A "community of practice" is an excellent vehicle for learning and should be promoted more for the development of both internal and external professionals. Beth Stoner, in her blog, DeltaPossibilities, talks about her experience in a community of practice for organization development (OD) professionals called "Community of Learners" that meets monthly in Troy, Michigan. Stoner has found this to be a powerful learning experience for her own professional growth and that of the others in the group.
Etienne Wenger defines community of practice as "...people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." According to Wenger, these groups have a "...shared domain of interest" and a shared competence in that domain. They engage in discussion and activities together and provide mutual support, although they often work alone. They are practitioners who, over time, share their tools and methods with each other.
Since I became an independent consultant 15 years ago, I have been a member of several different communities of practice. All have provided extremely valuable learning experiences for me. Most powerful, is the inquiry that goes on in these groups. As I bring up a topic, often client related, that is important to me, my community-of-practice colleagues ask questions that help me clarify my thinking so that I can be clear about what I need from them. They offer alternative ways of looking at the situation which gives me greater insight about my own thoughts and feelings and what I might do to be more effective in the situation. It's a wonderful, if a bit unsettling, way to learn.