We hear a lot about communities of practice in Knowledge Management, but they are not the only type of organisational network.
Communities of practice are a very powerful component of KM, but the term can be used to cover a multitude of networks. In order to manage these networks well, we need to differentiate the different types so they can be given the correct resources and structure.
Here are 5 types.
A team is a network of people put together to deliver a product or service to the organisation or to a customer. The team may be co-located, or virtual. Membership of the team is by invitation, based on skills and experience. The limits of the team are clear - you are in, or you are out. There are clear job requirements, shared line management and the teams share a common goal/responsibility linked directly to organisational performance. The team lasts as long as the task, and the task is directly relevant to organisational performance.
A Practice Group aka Community of Purpose is a network of people from many teams, put together to ensure collective achievement of a stated strategic goal which is usually knowledge-related (for example to develop knowledge and capability in a specific area of business). Membership is by invitation, based on experience, expertise, and the ability and motivation to influence change. The limits of the group/community are clear - you are in, or you are out. They have a unifying purpose, a leader, common goals and collective responsibility, but the members are usually line managed separately. They hold a performance agreement with their sponsor, and members of the group are funded to take part (through timewriting codes for example). The group lasts as long as the strategic purpose remains relevant, and the group is one step away from organisational performance; they create and manage knowledge that teams use to perform.
A Community of Practice is a network of practitioners from many teams and departments. The purpose of the community is to create, expand and exchange knowledge & develop individual capabilities. Community members join the community to gain access to knowledge, and (with the exception of the leader and maybe the core group) are not funded to join and have no timewriting code for community activity. Membership is by self-selection based on interest or expertise for a topic, and the boundaries of the community are fuzzy; people are always joining and leaving. Members self-select through passion, commitment and identification with the group & its expertise. The community needs a leader, a core group, and a charter, and will last as long as there is relevance to the topic & value in learning together. The community works best by solving members' problems and answering their questions, and is thus one or two steps away from performance - it provides knowledge to the members, who take it to their teams, who then perform.
A Community of Interest is a network of people with an interest in a topic, but who are not active practitioners. They join the network to be informed. Membership is open to whoever is interested, and people join and leave. The community provides access to information and and a sense of like-mindedness, and needs someone to coordinate it. These communities are several steps away from performance. A member may be notified of something, which prompts them to learn more, which knowledge they can take it to their teams, who then perform.
A Social Network is a network of people with social ties who operate through social interactions. They join the network to meet and communicate socially with others. Membership is open to anyone, and requires no coordination. These communities are several steps away from performance. A social network enables social ties, which may promote a culture of openness, which then enables communities of interest, practice and purpose to form more easily.
Networks may evolve from one type to another, and they are often "nested" - a community of practice, for example, may contain a funded core team which acts as a practice group, and may also attract members who are not practitioners bu just "interested" - a surrounding community of interest.
The point is that different types of networks require different formality, and if you want to manage them well, you need to know which type you are dealing with.