In my last post I listed ten strategies for integrating learning with work. They are a combination of concepts and methods that build knowledge and bring learning into day to day activities and workflow.  In this post I describe strategies 4 and 5. Both can improve informal learning without pulling people way from the job for formal (classroom or e-learning) training.


1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to business process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a Community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action Learning
8. Organizational learning Practices
9. Design jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

4. Build a Community of Practice

I’m a fan of Communities of Practice (CoP).  They are environments (usually supported by technology) for groups of people with a common mission or interest to communicate, share learn and build knowledge needed to more effectively solve problems and accomplish work.  They are more a concept than a specific tool and they can take many unique configurations. They are grounded in the communication and interaction between people as they solve shared problems. As a result CoP’s create knowledge as much as they transfer it–an essential feature in effective knowledge work-and they foster informal learning focused on specific problem domains.

CoP’s have been around for as long as human beings have learned and worked together. Communication technologies have simply allowed us to invent environments to structure and enable the knowledge exchange at the heart of the community.  Etienne Wenger identifies some of the benefits of workplace CoPs:

  • Communities among practitioners create a direct link between learning and performance, because the same people participate in communities of practice and in teams and business units.
  • Communities of practice enable practitioners to take collective responsibility for managing the knowledge they need, recognizing that, given the proper structure, they are in the best position to do this.
  • Practitioners can address the tacit and dynamic aspects of knowledge creation and sharing, as well as the more explicit aspects.
  • Communities are not limited by formal structures: they create connections among people across organizational and geographic boundaries.
Designing Communities of Practice

Can CoPs be “designed” or do they simply “emerge” from participants as they work together?   Certainly, they self-organize and develop their own conventions and culture of interaction, knowledge creation and sharing and in this way they emerge from the hearts and minds of the people participating.  A successful community will not require much management, but their success can be influenced by a well structured community environment and guidance on the behaviours of productive community participation.

Learning consultants cannot “design” the learning outcomes of a CoP, but conversely no CoP can fully design its own learning.  They will self-organize, but they flourish when their learning fits with their organizational objectives.  The art is to help such communities find resources and connections without burdening them with too much structure.   In these ways Cop’s are both designed and emergent.

Keeping Communities of Practice Alive

Communities of Practice have been around long enough now that we’ve learned how to get them up and running but we’re less adept at keeping them going.  They are notoriously hard to keep active.   CoPs have a natural life-cycle when they are built around time limited projects and they should be free to disassemble when they have served their purpose.  Other CoPs have longer term value and motivation can sometimes wane midcourse.

What Can You Do?

Etienne Wenger provides these actions that various roles in an organization can take to support and optimize the benefits of Communities of Practice:

  • Line managers must make sure that people are able to participate in the right communities of practice so they sustain the expertise they need to contribute to projects.
  • Knowledge managers must go beyond creating informational repositories that take knowledge to be a “thing,” toward supporting the whole social and technical ecology in which knowledge is retained and created.
  • Training departments must move the focus from training initiatives that extract knowledge out of practice to learning initiatives that leverage the learning potential inherent in practice.
  • Strategists must find ways to create two-way connections between communities of practice and organizational strategies.
  • Change managers must help build new practices and communities to bring about changes that will make a constructive difference.
  • Accountants must learn to recognize the capital generated when communities of practice increase an organization’s learning potential.
  • Work process designers must devise process improvement systems that thrive on, rather than substitute for, engaged communities of practice.
5. Use Social Media to Facilitate Informal Learning

Ah, social media.  So much has been written about the impact on learning of the tools we now collectively refer to as Web 2.0  that you hardly need more here.  In an earlier post I listed some ways to support organizational learning with Social Media.

However, from the perspective of integrating learning and work, social media is a technical platform for sharing, collaborating and communicating while work is being accomplished.  While it has been enormously popular in the public sphere, it has met with resistance inside organizations so far.  Organizations are still worried that social media is a little too…well…social.  However, what we’ve learned somewhere between learning 1.0 and learning 2.0 is that learning is also well…social…and that the informal networked organization is as important as the formal structure for accomplishing valuable work.

While there are advocates for simply making social media available in organizations to let the learning happen.  I prefer a more interventionist approach that uses social media to help project teams, centres of excellence, action learning projects, management teams and other focused networks.  Advocates that focus on the technology are missing the point that the learning lies in the collaboration, discussion, sharing and innovating around a task or problem domain, not in the technology itself.  It lies in the formation and nurturing of communities. I think this is why enterprise software supporting Communities of Practice are moving to more social media oriented technical platforms.

Not to put too obvious a point on it, but learning happens while working and social media, more that the one way knowledge management platforms of the recent past, engage employees in the creation, capture and sharing of knowledge in ways that formal learning just can’t match.

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:
Part 1:
  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system
Part 2:
  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning
Part 3:
  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning
Part 4:
  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices
Part 5:
  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning
About the author

11 Responses
  1. Bill Sanders

    Great follow-on to the last post. The doc links for CoPs were really useful. We have some Communities in our company but I think of them more as project environments than learning environments. This gives me another perspective and some strategies for supporting them from a learning point of view. thx again. look forward to the next one.

  2. Bill;
    Thanks for the comment. Sometimes communities conduct their work without thinking they are “learning” per se. And that’s fine. But if the importance and visibility of knowledge as an outcome and legacy of their work is raised with them, they often give more attention to reflection on how they can capture and structure their “learning” for future project…how they can convert the knowledge they are generating to explicit methods and tools for others.


  3. Tom this is a great topic and I like how you’ve connected to so many great sources. I agree that tools to support learning should happen where people are learning, but I’d suggest that organizations have to be designed to learn in the first place. And as you point out, most leaders don’t consider this learning, they consider it winning.

    I think that most 20th century organizations were designed NOT to learn because “winning” means that variation from the standard is minimized so that efficiencies from manufacturing can be realized. Adoption of the best learning tools will happen by the organizations that believe working with other people to solve problems and explore issues is critical to them winning.

  4. John,
    Yes organizations can and should be designed to learn. Peter Senge (and others) have a lot to say about that. There are personal and organizational levels to helping an “organization” learn but in the end learning is done by individuals. When mechanisms are established to facilitate individual learning so becomes part of the culture/values of an organization, more collective learning starts to truly shape how well it adapts and changes (i.e. learns) in response to it’s environment.

    btw, I think that a team working together to minimize variation (as you mention) in a production system can be a fantastic example of natural learning. Helping them with the tools and empowerment to do do just that is an excellent way to design learning into organizations.

  5. Yes, I totally agree. I was lucky enough to be in a workshop at Harvard recently where Peter Senge, Etienne Wenger, Bob Kegan, and Howard Gardner all served as our anchor facilitators. Amazing to have all of them in the same room… simultaneously looking at individual, team, organization and systemic issues related to learning. I think the web 2.0 technologies are finally helping learning take place in the flow of work and enable really huge leaps forward.

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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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Recent Posts

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Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)
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Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 2)
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