Community of practice

A community of practice allows a group of people with a common interest or concern to share and learn through a series of interactions, thus reflecting the social nature of human learning.

A CoP has a strong focus on the sharing of knowledge and best practices. Ongoing interaction between community members is therefore a strong part of a CoP. This interaction can be face-to-face, through formal meetings or more casual interactions and conversations between people, and can also take place online through email, web forums, social media and video networking. A CoP will be brought together through a specific goal (e.g. to share best practice knowledge in the field of evaluation), and this will inform what activities and technologies are appropriate.

CoPs can emerge organically, as in the example below, or they can be actively cultivated by an organisation or individuals who wish to form a collaborative community environment for discussion and activities. Cultivated CoPs are often formed online.

"Facilitating [an online] community is not a static, one-time event related to “turning on” a software platform or technology. ... More important is the social architecture of the community. The technical architecture supports the community, while the social architecture enlivens it. The roles, processes, and approaches that engage people— whether face-to-face or online—are essential in relationship building, collaborative learning, knowledge sharing, and action. Together, technical and social architectures create the container for the community." (Cambridge and Suter 2005: 2)

Examples

An example of an informal community of practice amongst photocopier servicers at Xerox was documented by the anthropologist Julian Orr:

"Orr began his account of the reps' day not where the process view begins—at nine o'clock, when the first call comes in—but at breakfast beforehand, where the reps share and even generate new insights into these difficult machines. Orr found that a quick breakfast can be worth hours of training. While eating, playing cribbage, and gossiping, the reps talked work, and talked it continually. They posed questions, raised problems, offered solutions, constructed answers, laughed at mistakes, and discussed changes in their work, the machines, and customer relations. Both directly and indirectly, they kept one another up to date about what they knew, what they'd learned, and what they were doing. ... 

Orr showed that the reps use one another as their most critical resources. In the course of socializing, the reps develop a collective pool of practical knowledge that any one of them can draw upon. That pool transcends any individual member's knowledge, and it certainly transcends the corporation's documentation. Each rep contributes to the pool, drawing from his or her own particular strengths, which the others recognize and rely on. Collectively, the local groups constitute a community of practice." (Brown and Duguid 2000)

Advice for choosing this method

Communities of Practice are important for many reasons. They can:

  • "Connect people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact, either as frequently or at all. 
  • Provide a shared context for people to communicate and share information, stories, and personal experiences in a way that builds understanding and insight. 
  • Enable dialogue between people who come together to explore new possibilities, solve challenging problems, and create new, mutually beneficial opportunities. 
  • Stimulate learning by serving as a vehicle for authentic communication, mentoring, coaching, and self-reflection. 
  • Capture and diffuse existing knowledge to help people improve their practice by providing a forum to identify solutions to common problems and a process to collect and evaluate best practices.
  • Introduce collaborative processes to groups and organizations as well as between organizations to encourage the free flow of ideas and exchange of information. 
  • Help people organize around purposeful actions that deliver tangible results. 
  • Generate new knowledge to help people transform their practice to accommodate changes in needs and technologies." (Cambridge and Suter 2005: 1)

Advice for using this method

It's important to be aware of the different lifecycle phases of a CoP, and to make sure that momentum is not lost as the CoP moves through these. Cambridge and Suter (2005:2) list the following as the stages of cultivating a CoP:

  • "Inquire: Through a process of exploration and inquiry, identify the audience, purpose, goals, and vision for the community.
  • Design: Define the activities, technologies, group processes, and roles that will support the  community’s goals. 
  • Prototype: Pilot the community with a select group of key stakeholders to gain commitment, test assumptions, refine the strategy, and establish a success story.
  • Launch: Roll out the community to a broader audience over a period of time in ways that engage newcomers and deliver immediate benefits. 
  • Grow: Engage members in collaborative learning and knowledge sharing activities, group projects, and networking events that meet individual, group, and organizational goals while creating an increasing cycle of participation and contribution. 
  • Sustain: Cultivate and assess the knowledge and “products” created by the community to inform new strategies, goals, activities, roles, technologies, and business models for the future." ​

Resources

Sources

Brown, J. S. and Duguid, P. (2000). "Balancing act: How to capture knowledge without killing it". Harvard Business Review. pp.1-2.

Cambridge, D. and Suter, V. (2005). Community of Practice design guide: A step-by-step guide for designing & cultivating communities of practice in Higher Education. EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). 

'Community of practice' is referenced in: