Communities of Practice – The What, the Why and the How?

It is no surprise that organisations are run based on the knowledge they retain. Apart from the typical knowledge management systems, is there another way for organisations to share, learn and store information?

Yes. Its called a community of practice (COP).

What is a community of practice?

Firstly, let me clarify. Communities of practice are not the same as your typical online community.

meeting-1002800_960_720Online communities are formed online, using social media sites such as Facebook or YouTube. Online communities build relationships with people because of a common interest and are based around general conversation and discussion, much like a conversation with friends – whereas communities of practice are groups of people who are bound together by a shared expertise and passion of a joint interest.

Some communities of practice meet regularly, some meet in person, others connect online. Whatever the reason, communities of practice exist to share knowledge and experiences, promote learning and development and help each other with a particular shared passion or interest.

Communities of practice often exist within large organisations, formed for a variety of reasons, such as developing social capital, nurturing new knowledge or stimulating innovation. But these aren’t the only reasons communities of practice are created, employees with similar expertise may use a COP by way of support or personal network development.

Communities of practice can be created for a number of reasons, they can stretch geographically across the globe or be confined to a single business unit. There are typically core members who maintain and keep the communities of practice on track, arranging meetings and storing information for all members to use and access. Trust and recognition are important forms of reward for communities of practice – as without trust and recognition, members may begin to feel unmotivated and loose interest.


Communities of practice typically have three characteristics:

The Domain

The domains refers to a shared interest that separates its members from other people. Members all share the same interest or expertise, and are committed to the said domain.

The Community

The community enables members to engage in discussion and activities, as well as sharing information and helping one another. Members do not necessarily work together on a daily or even regular basis but aim to build relationships that promote learning.

The Practice

The practice describes the members as practitioners. Members share resources by way of experiences, stories and tools and assist each other in addressing new or recurring problems.

Teams VS. Communities of Practice

It is important to note that there are some big differences between teams and communities of practice, as outlined below:

Teams are created with a soul purpose in mind, they have an objective, a start date, a goal and an end date before they disperse.

Communities of practice, whilst they have an objective – may have many. They do not have one single goal nor do they have a end date. They are continual communities that address different problems, have different objectives and last as long as they maintain the members interest.


How do they benefit business strategy?

Communities of practice can be incredibly valuable to organisations and their business strategy as they are essential knowledge management systems for the tacit knowledge unable to be stored elsewhere.  These communities generate new knowledge as well as recycle old knowledge, and encourage skill development which ultimately assists in overall organisational development.  Communities of practice can also help in reducing training and support costs by using the knowledge on hand,  however – there are some limitations.



The first challenge with communities of practice is the availability of time in which to engage in the activities that are necessary for them to be effective. Communities of practice can be lengthy to set up and maintain requiring core members to ensure all information is shared, monitored and accessed as necessary.

Further limitations emerge in terms of organisational hierarchy with some top management showing resistance to the informality and abilities COP’s boast in regard to organsational hierarchy boundaries.

However, it is evident that communities of practice are becoming increasingly common – and despite limitations, more and more organisations are seeing their potential and utilising communities of practice in their organsations.


Images have been obtained from Pixabay, and are free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0.


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