There is a natural lifecycle or maturation cycle for communities of practice.
We can see that through the many Maturity models that people have set up for CoPs; many many people recognise a maturation process. I am not going to propose or describe a maturity model here, though we have developed one at Knoco that seems to work very well.
Instead, I am going to talk about a change in the life of a CoP, when it begins to take control of it's area of practice; when it "takes the wheel" if you like.
The early stages of a CoP are dominated by relationship-building, trust-building and cementing the community "ways of working."
The next stage is when the CoP begins to operate as a mechanism to solve the problems of the individual members. This is done either through Question and Answer (so that members raise questions which the others answer), or by exchanging practices, so that people can see, learn and adopt a better practioce that their own (sometimes converging on a community "best" practice).
However there is another stage. I remember seeing this happen in one community I was involved with, half way through a community core team meeting, when someone leaned forward excitedly and said something to the effect of "You know, with all the knowledge we have in this network, we should be able to cut the costs of this process by half". It's the step where the CoP realises the power of its collective experience, and decides to go beyond solving individual problems, to taking the next step forward in understanding and improving the discipline itself.
How do they do this?
Firstly, the nature of the dialogue with the sponsor changes, The CoP starts to tell the sponsor what's needed, rather than vice versa. They begin to identify the common problems, the common "drag factors", the common opportunities that all their members face. They set up work groups, they start to act like a huge quality circle, or a huge Six Sigma group. They set themselves, collectively, aggressive targets. They request the initiation or research programs or other initiatives.
They "take the wheel".