if HR, instead of compartmentalizing what they do for employees into different subdivisions, actually created the human centers that bring all that work together. And imagine if communities, instead of being volunteer armies off to the side, actually included community roles recognized by HR and determined, for example, HR training curricula and job certifications based on proficiency instead of corporate title.

Do you have communities of practice at your firm? If not, why not? If you do, what’s working and not working?

After 1000 years, it’s time to finally make this powerful idea a formal part of how we all get better at what we do.