Made Tech Blog

Communities of practice: the value to people, organisations and clients

Communities of practice (COPs) are pretty common, especially in large organisations that have different disciplines. A COP is a group of people who all share a common interest in doing something. In a business context, it’s usually specific to a skillset. For example, at Made Tech we have COPs for things like cloud and engineering, data, delivery and user-centred design. 

I wasn’t here when the first COP at Made Tech started, but I was here early on for our delivery one. It got to a tipping point where there were around 6 delivery people and someone said: “Hey, why don’t we get together and have a chat?” That’s usually a starting point for how communities of practice form. 

COPs are intended to serve the needs of the people in them. Members communicate on Slack channels and online forums. They also get together regularly and do different activities like lunch and learns, show and tells, and training sessions from external organisations. They may not have a formal agenda, and even if they do the agenda doesn’t need to be followed closely.

Roles within a COP

COPs organise themselves. The people in them set their own agendas and establish their own leadership.

How COPs self-organise can vary, and you can have different roles in different COPs. But here are some of the ones that are pretty common.

The organisers – They’re fully committed. They set the meetings up, run them, manage sessions and organise activities. 

The participants – They’re active members, but not driving members. They go along to most of the sessions, take part in discussions, and take in the information.

The observers – These people observe what’s happening in COPs. They don’t necessarily contribute, or join every meeting, but they’ll keep an eye on what’s going on. 

The neighbours – They don’t take part, but they’re interested in some way. For example, they may sponsor or support other COP members. They might benefit from some COP activity or hearing about what the community’s doing.

You’re not limited to one role. For example, you could be an organiser in one COP, and an observer in another. You might be an organiser for a couple of months, and then shift to more of an observer or participant as other priorities in your work life change. But if you don’t want to or don’t have the time to get heavily involved that’s more than OK. It doesn’t make your contribution any less valuable. It also doesn’t make what you can get out of that COP less valuable to you. 

You’ll still learn lots of new things and maybe even build your confidence to get more involved in the future. It’s more about looking at how you can contribute and develop your skills, based on what’s appropriate for you at the time. Feel free to drift in and out of COPs, depending on what you need from them!

My COP journey 

I started to get involved with COPs well before my time at Made Tech. I’ve been a member of COPs for years. I’ve set them up in various organisations. At Made Tech I’m part of the delivery COP, attend a lot of the sessions, and contribute to conversations. I’ve also been a driving force behind our health community of interest (COI). We only have one COI at Made Tech so far. 

We deliberately didn’t call this one a COP. We wanted to make it clear that it’s for people who share a similar interest in a subject rather than a particular role or expertise. The health COI is about working in the healthcare sector and the things people need to understand when working in a healthcare setting. The people in this COP have an interest in the same thing, but come at it from different perspectives (i.e. with a delivery, or user-centred design hat on). 

We wanted to make sure we’re being as inclusive as possible to people from all capabilities at Made Tech. 

Value to people

The clear value to people is around sharing knowledge and learning from teammates. It’s a great way to develop in your career. For example, you can get a lot out of being someone who drives something forward for a COP. You could help to organise sessions. You could also write blog posts that can help people learn new things. Blog posts can serve as a useful guide that people can refer to.  

COPs can be beneficial to people when they first join an organisation. They can help teammates to settle in. In project work, someone might be the only business analyst or engineer, for example. Being part of a COP means they’ll have a ready formed network of people who speak the same language as them, and are experiencing the same problems.

Value to organisations

Anything that helps teams to develop their skills and become better at what they do is valuable to an organisation. That’s what’s so great about COPs. You can figure out where the skills and knowledge gaps are and fill them.

You may need some budget for COP activities like paying for training from an external person. But high-value things that can help you to think of better ideas and solutions are a good investment. Trust your team to identify the COP’s needs for investment in things. 

Coming together to solve problems as a team instead of figuring things out on your own is also really valuable. It speeds things up because you’re not racking your brain over a problem by yourself for hours. Sharing your ideas with others gives you the confidence that what you’re proposing is a good thing. It’s based on the knowledge of lots of people in the COP. This is what effective agile working looks like, which we value a lot at Made Tech.

Value to clients

The value for clients is pretty much the same as for the organisation. But to add to that, for any project, on paper, it might look like you have 10 people working on it on the direct team. But actually clients can benefit from the shared knowledge of many different teammates in COPs. Each team member has a COP with 10’s or even 100’s of members they can tap into.

There’s a richness in sharing our COPs with our clients. If clients have their own, we can do joint sessions. We can draw inspiration from each other and share knowledge. If clients don’t have COPs they can get a feel for what they’re all about and we can help them set up their own. We’ve set up quite a few at Made Tech so we know what the journey looks like.

Create the right environment

If you try to force a COP to work, it probably won’t. You have to create the right environment for it to happen. And that’s quite a subtle thing. 

If you’re thinking of setting one up, identify a couple of passionate people, and give them the space, time and resources to get started. Don’t try to make it into something. It needs to be organic, not forced. If you tell people it has to be a certain way, it kills it because people feel like they have to take part. Whereas if you ask people what they need, and let them know you have some investment for the COP it’s more likely to succeed. Let the team make decisions about how to run it. 

There are no real drawbacks

Communities of practice are really useful, and there’s no real drawback to having them. You’ll often find people spend lots of hours on them, because they care.

When you work with us, you can join any of our COPs. You don’t need to be an expert in any particular field. Start by joining the dedicated COP Slack channel for the ones you want to join. You can be as involved as you want.

About the Author

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Catherine Whibley

Principal Delivery Manager at Made Tech

Catherine Whibley, is a Delivery Principal at Made Tech, a healthcare data and digital practices specialist who has been instrumental in delivering solutions that benefit and develop the wellbeing of citizens and staff. Catherine has over a decade of experience working alongside the NHS, delivering public health monitoring, clinical research and digital product development projects. Now, working with Made Tech, Catherine continues to strive towards improving the national healthcare sector in a way that provides the highest quality of outcomes for both citizens and staff.