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5.7 Communities of Practice

We saw earlier that a cross-functional team encourages its members to morph from pure specialists to generalizing specialists. This does not have to come at the cost of mastery in their specialization. A community of practice (CoP) is an alternative solution to nurturing a competency in the absence of a functional organization. A CoP does not require its members to be all part of the same team. It functions like a loose, professional association of specialists with mechanisms for online and offline interaction and knowledge sharing.

A lead is usually elected, nominated, or appointed per CoP. The lead comes from the same specialist background and is someone with people and organizing skills. The CoP lead is by no means a full-time role—she continues to work as a first-class member of some product team while devoting maybe 20% of her time to CoP work. CoP leads sponsor brown bag sessions, training programs, internal conferences, and sponsor members to participate in external conferences. They weigh in on tools and modes of collaboration within the community. They are accountable for the health of the community.

In addition, mastery in IT specialist areas may be sustained by getting involved in groups and activities outside one’s organization. Specialist user groups and conferences are thriving in many cities. The Internet has many great resources for specialist skill enhancement. Even just following relevant Twitter hashtags goes a long way toward staying up to date. After all, individual mastery is at least as much the individual’s responsibility as the organization’s.

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