It’s said that a wise person learns from his mistakes. A wiser one learns from others’ mistakes. But the wisest person of all learns from others’ successes.
—Zen proverb adapted by John C. Maxwell
Communities of Practice
Communities of Practice (CoPs) are organized groups of people who have a common interest in a specific technical or business domain. They collaborate regularly to share information, improve their skills, and actively work on advancing the general knowledge of the domain.
Healthy CoPs have a culture built on professional networking, personal relationships, shared knowledge, and common skills. Combined with voluntary participation, CoPs provide knowledge workers with opportunities to experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose beyond their daily tasks on an Agile Release Train (ART) .
CoPs enable practitioners to exchange knowledge and skills with people across the entire organization. This open membership offers access to a wide range of expertise to help with technical challenges, fuel continuous improvement and allows more meaningful contributions to the larger goals of the Enterprise. The result is that organizations benefit from rapid problem-solving, improved quality, cooperation across multiple domains, and increased retention of top talent.
According to Wenger  CoPs must have three distinct traits to be considered a community of practice, as shown in Figure 1:
- Domain – An area of shared interest
- Practice – A shared body of knowledge, experiences, and techniques
- Community – A self-selected group of individuals who care enough about the topic to participate in regular interactions
Lean-Agile principles and practice promote cross-functional teams and programs that facilitate value delivery in the Enterprise. Similarly, Lean thinking emphasizes organizing people with different skills around a Value Stream. However, developers need to talk with other developers, testers need to talk with other testers, Product Owners need to communicate with their peers from other Agile Teams, and so on. This is critical for leveraging the multiple experiences and different types of practical knowledge available from a variety of people. That is what drives craftsmanship and continuous learning, facilitating the adoption of new methods and techniques.
Such domain-focused interactions are often supported by CoPs—informal networks designed specifically for efficient knowledge-sharing and exploration across teams, trains, and the entire organization. Figure 2 provides an example of role-based CoPs, one of the most common types of communities.
For example, Scrum Masters from different Agile teams may form a CoP to exchange practices and experiences in building highly productive Agile teams. As CoPs start to gain acceptance and participation, topic-based communities like those shown in Figure 3 often begin to emerge.
The membership of these CoPs can be far more diverse. A CoP on the topic of DevOps could attract participants from almost any role in an organization.
An automated testing CoP could be comprised of test engineers and developers interested in advancing these skills. An Agile architecture and design CoP could foster the adoption of practices such as emergent design, intentional system architecture, Continuous Integration, and refactoring. It could also support the effort put into building and maintaining the Architectural Runway, foster design thinking and designing for testability and deployment, application security, and more. Still, others may be formed around Agile coaching, DevOps and the Continuous Delivery Pipeline, Compliance, Built-In Quality practices, and other new processes.
Organizing a Community of Practice
CoPs are highly organic, and like most living organisms they have a natural life cycle, beginning with an idea for a new community and ending when the community members feel the group has achieved its objectives or is no longer providing value. Figure 4 shows the typical life cycle of a CoP.
CoPs are formed in the committing stage by a small, core group of practitioners who share a common passion and need for a particular domain. As shown in Figure 5, CoP members exhibit multiple levels of participation.
Each level is described next:
- Core team – The core team forms the heart of the community that will organize, charter, market, nurture, and operate the community.
- Active – These members work closely with the core team to help shape the definition and direction of the CoP. This includes defining the community’s shared vision, purpose, roles, strategies for interaction, marketing, and communications.
- Occasional – These members participate when specific topics of interest are addressed or when they have something to contribute to the group. They are often the largest group in the community.
- Peripheral – These members feel a connection to the community, but engage on a limited basis. These could be newcomers or those who have a more casual interest in community activities.
- Transactional – These members are the least connected to the community and may connect only to access CoP resources or to provide a specific service to the CoP (for example, website support).
It’s common for people to move between different levels of participation and commitment over time. CoPs are self-organizing, and their members have the freedom to determine their own level of engagement that is different from other work groups, such as tiger teams, task forces, and committees. Natural movement of people among communities and levels is healthy. It allows new knowledge and fresh ideas to flow across the organization in ways that are different, but complementary, to formal information-sharing.
Operating a Community of Practice
Since CoPs are informal and self-managing by nature, community members are empowered to design the types of interactions and determine the frequency that best meets their needs. For developers, this could involve hackathons, coding dojos, and tech talks. Other formats might include meetups, brown bags, webinars, and independent communications through social business platforms such as Slack, Confluence, and Jive.
In the operating stage of a CoP, community members continuously evolve by engaging in periodic retrospectives similar to those used by Agile teams. Core team members focus on maintaining the health of the community by:
- Keeping things simple and informal
- Fostering trust
- Ensuring the rapid flow of communication and shared awareness
- Increasing the shared body of knowledge developed in the CoP
By fostering CoP formation, Lean-Agile Leaders show support by continuously communicating the value of CoPs, highlighting success stories and recognizing the efforts of community volunteers. Leaders can also support CoPs by providing meeting spaces, logistical support, and funding for meetups, tooling, and communications infrastructure.
Eventually, individual CoPs will run their course, and community members should consider retiring the CoP, allowing practitioners to commit their energies to other communities. Signals that a community has reached this stage include a steady decline in event participation and reduced activity on collaboration sites and input from community retrospectives. When a CoP is retired, leaders should make it a positive event where community successes are celebrated, key contributors are recognized, and ongoing participation in other CoPs is encouraged. Through these celebrations, CoP experiences often become part of company lore, and it is not uncommon for a healthy CoP retirement to spawn three to five new communities.
The Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration presents a great opportunity for CoPs to hold learning sessions, formal or informal, as well as other activities such as coding dojos, coaching clinics, and the like.
The role of Lean-Agile Leaders is to encourage and support people’s desire to improve. This helps the enterprise improve and unlocks the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers, as discussed in SAFe Principle #8. CoPs embrace the ideals of respect for people, innovation, flow, and relentless improvement described in the House of Lean.
Learn More Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, 2009.  The Distance Consulting Company. Community of Practice Start-Up Kit, 2000.
Last update: 25 October, 2017