Capability academies versus communities of practice: which solves learning challenges best?

Feb 14, 2023 by Robert M. Burnside

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What is the difference between capability academies and communities of practice?

In this post, we’ll compare capability academies and communities of practice, to see how they differ in their history and their effectiveness in solving learning challenges.

Ever had the experience of introducing a beautiful new concept that will help everyone be more effective in their work, but it’s ignored? Or perhaps you’ve had an experience where people are happily collaborating on how best to implement the solution that’s always worked in the past, but aren’t open to the idea that the future requires a different approach?

Developing a learning plan that takes both of these challenges into consideration isn’t easy. But looking at the difference between communities of practice and capability academies will help us understand how to create learning that avoids these potential pitfalls in idea generation and implementation, and effectively moves people from understanding, to insight, to action.

What are communities of practice?

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, communities of practice were all the rage. This 2000 article by HBR is an example of the excitement at the time. It nicely describes communities of practice as “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise.”

I had the opportunity to experience a community of practice in action. In 2000 and 2001, I worked with Corporate University Xchange, where we formed a community of practice among Chief Learning Officers. First, the group discussed what they most wanted to learn, then we worked with universities to gather research on the topic (where was ChatGPT when we needed it?). Finally, we met to discuss how best to implement the ideas.

This all worked really well at the time, though in hindsight I can see a kind of groupthink was present: our shared experience, which helped us converge on common ideas and focus on practical implementation, wasn’t challenged enough by other ways of thinking that could have been introduced if we were interacting with people from different professional backgrounds.

In this way, communities of practice worked well for the solution phase of learning. Where they could be weak, however, was in the divergent thinking phase, and in helping us generate new and unexpected ideas: what are the variety of approaches possible that we might consider, before we narrow in on what to do? Precisely because the community had a common shared experience, often the newer ideas––and most importantly, the mindset shift and behavioral change necessary to real, transformational learning––were not necessarily ready at hand.

What is a capability academy?

Josh Bersin has written extensively about capability academies and why they are the "next big thing" in enterprise learning. With the complexity and chaotic nature of the ongoing development of digital technology, necessary skills are evolving too quickly for any of us to keep up on our own. In essence, the skills you have today are already becoming obsolete, and what you need instead are broader capabilities, which are aggregations of skills that can be applied in a variety of settings.

A capability is a combination of skills, knowledge, and experiences employees need to succeed. Furthermore, these capabilities are often unique, exclusive, and proprietary to your company.

Capability academies provide a place to develop these mission-critical capabilities through social and collaborative learning. These academies are centered around cohort-based learning, where the group shares an interest in solving a problem, co-develops answers, gathers best knowledge available, and even at times, practice arguing constructively at work. The variety of people who can be gathered in this group learning allows for new ideas and approaches, broadening the learning beyond what a community of practice can accomplish. The group can address the worthwhileness of the ideas, and can also discuss how one might implement them.

Yet the learning experience needs to be well-designed for the academy to reach its full potential. It's important that the questions posed and the learning presented is designed with an end goal in mind. For example, in the case of enterprise learning, the learned material and the discussions should be oriented around specific business goals, so that the group will come up with actionable ideas that solve real business problems.

Communities of practice and capability academies: the best of both worlds

Effective learning clearly demands the benefit of both approaches––so how can learning and development professionals make sure to design social and collaborative learning that combines the potential of both?

Designing a capability academy that includes cohort members of a similar profession or function is a great start. The Josh Bersin Academy is an example of this for the human resource profession.

If the group is in a particular organization with shared business goals, then you more fully include the community of practice value of implementation in a particular setting, while still designing the cohorts with enough diversity (geographical, specific role, etc) to spark that divergent exchange of ideas. The ABinBev marketing academy is an example of this.

As we have pointed out in our report Cohort Based Learning at Scale: Eight Principles for Success, variety is key to effective learning. In any social learning setting, you can avoid “groupthink” by composing the cohort with as much variety as possible. When I was Chief Learning Officer at Ketchum, we implemented a cohort-based learning program introducing radically new practices for our 2,500 client-facing people. We tested this principle by designing one cohort with similar people (mid-level managers from our London office), and comparing it to a more diverse cohort (all levels from trainee to CEO and across all countries).

The diverse cohort was ten times more active, engaged, and enthusiastic, and it combined both new concepts with relevant, localized implementation of the new ideas generated within the social learning, a resounding endorsement of diversed––yet focused––cohort-based learning, designed around specific business goals.


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Want to explore the story of one digital capability academy in action? Read our case study with PepsiCo, which pivoted to digital learning for its marketers during the Covid-19 pandemic, soon realizing that digital learning academies would become their North Star well beyond the days of travel restrictions and lockdowns. Download your free copy today.

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