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
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
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
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:
develop a common language, methods, and models around specific competencies;
knowledge and know-how to diverse people;
retain knowledge when there are workers leaving the company;
access to knowledge throughout the company;
the significance of sharing power and influence with the organization’s formal
people carry out their work;
a stable sense of community with other people in the organization and with the
a sense of identity based on learning;
develop individual abilities and competencies;
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:
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;
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
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
include education for supervisors and executives so they understand the role of
communities in the learning organization and don’t create obstacles to
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
2) providing a shared repository of
(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.