Can a CoP function with only voluntary contributions?

Can a CoP function based on voluntary contributions? (Image: cflf.org)

Everyone is busy.

And yet, and yet… here we are working to nurture this community of practice (CoP) to improve the way we deal with gender and social inclusion in our research and workplace. Someone commented to me that it should not be “based on voluntary contributions”. It should systematically be built into people’s performance agreements and so on. I understand where they are coming from. And yet… I hesitate.

I hesitate first because there is a purist part of me that has read CoP theory and has read that CoPs are informal groups of people who self-organize around a domain of interest and gain value through learning from and with each other.

CoP members will be drawn from those who wish to involve themselves, and who desire to share knowledge and learn from others about a specific topic, wherever in an organisation (and in some cases, outside the organisation too) they may be located. Functional position is irrelevant; topic knowledge or interest is all that is necessary to join a CoP. … CoPs are the legitimate place for learning through participation.*

If you make it too organized then you perforce draw boundaries between participants and non-participants, you don’t leave room for spontaneous ad hoc bursts of activity from people who engage for a brief issue, you split people into experts and non-experts rather than being a group of people with the shared goal of increasing their competence. In a CoP, accountability is shared not assigned to individuals. Most importantly you diminish the learning function, which is what it is all about (and difficult to capture in outputs in a performance agreement) and turn it into a productive function.

I hesitate secondly for pragmatic reasons. I see this CoP as not extra but integrated. If as part of your work, you need to take account of (and even improve) issues of gender and social inclusion, then that is already part of your work.  If you want to do it better, then participating in the CoP is a sensible thing to do, as developing people’s and the group’s competence is what it is all about. Its whole reason for existing is to improve our gender and social inclusion competences. While participation in the CoP should feature in people’s performance agreements, because they certainly should be recognized for their contributions and time, I don’t know to what extent you can do this systematically. If members are recompensed by the organization for doing certain discrete activities with a beginning and end, you can call them ‘project teams’, not communities of practice. It has an instrumental not a learning focus.

The flip side of this, however, is that by not making activities explicitly part of staff’s paid work, nothing may get done. You have no control over what people do. There is no hierarchy and there is no work plan. (There is a strategy, but that is different.) People participate to the extent that they have time in that moment and they do activities that they are interested in doing. They move into and out of the CoP as time and interest dictate. So it happens, for example, that some activities that are very much needed by the organization simply have not attracted the interest of anyone in the CoP and thus are not being done.

Perhaps there is a case for identifying some specific people to do some specific activities which get written into their workplans and time devoted to them. It would be like having little projects within the Community of Practice, but wouldn’t be the totality of the CoP as these kinds of projects have a completely different nature.

On the one hand, you risk losing the essence of what it is to see yourself as a Community of Practice (flexible, informal, creative, learning, accountable to the community) but on the other hand, you risk not getting done the things that need to be done and not making the progress you need to make. Curious to know what others have done in similar situations.


*Coakes, Elayne, and Steve Clarke. 2006. “The Concept of Communities of Practice.” In Encyclopedia of Communities of Practice in Information and Knowledge Management, edited by Elayne Coakes and Steve Clarke, 92–96. IGI Global.

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