However a community is not always the tool you need, and just because they are a successful component of KM, doesn't mean they are the answer to every KM problem.
Here's what John Keeble of Enterprise Oil says about communities
"We have had some people come to us saying they want to launch a community, and we have ended up encouraging them just to have a workshop. Invite the same people you would have invited to the launch of the community, and just see what level of interest there is. I think the one advantage of that is that it avoids overloading the community with excessive expectations early on. It is much easier to say "we had a workshop; we covered the subject and thats it", whereas if you launch a community, people expect to to have a lifecycle of at least 2 years, and you may discover that's not what you need"
Sometimes you don't need a community of practice, sometimes you need a workshop, or a training course, or better communication within a team or a department.
So when do you need communities of practice? You need them where they can address issues which are not otherwise easily addressed by any other group. You need them where they can cross the organisational boundaries and the organisational silos. You need them where they are multilocational and multi-departmental. Have a look at the boston square above, and the four situations it paints
Where the knowledge needs to be shared across locations and across organisational boundaries between departments, then communities are ideal
Where the knowledge needs to be shared across at a single locations and within a single department, then you don't need a community of practice. The community would merely duplicate the existing organisational structure. You don't need new structures or new community leaders or community sponsors - what you need is a better way of sharing knowledge within that department. This is the situation we describe here.
Where the knowledge needs to be shared across locations within the same department (ie you have an organisational department with geographic spread), then communities are useful when tied into the departmental structure.
Where the knowledge needs to be shared across departments within the same location, then you need a better system for sharing knowledge at that location. This may be a community of practice (which can meet face to face), or it may be a series of problem-solving workshops, or it may be a single conference. Communities are an option, but not the only option.
So think before you reach into the KM toolbox for that community tool. Make sure it's the right one for the job.
I am a director for Knoco, the international firm of knowledge management consultants, offering a range of knowledge management services, including knowledge management strategy, knowledge management framework development, and knowledge management implementation services.
I also have an interest in Lessons Learned