Cultivating Communities of Practice:
A Guide to Managing Knowledge

Reviewed by: 
By Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William Snyder
Harvard Business School Press
First, 2002
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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In a world where knowledge is an increasingly important component of business life, this book looks at the way in which organisations can create, encourage and promote the development of communities that will share knowledge and information.

The authors point out that although such communities sometimes will develop naturally, this is not always the case and that creating them and stimulating their growth is therefore a good idea.

Interestingly, creating cross-functional groups of this kind is something I have personally used as a means of cutting across an organisation’s political barriers and getting the people who really matter talking to one another. However, while I had simply seen this as a solution to a particular problem, what the book made me realise is that it is a process that has wider applicability and that can be used in a variety of ways.

To assist the reader in getting started, the book describes seven principles that should form the basis of such communities and then moves on to looking at the development process for getting them established. It breaks the process down into five stages of development, highlights problems that are likely to arise at each stage and suggests ways to either prevent the problems from occurring or solve them if they do.

I personally believe that the sharing of knowledge across organisations, or even across wider communities, is hugely valuable and important, especially in today’s fast-moving global markets. Moreover, the technology of the Internet, telephony and video conferencing makes the establishment of such communities much easier than it would have been in the past, and yet very few organisations actively encourage their development. For those that do, the benefits can be enormous - the book gives examples from organisations such as McKinsey, the World Bank, DaimlerChrysler and Shell.

I did not find this the easiest of books to read, but I would never-the-less recommend it as a good practical introduction to communities of practice written by recognised authorities on the subject.

About the Authors
Etienne Wenger is a renowned expert and consultant on knowledge management and is generally regarded as the top authority on the subject of "communities of practice", which is not really surprising as it was he who coined the term in the first place. Richard McDermott is a leading expert on organisation and community development and William Snyder is a founding partner of the Social Capital Group, in Massachusetts.

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