The project within the Foundations of CoPs Course

Posted on Monday, 26 June, 2006 by


I led a project on "Inter-organizational Communities of Practice" within the course on communities of practice. We worked on it for three weeks with a team of 5; Canadians, an American and a Brit. Taking into account the busy schedules we each had, the fact we never met f2f and had only known each other online for 2 weeks, plus that we are very different by education and experience, the way we worked together as a team was impressive. Our main objective went back to the question: "what is the difference between CoPs within and those across organizations?" Our findings were a bit unexpected, as can be seen from the summary of some of the results below.

What sparked the theme:

“But I keep thinking about the enormous potential, the gains thinkable if a truly inter- organizational CoP could succeed.

Imagine you could have employees from companies that form a chain of production effectively learn together, so transfers in the chain run smoother?

Imagine how the physical planning in a certain area could benefit from joint "informal" learning of the planners, architect, constructors, landscapers…

Imagine how a river basin could benefit from a CoP for employees from the water company, the electricity company, the municipalities, the tourist entrepreneurs, the farmer organizations… all the different water users.

Imagine how all the organizations involved in forest fire fighting & prevention in Portugal could learn from CoPping…. “

Hypothesis: It´s harder to organize once you are not within a single organization. You get into legitimacy, security, leadership and sponsorship questions.

Initial questions:
When cultivating inter-organizational CoPs:

Who is to particpate,what is the gain for the employer of that person.. what can that person talk about, what not??? Who determines the direction, and most of all, who should finance? .

Inter organizational CoPs: cases
Five (5) inter-organizational CoPs that one team member is familiar with were selected. The "owner" of that CoP was interviewed by another team member to determine:

  • Similarities and differences among them, and
  • Common and distinguishing characteristics when compared against intra-organizational CoPs.
  • Factors harmful and helpful to the existence of inter organizational CoPs (SWOTanalysis)
  • Leadership and sponsorship issues.

The five Communities of Practice are:

  • A partnership between Open University (OU) and teacher-training schools in the U.K. and Ireland.
  • A Dutch Knowledge Club (DKC) of dairy farmers situated in southern Portugal.
  • A Municipal Cultural Planning Partnership (MCPP) in the Province of Ontario, Canada.
  • A U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Energy Sustainability movement based in Washington, D.C.
  • A Knowledge Management (KM) community in Vancouver, Canada


  • Most CoPs (in number, though maybe not the most visible ones) are informal and informal CoPs do not necessarily stop at organizational boundaries. In that sense, inter organizational CoPs are the default, it´s the ones that are and remain limited to one organization that are special. And indeed we found that almost any CoP we could think of to some extent had inter-organizational aspects (e.g. some members, or influential outsiders, from beyond the “owning” organization).
  • We saw that what is needed for a CoP is:
    • a common purpose,
    • trust among members,
    • willingness to learn,
    • leadership,
    • and somehow ability to connect to each other (face2face or through technology).
  • For a CoP to evolve and to thrive these and more “fuzzy” issues need to be in order. These issues are each in itself difficult to manage or to arrange for, and for all of them to be sufficiently present requires, except from a lot of effort, some luck. Compared to this the mere fact whether a CoP is intra- or inter-organizational does not have major effects. It is not a truly distinguishing quality, and often, it is not very relevant. The potential benefits of an interorganizational CoP could be wider reaching, the sponsorship issue could be more difficult to cover, but it could also be the opposite. In the incredibly rich contexts in which CoPs operate and which they in turn generate, this is but one of the many factors.
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