Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance. He can be reached at email@example.com.
In his 2001 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes how he became a professional chef and how he continues to support the community of professional chefs. Now, keep in mind that no one issues membership cards to professional chefs — but they are not difficult to recognize. They wear special hats and white tunics. They carry a set of knives that no one else is allowed to touch. Their fingers bear scars from close calls with those knives.
When chefs travel, they meet with other chefs. They eat together. They share techniques. Were it not for this sharing, we would not enjoy the broad, international array of food on our tables. When a top chef wants to move to a new job in a particular location, he tells a few chefs, the grapevine spreads the word, and within a week he has several job offers.
In his book, Bourdain describes how he started out as a dishwasher in a restaurant on Cape Cod. Then he lands a job as a fry cook. From that point on, the chef running the kitchen he’s working in is looking out for young Anthony. When will the kitchen worker be prepared to advance from washing lettuce to making salads? What does he need to know to advance to pastry chef? How can the chef help the dessert chef advance to sous-chef? Good chefs take developing their staff very seriously. They see that their apprentices learn to create satisfying yet economical food.
Anthony Bourdain decided he needed to accelerate his development, so he attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for formal training. This enabled him to understand the intertwined relationships of ingredients, cooking and customers. The curriculum at the CIA taught him frameworks for various cuisines; he learned practices that would have taken years to learn on the job. And indeed, when Bourdain went back to cooking, he rapidly advanced up the ladder to become a chef.
Chefs are a community of like-minded individuals who identify with one another, advance the practice of their profession and help new entrants join the industry. They are proud of their work. They work extremely hard, and they are proud of that, too.
Ten years ago, the common wisdom was that you could not establish a community of practice. If you found one that was working, the best you could do was to nurture it. In essence, they were like truffles: They grow in the wild, so if you want them, you put a pig or a well-trained dog on a leash and encourage it to dig around the roots of oak trees in southern France or northern Italy.
Authorities were wrong on both counts. Half the world’s truffles are cultivated on truffle plantations in Spain. Thousands of corporations have established thriving communities of practice that advance both the careers of their members and their shared body of knowledge.
The cook becomes a chef when she feels she’s a chef. Likewise, professional firefighters, insurance salespeople, plumbers, accountants and architects don’t just master subject matter — they become members of their profession. They learn to be.
Beyond acquiring know-how, a professional hangs out with other professionals, builds relationships with others in the profession and contributes to the collective wisdom of the industry. Most important, the professional knows deep inside that she has joined the profession. Experience is the best teacher. You can’t become a chef without working and learning in a kitchen.
Any group of professionals who identify with one another is a potential community of practice. Professionals learn from one another; through experimentation; and by following the advice of mentors. In time, they pay back the community by shifting from “what’s known” to “what’s next.”
Are communities of practice part of your learning and development program? Don’t you wish your organization had dedicated communities of practice that nurtured newbies, helped everyone get up to speed and advanced the professional knowledge of the field? Have you assessed who might form natural communities?