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Communities of practice are different from teams, though less so as originally thought.

Like successful teams, successful communities have goals, deliverables, assigned leadership, accountability for results, and metrics. But they are distinct from teams in four ways:

1. The long view Communities are responsible for the long-term development of a body of knowledge or discipline, even when they have annual goals. Teams, in contrast, focus on a specific deliverable.

2. Peer collaboration and collective responsibility Community leaders establish the direction of the community, connect members, and facilitate discussions, but do not have authority over members.

3. Intentional network expansion Professionals typically consult their peers for help with unusual or difficult technical problems. Communities  deliberately seek to expand the internal and external resources and experts available to individuals.

4. Knowledge management Teams typically do not have ongoing responsibility for organizing and documenting what a company has learned in a  domain; rather, they focus on a given problem. Communities steward the knowledge in their domain with a view toward  solving problems that have not yet been discovered.

At many companies, employees form groups to share knowledge and attack common problems. These communities of  practice can be a powerful management tool.

When communities of practice first began to appear, everybody hailed them as a dirt-cheap way to distribute knowledge  and share best practices. It was thought that they would be relatively self-organizing and self-sustaining, flying below the  radar of organizational hierarchy.

Companies thought they would flourish with little executive oversight—a notion that seemed to work well at the time.  But as life and business have become more complex, we began to see that to make a difference over the long term, communities needed far more structure and oversight.

Despite this, communities remain more efficient and cheaper than other organizational resources and demand less  oversight. In times when budgets have shrunk and managers are overwhelmed just dealing with the downturn, communities can be a valuable resource for coordinating work across organizational boundaries, whether across  geography, across operating groups, or down the value stream.

But communities are not as informal as it was once thought, nor are they free. Though IT systems make global  collaboration possible, successful communities need more. They need the human systems—focus, goals, and  management attention—that integrate them into the organization. And they need to operate efficiently enough to  respect experts’ scarce time.