Originally published May 25, 2020

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My new book Handbook of Community Management: A Guide to Leading Communities of Practice will be published in July, 2020. Thus I was interested to see a new blog post, magazine article, and webinar on the topic of communities of practice (CoPs) in recent days.

A community of practice by Seth Godin

Learning happens mostly outside the classroom. Learning is the difficult work of experiencing incompetence on our way to mastery. And learning opens the door to identity.

When someone says, “I am a nurse,” they’ve taken their learning and certification, combined it with their livelihood and announced it as their identity. And this all happens from community. The standards and practices, the support, the status roles. People like us do things like this.

Communities of practice have been written about for decades, but they’re being transformed and amplified by the persistent and permeable nature of the net. When we surround ourselves with a community, it’s inevitable that it changes our identity.

Enterprise of the future update: More disruption ahead by Art Murray

In KM “phyles” (pronounced “phy-lees”) are somewhat analogous to communities of practice or communities of interest (CoPs/CoIs). Recently, the concept of a phyle has experienced a resurgence, not based on family or geography as they were in ancient Greece, but based on common interests and goals. This resurgence is driven in part by the frustration people are feeling about being forced into making binary choices regarding the groups with which they want to be identified: public versus private, capitalist versus socialist, and liberal versus conservative. However, with phyles, the choices are essentially infinite. Any and all varieties of shared values, and approaches for promoting and realizing them, are fair game.

Community Organizing: Empowering Knowledge Managers presented by Ivan Butina on May 21, 2020 (accessible to those who registered for the Midwest KM Symposium)

Webinar Description: While taking a Harvard course on community organizing, Ivan realized that this approach could significantly improve the often-struggling people side of KM. How to motivate people to do something? How to build relationships that lead to a culture of commitment? How to win key stakeholders? How to use scarce resources to obtain more of them and achieve strategic goals? These are some of the key questions the community organizing model answer, and they are the same ones we face in our day-to-day job as KM professionals. Hear how parts of community organizing are integrated with the materials on communities of practice, developed with the World Bank Group team, influenced UNICEF’s first-ever organizational KM strategy, offering a practical approach that can empower KM professionals in the work they do, from the highest strategic level to leading culture change toward increased knowledge sharing. Get insights and ideas to use in your organization.

I participated in the group chat during this webinar. Here is that portion of the chat:

  • P: I’m starting to prefer the term Community of Purpose over Community of Practice as it emphasizes the action and impact objective.
  • L: I like that term.
  • H: Very interesting! I can see the benefits of that name, plus we can use the same initialism (CoP).
  • N: Community of Purpose seems like a nice alternative.
  • G: Yes.
  • R: Yes, I like Community of *Purpose* as well :)
  • Stan: Changing a widely used, existing term such as Community of Practice to something else is a big challenge, similar to trying to rename knowledge management. I have written about community types and terminology and about alternative names for KM.
  • R: I hear you Stan, but some many organizations don’t use it at all. It also sounds a bit old-fashioned, not? ;)
  • H: To R’s point, especially if an organization is not really using the current term CoPractice, who better than us in KM to make the change to CoPurpose to happen!
  • N: True, Stan. Changing an acronym or title is one of the biggest challenges and doesn’t change the perspective of people, many a time.
  • P: Stan, thanks for sharing. I wasn’t suggesting that we all change terminology. Just my own preference and the one which I have begun to use in introducing KM concepts to non-KM folks.

I first encountered an advocate for the term “community of purpose” in 2008. The expression appeared again in a presentation in 2016, but as far as I can tell, it never caught on.

I have written about whether or not to seek a new name for knowledge management. Now I add my thoughts on seeking a new name for communities of practice.

The idea that we should come up with new names for long-established terms is not new. Personnel departments became human resources and some then became talent management. In some cases, libraries became information centers or media centers. These name changes did not actually improve anything.

I have also written that the topics for communities should use industry-standard or widely used terminology, not esoteric or organization-specific jargon. The same holds for the names of initiatives and approaches. A new name may sound good to you, but its use will likely result in others asking, “what do you mean by that?” If you use a term that is understood by many people and has a generally accepted meaning, there is a better chance that your intent will be understood.

If you decide that you don’t like the term “knowledge management” and begin calling it “social learning” because you prefer it, you will inevitably be asked, “what is social learning?” You could answer with a detailed explanation, or you could say “what we used to call ‘knowledge management’.” If you start using “community of purpose” a similar exchange may ensue. So why not just use the term that is well known?

Two of the reasons from the chat were:

  • “Community of purpose” emphasizes the action and impact objective.
  • “Community of practice” sounds a bit old-fashioned.

I doubt that most people will hear the new term and think to themselves, “that really emphasizes action!” Some institutions may have thought the term “library” was old-fashioned when they decided to rename it a “media center,” but the rest of the world has mostly stuck with “library” without any negative consequences.

The names that we use to identify concepts can make a difference. If a term has negative connotations, it might need to be changed. For example, in Spanish speaking countries, the Chevy Nova was a bad brand name because “no va” means “no go” in Spanish.

If a term has been in use for a long time, it’s probably best to keep using it. Rather than spending time and effort trying to introduce a new name for communities of practice, I suggest spending that time on helping people to use communities more effectively. Don’t rely on the name of a KM approach to convince someone to use it. Instead, communicate compelling use cases for it.

Written by

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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