4-min read
Mar 15, 2022

Understanding Communities of Practice

Erik Martin

Communities of Practice help us connect with peers who pursue a shared craft, and their full impact often extends far beyond the participating members.

Communities of Practice help us learn.

They help us connect with peers who pursue a shared craft. They help us calibrate our own thinking and decipher the thinking of others, and their full impact often extends far beyond the participating members.

What is a Community of Practice?

Communities of Practice revolve around a shared profession, skill, or space, usually broader than just a single product. They’ve been around since ancient times, but in 1991 anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger coined the term in their book Situated Learning while studying apprenticeships as a learning model. They defined a Community of Practice as a group “who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”.

These communities may contain a Community of Product within them, but they also provide value to members who aren’t current product users. The primary benefits to the business are thought leadership, acquiring ideal customers, increasing affinity, and knowledge capture. The primary benefits to members are becoming more knowledgeable on a multi-faceted subject and networking with peers as they learn and grow.

What is their impact?

Ideas travel outside the community

Communities of Practice crystallize concepts, preferences, and beliefs that its members then carry and transmit. If you work with online communities, you’ve likely witnessed this as new ideas spread human node by human node from the white-hot center of obscure communities to less passionate but more mainstream circles.

Members, and the community as a whole, learn new things faster than if they were alone

In her book, Building Successful Communities of Practice: Discover How Connecting People Makes Better Organisations, author Emily Webber observed that “bringing together a diverse group of people that share the same challenges, but have different experiences, creates a wider pool of knowledge to draw from when it comes to problem-solving”.

She also shared that “communities of practice give people opportunities to experiment with what they have learnt, in a safe environment and with the support of other people.” This feels obvious for many of us who have experienced Communities of Practice, but it’s meaningful to see the framework and the growing body of research.

Bring people together where they already are

Communities of Practice create new connections between existing communities. And because these dispersed communities operate within larger channels like social media, internal and external Slack, forums, etc., what starts in a Community of Practice spreads throughout the imperfect and fragmented systems that connect us. Communities of Practice weave new infrastructure for cross-pollination, and for ‘capacity building’ itself.

A study by the Royal Society of Open Science highlights that “‘communities of practice’ support dispersed communities and provide forums for learning that are integrated into channels that many people are already using.” Here we see the full power of Communities of Practice. These Communities of Practice do not function in a vacuum, but by design they bring together a “diverse group of people that share the same challenges” who are simultaneously members of other “dispersed communities”.

Value of the community multiplies over time

As these communities grow, they generate real network effects: as engagement within a Community of Practice grows, the community gets smarter, faster to respond, more globally available, and generates more value for both the members and the business investing in the space.

The real-life impact of Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are becoming increasingly popular for both companies and organizations, especially as professionals look to connect with each other as they navigate challenges in their field. But compared with the more traditional Communities of Product, which support users of a specific software or other item, the benefit of creating or facilitating community around a ‘practice’ may seem ephemeral or complex.

To illustrate the power of Communities of Practice, we can turn to the high stakes and tangible example published in the Royal Society of Open Science (referred to above): a Community of Practice for the identification of poisonous snakes.

According to the WHO, somewhere around 100,000 people in the world die each year from venomous snake bites — a number that would be much higher without trained and equipped medical experts. But correctly identifying snakes can be tricky even for expert biologists — which is why a research team built a global community of over 1,000 professionals and skilled amateurs and challenged its members to crowdsource snake identifications.

The results showed that a Community of Practice identifying snakes showed promise as a quick and round-the-clock resource for healthcare professionals. Like other Communities of Practice, there was also a strong potential for learning: “our study provides evidence that innovative citizen science/crowdsourcing approaches can play significant roles in training and building capacity.”

We’ll be studying and interviewing the community builders behind Professional Communities of Practice in fields like sales, human resources, architecture, design, and even community management. These communities bring together both wizened experts and enthusiastic newcomers, professionals from various disciplines who share the same challenge.

The questions and learning happening in these communities may not be as life or death as our venomous example, but they are no less passionate and fascinating. And, like the crowdsourced herpetologists’ community, they build capacity and serve as a conduit for knowledge that travels throughout the vast network of our complex and interconnected professional lives.

Community of Practice case studies

Every week, we'll be introducing you to a new Community of Practice! Watch this space for more. If there’s a CoP that’s benefited you that you want us to cover, please get in touch.

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Want to build your own Community of Practice?

Our Strategic Consulting Services team is here to help! Whether you're building from the ground up or need help scaling or building your dream Community team, our experts can guide you through the process. Find out more about our services.


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