Community of Practice- Everything you Need to Know!
What is a Community of Practice?
A Community of Practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a common interest, or have a set of related goals, and come together to learn, share information, and reach their individual and group objectives.
The result of an effective CoP is the creation of new knowledge that advances an area of professional practice, as well as the development of a close community whose members frequently interact.
A CoP can take place in person, with face-to-face meetings, but in recent years (and especially in light of recent events surrounding COVID-19) they are more likely to take place online, as a web-based, collaborative activity.
The phrase “Community of Practice” was first used by Etienne Wenger, an educational theorist, and Jean Lave, a cognitive anthropologist, in their 1991 book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. They defined a CoP as a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. A CoP provides a way for newcomers to learn from old-timers, and for existing and developing experience to be shared amongst everyone who has an interest in building personal and global knowledge bases.
Many other researchers have written about CoPs in the thirty years since Wenger and Lave first named the concept, but their definitions have all remained fairly similar. For researchers Kimble, Hildreth, and Wright (2000), a CoP is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, or who learn how to do it better as they interact regularly; Brown (2003) views it as a group of people with different functions and viewpoints, committed to joint work over a significant period of time, during which they solve problems, learn, and develop a way of reading mutually; and Hernaez and Campos (2011) focus on how a CoP is an important mechanism through which individual, organizational, and social knowledge is held, transferred, and created.
We can narrow down these definitions to a few key elements, which Wenger highlights in his 2010 article, “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: The Career of a Concept”:
1) THE DOMAIN: members are brought together by a learning need they share;
2) THE COMMUNITY: their collective learning becomes a bond over time; and
3) THE PRACTICE: their interactions produce resources that affect their practice (whether they engage in actual practice together or separately).
However, despite these foundational similarities, it’s important to remember that CoPs can be quite different from one another. Some are fairly small, while others can be very large, often with a core group and many peripheral members. Some are local and some international; some meet mainly face-to-face while others solely exist online. Some are within an organization and are meant to unite co-workers; others are open to various organizations, with their main goal to create relationships between those who would otherwise be separated by geographical distance. Some are formally recognized, and have large budgets and dedicated support, while others may rely solely on volunteer contributions. CoPs can help businesses, or be used by government, or serve as an educational tool, and much more.
What are the Key Benefits of CoPs?
Many practitioners suggest that the key benefit of a CoP is how it connects people to share experiences, knowledge, and content in order to solve significant problems. Others view the CoP’s greatest contribution to be networking: they are frequently considered one of the best tools for professional interactions, allowing individuals who would otherwise never meet the opportunity to grow their professional networks.
Allee (2000) provides a useful list of a CoP’s potential benefits:
1. Helps develop a common language, methods, and models around specific competencies;
2. Extends knowledge and know-how to diverse people;
3. Helps retain knowledge when there are workers leaving the company;
4. Increases access to knowledge throughout the company;
5. Provides the significance of sharing power and influence with the organization’s formal part;
6. Helps people carry out their work;
7. Provide a stable sense of community with other people in the organization and with the company;
8. Promote a sense of identity based on learning;
9. Helps develop individual abilities and competencies;
10. Provides people with personal challenges and opportunities.
A CoP has been described as a “virtual water cooler.” They are a place where you can find out who is doing what, and talk to them. They add perspective and build expertise, and when they are virtual, they are not constrained by time and space. Community members can develop common sets of codes and language by working together, generating an environment marked by trust and mutual respect and reciprocity.
How Can I Start a CoP?
Hower et al. (2014) divide their advice for starting a CoP into 4 key categories:
1. MARKETING: Develop a plan to socialize communities across the organization. Be creative. Consider integrating marketing materials into existing training programs and making use of existing company publications/distribution channels to reach the widest possible audience;
2. SUPPORT: many communities fail simply because of poor support. Your project plan must ensure that quality governance, infrastructure, and facilitation are available to enable knowledge transfer and to encourage growth. Build in quality support to guide organizational outcomes and speed the process of creating organizational value.
3. INTEGRATION: spotlight several processes during community development that demonstrate how the community can benefit members and the organization’s bottom line. Make it easy for users to embed the community into their own processes to improve effectiveness.
4. LEADERSHIP: include education for supervisors and executives so they understand the role of communities in the learning organization and don’t create obstacles to progress.
Most researchers stress that dialogue is key: it is what distinguishes communities of practice from other online forums and social media, bringing and binding a community together. When cultivated in a well-designed, interactive environment—in-person, virtual, or both—this dialogue improves the ways in which we think and learn.
When it comes to using technology to host a CoP, Hoadley (2012) suggests there are four areas on which to focus:
(1) linking people with similar practices;
2) providing a shared repository of information;
(3) providing discussion tools; and
(4) providing awareness of the community in various resources.
CoPs can face certain challenges, including when it comes to knowing why, how, and when to utilize CoPs. Organizers must be careful to avoid isolating newcomers, becoming stagnant, or allowing its structure to somehow hamper knowledge sharing. Despite some obstacles that must be overcome, the benefits of a CoP are invaluable and researchers emphasize the positive outcomes of such a group.
Allee, Verna. “Knowledge Network and Communities of Practice,” in OD Practitioner, Fall/Winter 2000.
Hoadley, Christopher. “What is a Community of Practice and How Can We Support It?” in Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments, edited by David Jonassen and Susan Land. Routledge, 2012, pp. 287-300.
Hernáez, Olga Rivera and Eduardo Bueno Campos. Handbook of Research on Communities of Practice for Organizational Management and Networking: Methodologies for Competitive Advantage. IGI Global, 2011.
Hower, Mike, Michael Prevou, and Mitchell Levy. #Successful Corporate Learning tweet Book07: Everything You Need to Know About Communities of Practice. Happy About, 2014.
Kimble, Chris, Paul Hildreth, and Peter C. Wright. “Communities of Practice: Going Virtual,” 2000.
Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: The Career of a Concept,” in Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, edited by C. Blackmore. Springer, 2010.
Wenger, Etienne and Jean Lave. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge UP, 1991.