In Silicon Valley, a community of circuit designers meets for a lively debate about the merits of two different designs developed by one of the participants. Huddling together over the circuit diagrams, they analyze possible faults, discuss issues of efficiency, propose alternatives, tease out each other’s assumptions, and make the case for their view. In Boston, a group of social workers who staff a help line meet to discuss knotty client problems, express sympathy as they discuss difficulties, probe to understand each other’s feelings, and gently offer suggestions. Their meetings are often deeply challenging and sometimes highly emotional. The fact-driven, sometimes argumentative, meetings of the Silicon Valley circuit designers are extremely different from the compassionate meetings of the social workers in Boston. But despite their differences, the circuit designers’ and social workers’ communities are both vibrant and full of life. Their energy is palpable to both the regular participants and visitors.
Because communities of practice are voluntary, what makes them successful over time is their ability to generate enough excitement, relevance, and value to attract and engage members. Although many factors, such as management support or an urgent problem, can inspire a community, nothing can substitute for this sense of aliveness.