What are Communities of Practice?

Executive Summary

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are “groups 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.” CoPs are voluntary, develop organically and have varying levels of participation. They can be small or large in terms of number of members and participation and boundaries are fluid over time depending on the membership and activities of the group. CoPs can form in any industry or area of interest and can include both virtual and in-person events. There are 7 key design elements discussed in this article: 

  1. Design for evolution.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
  3. Invite different levels of participation. 
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces.
  5. Focus on value. 
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community.

Related case studies, tools and articles are also highlighted for further in-depth reading as well as links to Colleaga communities under development.

Design for Evolution

Initially the goal for a new community is to draw potential members to it perhaps by building off pre-existing networks (e.g., working groups, professional associations). Identifying potential subject matter experts may be one way to further invite participation. Hosting some in-person meetings at this stage may facilitate relationship building; once they are engaged the core members of a community can begin introducing other elements of community structure—links to other communities, projects to define key practices, etc—one step at a time. CoPs have inherent value associated with them both in the short and long-term:2

Open a Dialogue Between Inside and Outside Perspectives

Community 'insiders' are members of the CoP. Because participation is voluntary, people will likely have a variety of reasons for participating, and their level of engagement will differ over time as well depending on the focus of discussion. A well-designed community of practice allows for group discussion, having one-on-one conversations, reading about and discussing new ideas and healthy debate. Bringing in 'outsider' perspectives can often be useful to examine issues from a different perspective. These outsiders can come from other communities, associations, industries or geographical jurisdictions. In order for CoPs to thrive, there needs to be enough interesting and varied activities and perspectives.

Invite Different Levels of Participation

Most communities will have a core group of active members who regularly participate and contribute to community events and discussion. There will also be a peripheral group of members who float in and out, quietly observe and take less active roles. These varying levels of participation are a normal part of the group's evolution, and though some members may seem passive, some can actually be more actively engaging in one-on-one discussion and networking and may in fact take more active roles in the future. A good CoP facilitator will be able to identify and connect with these varying membership styles. Unlike participation in teams, where people often have specific roles and duties, membership in CoPs is much more fluid. The chart below outlines some of the distinctions between these entities:4


Communities of Practice



To share knowledge and promote learning in a particular area

To complete specific projects


Self-selected; includes part-time and marginal members

Selected on the basis of the ability to contribute to the team’s goals; ideally full-time


Informal, self-organizing, leadership varies according to the issues;

Hierarchical with a project leader/manager


Evolves; disbands only when there is no interest

When the project is completed (in some cases, a team may evolve into a community)

Value Proposition

Group discovers value in exchanges of knowledge and information

Group delivers value in the result it produces.


Making connections between members; ensuring topics are fresh and valuable.

Coordination of many interdependent tasks.


Develop Both Public & Private Community Spaces

A network of relationships is at the heart of every CoP. Conversations, email exchanges and other interactions that occur between members outside of regular 'public' community events such as webinars, teleconferences or in-person meetings are equally as important. Having a dedicated community facilitator to help encourage these interactions and exchanges of knowledge is a critical aspect of healthy community development.

Focus on Value

Most often, in the early stages of community development, value mainly comes from focusing on current problems and needs of the membership. As the community develops over time, value will be created through a network of knowledge and resources that can be accessed and utilized by its members. An effective CoP facilitator or coordinator is a key role to ensuring value creation. Social networks that develop through community structures are also likely to have value for members. Measuring value can be difficult (and is the subject of debate among theorists), but the greatest asset in this regard comes through a solid understanding of the community and how it functions. Wenger et al (2011) propose a value assessment framework shown in the graphic below,5 which highlights five cycles of value achieved within a community. Initially, the immediate value created from a CoP is through the interaction among its members. Ultimately, value is reframed in the fifth cycle whereby members reconsider how community success is defined. Collecting stories from the community membership regarding value creation combined with more traditional metrics can be a useful way to evaluate CoP success. 

Combine Familiarity and Excitement

Effective CoPs will have a good balance whereby participants know what to expect when they interact with other community members. For example, having a regular monthly or bi-monthly meeting, teleconference or other event can help establish familiarity. In addition, including some time and space for networking will help to foster good working relationships among members.

Create a Rhythm for the Community

Each community will develop in its own unique way over time. Having some predictability will help ensure that members interact regularly. Developing some milestones for the CoP such as key meetings or other activities will help to develop such flow. The pace of activities needs to suit the needs of the membership. Too much activity too soon may overwhelm participants. Yet not enough activity can lead to stagnation and loss of interest. Once again, the CoP facilitator will be a valuable asset in helping find and set the right pace for the community.

Key Takeaways

CoPs can be an effective strategy to share knowledge and resources and offer a unique opportunity to connect with others who share a passion for innovations in healthcare. Need more information? Have some resources to share? Please visit the following Colleaga Communities under development:


You can ask a question in the discussion spaces and/or upload files to share with your colleagues. Interested in taking on an active role? Please contact Robyn Berridge at: robynb@colleaga.org.