All Aboard! Functional Communities of Practice: a collective model to inform strategy development

Frontline staff need to be effective followers to support strategic leaders and have an important role to play in nurturing a culture of innovation.

One profound way of grounding such a culture in practice is through the formation of a special kind of Community of Practice (COP) primed for innovative thinking.

COPs unite groups of people to informally deliberate a shared interest, with a view to generate new knowledge (1). This new knowledge has multiple uses, from informing strategy to being disseminated as best practice (1). A COP is typified by three characteristics, namely the domain i.e. a distinct specific interest, the community i.e. those who collaborate to discuss the interest and thirdly, the practice i.e. creation of shared resources which impact how things are done (2).

COPs as diverse entities

Amin et al. (3) argue that those treating COPs as homogenous entities fail to recognize four distinct types of knowledge-yielding social conditions (two relevant modes of knowledge listed below).

Type of situated practice Characteristics
Epistemic/creative knowing ‘Epistemic/creative knowing’ communities thrive on highly autonomous individuals possessing unique experiences and skills to generate radical ideas (as opposed to incremental change) (3). Group cohesion is nurtured more by a common resolve to address a shared problem than by inter-personal social ties (3).
Virtual knowing Online communities also serve as knowledge generating spaces.

Closed groups are far more conducive to knowledge generation (Hall and Graham, 2004, as cited by Amin et al. (3)), as these are often united by clear goals, rules of engagement and trust-building through long-term access to other members (3). E.g. in a study conducted by Josefsson’s (2005), (as cited by Amin et al. (3)), virtual groups of patients and carers revealed invaluable insights used by policy makers.

COPs Primed for Innovation

The conceptualization of a COP primed for Innovation (which I refer to as a ‘Functional COP unit’) is illustrated in Diagram 1.

This has a number of novel characteristics.

Aspiring for functionality

The Functional COP aspires to unite four key players: the group required to be consulted and informed (frontline staff), the group having formal responsibility for overseeing innovation (i.e. innovation/transformation managers), the ultimate decision-makers (strategic leaders) and the group stewarding tactical feasibility of plans (operational managers).

Epistemic’ in nature

This approach somewhat resembles an ‘epistemic’ community (3) in that it unites seasoned and autonomous multi-professionals, geared towards radical change (3). However, the unification of professionals is not random but aligned towards a functionality which facilitates innovative thinking and effective change management.

Shared and formal responsibilities

Idea generation is a distributed task among this COP cohort, meaning that the suspension of hierarchical dominance is foundational to the success of such a community.

Innovation/transformation managers straddle both operational and strategic realms and most likely have formal responsibility for mobilizing their organizations for innovation. They may do this, for example, by engaging with entrepreneurs to share cutting edge practices and by taking responsibility for horizon scanning and boundary spanning.

Knowledge from external sources

The model aims to draw on external sources (outside the immediate organization) for knowledge generation, as well as internal sources.

Horizon scanning uses systematic approaches (e.g. literature reviews and trend analysis) to predict possible futures to inform strategy development (4). Boundary spanning i.e. cross boundary-working (5) to gain insights in to other industries (e.g. emergent technologies), organizations and analogous departments (e.g. service improvements) can help deliver creative solutions not achievable through lone working. This is intrinsically ‘epistemic’ (3) as it requires face-to-face social interactions across boundaries but can also benefit from online situated practices, tapping into virtual communities (3).


Diagram 1. Conceptualization of a Functional COP Unit primed for innovative strategy development.

An example of this approach in my line of work is given in the diagram below. This shows how a functional COP unit approach was used to explore a proposed innovation before being formally trialed.

In Conclusion

In essence, the COP’s proceedings serve as a dress rehearsal to inform formal strategy development, providing prescient insights in to risks, opportunities and perceptions of nascent innovations.

Bringing entrepreneurs and innovators to the fore of organizational contemporary thought in this way utilizes the knowledge economy from within, which may otherwise burst at the organizational seams and fizzle out with nowhere to be channeled or lie dormant until presented with appropriate bridges of engagement.

Inclusive cultures lend themselves to the creation of such COPs, garnering contributions organization-wide and instilling shared ownership of the responsibility for change. Such cultures unleash the potential of frontline staff, entrepreneurs and innovators to support and influence those formally accountable for developing strategy. 



Ali Raza

Ali Raza is an alumnus of the NHS Management Training Scheme. Ali has worked in many NHS organizations including commissioning and provider organizations.