Wegner’s Communities of Practice concept is rooted in seven design principles. All good online communities, which are variants of communities of practice, should keep them in mind:
1. Design for evolution
Design elements should be catalysts for a community’s natural evolution. As they develop, communities usually build on preexisting personal networks.
2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
Good community design requires an understanding of the community’s potential to develop and steward knowledge, but it often takes an outside perspective to help members see the possibilities. Because intentional communities are new for most organizations, members often have a hard time imagining how a more developed community could improve upon their current personal networks or help them leverage dormant capabilities. Good community design brings information from outside the community into the dialogue about what the community could achieve.
3. Invite different levels of participation
Alive communities, whether planned or spontaneous, have a “coordinator” who organizes events and connects community. But others in the community also take on leadership roles. We commonly see three main levels of community participation. The first is a small core group of people who actively participate in discussions, even debates, in the public community forum. They often take on community projects, identify topics for the community to address, and move the community along its learning agenda. At the next level outside this core is the active group. These members attend meetings regularly and participate occasionally in the community forums, but without the regularity or intensity of the core group. The active group is also quite small, another 15 to 20 percent of the community.
A large portion of community members are peripheral and rarely participate. Instead, they keep to the sidelines, watching the interaction of the core and active members. Like people sitting at a cafe watching the activity on the street, they gain their own insights from the discussions and put them to good use. They may have private conversations about the issues being discussed in the public forum. In their own way, they are learning a lot.
Finally, outside these three main levels are people surrounding the community who are not members but who have an interest in the community, including customers, suppliers, and “intellectual neighbors.”
4. Develop both public and private community spaces
Like a local neighborhood, dynamic communities are rich with connections that happen both in the public places of the communityâ€”meetings, Web siteâ€”and the private spaceâ€”the one-on-one networking of community members. Most communities have public events where community members gatherâ€”either face-to-face or electronicallyâ€”to exchange tips, solve problems, or explore new ideas, tools, and techniques.
5. Focus on value
Communities thrive because they deliver value to the organization, to the teams on which community members serve, and to the community members themselves.
Rather than attempting to determine their expected value in advance, communities need to create events, activities, and relationships that help their potential value emerge and enable them to discover new ways to harvest it.
6. Combine familiarity and excitement
Successful communities offer the familiar comforts of a hometown, but they also have enough interesting and varied events to keep new ideas and new people cycling into the community. Like a neighborhood bar or cafÃ©, a community becomes a “place” where people have the freedom to ask for candid advice, share their opinions, and try their half-baked ideas without repercussion.
Communities of practice are what Ray Oldenberg calls “neutral places,” separate from the everyday work pressures of people’s jobs. Unlike team members, community members can offer advice on a project with no risk of getting entangled in it; they can listen to advice with no obligation to take it. .
Like a well-planned, challenging conference, vibrant communities also supply divergent thinking and activity.
Lively communities combine both familiar and exciting events so community members can develop the relationships they need to be well connected as well as generate the excitement they need to be fully engaged. Routine activities provide the stability for relationship-building connections; exciting events provide a sense of common adventure.
7. Create a rhythm for the community
Our everyday lives have a rhythm: waking up and preparing for work, commuting, checking e-mail, attending meetings, commuting home, engaging with kids’ activities, enjoying quiet time. Although there are different rhythms for different people, most of our lives do have a rhythm, which contributes to its sense of familiarity. Towns also have a rhythm.
Regular meetings, teleconferences, Web site activity, and informal lunches ebb and flow along with the heartbeat of the community. When that beat is strong and rhythmic, the community has a sense of movement and liveliness.