Building Online Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice, or CoP, are a centrepiece of Knowledge Management programs world-wide. But it is vital these groups are not formed purely because it is easy to do so. They must be generating value, be sustainable and align with an organisation’s core competencies.

This article continues the series on group types introduced in our “Getting the Best out of Online Groups at Work” post. Previously we had covered “Building High Performance Online Teams”. In this article we move on to CoPs, which came to prominence in the 1990s, very much as the centrepiece of Knowledge Management programs world-wide. Much of the credit for their prominence is given to cognitive anthropologist  Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning (Lave & Wenger 1991). Wenger describes a community of practice as learning through engagement in social practice; something today we would describe as “social learning” or “learning from each other”. Here is a more recent resource on CoPs from Wenger and Trayner. The important aspect for CoPs are that the value they deliver is “better professional practices”. They are not simply a platform for sharing information, tips or hints with those who share your discipline. Such platforms are often called Communities of Interest; and we will cover those in a later article.



A CoP, when effective, sees the participants actively involved in developing better practices for their chosen craft or profession. The result is more competent and capable professionals within your organisation. Tangible value is often seen in improved business processes and practices, resulting from CoP activities.

Situating CoPs in the Organisational Context

CoPs are often described as the third dimension in a traditionally matrixed organisation. As organisations have scaled across global geographies, the formal organisation can often lose focus on the very core competencies that represent their ‘reason to be’ in the first place. An engineering firm’s core disciplines of electrical, civil engineering. A finance company’s core disciplines of accounting, audit, governance, risk management. A natural resources company’s core disciplines of exploration science, production engineering, maintenance engineering. C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel in their famous HBR article on “The Core Competence of the Corporation” claim it is these core competencies that lead to the products and services that distinguish organisations in the marketplace. Therefore, over the years we have seen large and mature organisations like Shell, Ford, IBM, BP, Dupont, PwC, E&Y, Hewlett Packard, Xerox, World Bank and many more adopt the CoP structures to manage their core competencies. While some of the critical CoPs may at times have dedicated staff, for the most part, CoP members will have their formal role within the lines of business, while playing a complementary role within their chosen CoPs. CoPs typically operate as networks within an organisation. There may be formal roles, like CoP leader, CoP facilitator, CoP events support, CoP knowledge repository manager and the like. Often these roles may be rotated over time. At times, high potential staff may be recruited into roles to provide them with visibility across the enterprise, that they may not be able to achieve in their current roles.

The following table best describes how CoPs interact with the formal lines of business.

CoP Responsibilities Line Management Responsibilities
Effectiveness Efficiency
“Possibility seeking” arm “Implementing” arm
“Doing the right thing” “Doing it right”
To tell the line management the possibilities To tell the network its needs
Understand operational needs, look for the right members, facilitate, be an agent for discovery Provide direction and optimal resource allocation
Assist with paradigm shifts, systems, processes and capabilities (like a trusted consultant) Be open to collaborative decision making with a wider group

How to get started with an Online CoP 

Firstly, ‘Online’ comes after ‘Offline’ creation. Just because we can easily create an online space for a CoP to operate, doesn’t mean we should. Here are some key steps to consider in developing a CoP:

  • Start by targeting disciplines aligned with your organisation’s perceived core competencies. Seek formal resource support for these core CoPs. If your organisation has a supply chain process context, look to develop business process aligned CoPs to reinforce cross business practices. Beyond these core CoPs, open up the opportunities for other non-core CoPs by providing generic support in terms of collaboration spaces and general advice (perhaps through a CoP for CoPs).
  • Ensure one or more CoP leaders have a real passion for the discipline/competency being addressed by the CoP. For many, CoP activities are above and beyond their ‘day job’ responsibilities, so a real passion for the topic will be essential, to sustain the CoP.
  • Each new CoP needs to have a core team with the roles of CoP Leader, CoP Facilitator/Co-ordinator as a minimum, to formulate a CoP charter and agree on some tangible goals to be achieved in the first year e.g. membership targets, core business practices to be addressed, what would success look like etc..
  • Create a CoP launch plan aimed at attracting members to the CoP.  A great way to do this is with a live event, perhaps headlined by an invited industry leader/expert looking at new trends or future directions for the practice.
  • Once launched, aim to create a CoP “project” to focus the attention e.g. developing a companywide recruitment policy for the discipline; selecting a key software system or new technologies supporting the discipline; developing a competency framework for the discipline etc.. Try to develop a rhythm for the CoP. Schedule regular meet-ups, webinars, with invited speakers, and perhaps an annual live event.
  • Consider forming an aligned “Community of Interest” or “Q&A Help forum” to draw in external participants with tangential interest in the CoP’s activities.
  • Over time, encourage rotation within the core membership. It is important that the CoP is not seen as an alternative, and potentially competitive formal business unit. CoPs need to be fluid, agile and forward looking. Rotating the leadership positions is a visible way of demonstrating this.

Online Spaces

Today we have a rich suite of collaboration platforms available for CoPs. It is important not to let the technology drive the CoP in the early stages. We have seen organisations with access to very sophisticated technology find that their most effective CoPs are still using email lists or the like. Of course, if you have an Enterprise Social tool like Yammer or Workplace by Facebook, CoPs should be encouraged to use these platforms. However, be sure that educational support services are closely at hand, to ensure that the CoP members see these platforms as helpful to their activities, more so than hindrances.

SWOOP provides strong analytical support for CoP leaders and facilitators:

The community health index provides a quick overview of how the CoP is travelling. A new CoP can track whether activities are moving in the right direction.

The influential people widget identifies the performance of the core CoP team. Many failing CoPs become over-dependent on the CoP leader. Often if the CoP leader were to leave or become inactive, the CoP would die. Therefore, it’s important that the list of influential people identify a good balance of activities by the core team i.e. low influencer risk.

If your CoP spans across business units or geographic locations, the “Cross-team Collaboration” widget can quickly identify how the CoP is engaging with members across these units or locations. The diagonal shows the density of interactions inside a single unit or location. The off-diagonal cells show interactions across units or locations; a common key performance indicator for enterprise wide CoPs.  

The new curiosity index can identify whether the CoP is still exploring and innovating. A drop off in curiosity should be a danger signal for a CoP.

Finally, the “Most Engaging Posts” widget can tell you the topics that your CoP members are most engaged around. As a learning platform, the CoP should provide a “safe place” for members to question and challenge the status quo. The CoP leaders should aim to facilitate deeper discussions around challenges that face the discipline e.g. an article on “are accountants in danger of becoming irrelevant?” posted in a finance CoP will invite debate and discussion, and perhaps lead to a positive change to how the discipline conducts itself.

Final Words

CoPs are a mature group that have been operating successfully within mature organisations for decades now. The new collaborative platforms becoming available can make their operation more efficient and effective. However, it is important that CoPs are not formed purely because it is easy to do so technically. Aligining your core CoPs with your organisation’s agreed core competencies is the best way to ensure your CoPs are value generating and sustained.

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