In Global Development and Impact Work -- What is a Community of Practice (CoP)?

October 23, 2023 7 minute read

Communities of Practice

For those of us engaged in global development and sustainable impact work, we are typically aware of the concept of Communities of Practice. But often those with whom we are engaging around the world -- stakeholders, local organizations and partners, and local communities – may be less familiar, even if they are participating in one informally.

A Community of Practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a common concern, are encountering a common challenge or set of problems, or simply maintain an interest in a topic, and come together to fulfil both individual and group goals. CoPs often focus on sharing – whether it is related to exploring a challenge more deeply, roadblocks they are facing, best practices and tools, etc., and from that dialogue creating new knowledge to advance a domain of professional practice. Thus, productive, and healthy interaction on an ongoing basis is important to maintaining a strong community. 

Communities of Practice May Start Organically or Formally

When the label ‘Community of Practice’ is applied to a group of people, it is usually when that group has some structure or formalization. This may include a managing person or organization that centralizes information and coordinates the CoP including regular meetings and interfaces that facilitate sharing, communication, and connection, planned activities to augment regular meetings, and a knowledge management pipeline for sharing out resources to drive solutions and learning.

The latter function is no surprise, as the primary use of the CoP concept is grounded in learning theory. The term was coined by cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger when studying apprenticeships as a learning model—their conception of the term referred to the community that acts as a “living curriculum.”

Once the concept was articulated, the researchers (and others) started to see communities everywhere, even when no formal apprenticeship system existed.

Core Pillars of Communities of Practice 

Often CoPs start out organically via people communicating about shared interests, and as the old design adage goes, form follows function. Sometimes, existing organizations see a need and work to formalize a community of practice under their existing umbrella (or create an independent offshoot with some administrative involvement). At their core, Communities of Practice have some common, central pillars that guide them. These include: 

Developing and Refining a Domain of Inquiry

Communities of Practice are systems of collective inquiry, including forms of critique and reflection about topics, issues, and challenges, focused on building collective knowledge, and sharing not only within, but outside of the CoP when it benefits external stakeholders. This contributes to building a domain of learning and practice.

Weaving the Fabric of Community

CoP members recognize that the group and its collective identity can transcend individual members, particularly in generating and contributing knowledge and intelligence about a topic or challenge over time. This contributes to the actual building of a strong sense of community – the social fabric for fostering collective and collaborative learning. 

Growing a Community of Practice as a Broader Practice 

The members of a CoP are likely practitioners in the domain of interest and build a shared toolbox of resources and ideas that they can then implement as part of their practice, whether it be as a consultant in the area or sector, or in their individual organizations. Although the domain provides the general area of interest, the practice itself is the specific specialization around which the community develops, shares, and maintains its core collective knowledge and knowledge management.

As challenges become more complex at all levels of geography and scale, Communities of Practices are increasingly being used to improve knowledge management and connect people within business, government, organizations, local communities and with other changemakers and stakeholders.

The design of the CoP will look different depending on the purpose, goals, and needs of the participants. There are four basic types of communities:Communities of Practice Graphics (1)

Creating a Community of Practice (CoP)

As was stated at the onset, creating, and building a Community of Practice can happen organically, but typically there is a someone, or several someones (committed champions or sponsors), who are securing foundational pillars upon which the community can evolve and be beneficial to its members.

Include Committed Champions

To be successful, CoP champions should design a community environment that centers an ethos of community building and collaborative learning, and integrates formalization either at the onset, as a stated objective, or over time to sustain what works, incrementally over time as the CoP grows.

Champions should monitor and facilitate the way members and the community interact across sectors as part of the ongoing resourcing and sustainability of the community. If there is a lack of dedicated staff or bandwidth on the part of champions and host organizations, consider utilizing a facilitator to build out the CoP, particularly at the early stages.  

Recruit Members Who Have Common Interests and Incentives to Participate

Recruitment of members is important for an array of reasons – from ensuring there is diverse and comprehensive representation across knowledge and practice – to growing knowledge and strengthening the community. Regarding the former, look for practitioners beyond ‘the regulars,’ including those with alternative perspectives, those who may be contributing knowledge in unique ways, or those working independently but contributing solutions related to challenges and issues.  

It is critical that participants have an incentive to participate; people need to feel that the time and effort they will put into the experience will give them something back. Some ways to ensure value for time include the following:

  • Focus on issues that are timely for all participants and are linked to their organizational goals and day-to-day work and tasks.
  • Detail opportunities that connection affords across sectors and roles.
  • Describe how their input and contributions will make a difference in the short and long-term.
  • Offer benefits and resources, particularly centered on collective engagement.
  • Generate excitement about ways collaboration will contribute to new insights, ideas, and solutions.

Design a Data Collection and Monitoring System

As conceived, a CoP is a conduit for and form of action research. Having a data collection plan in place from the onset will help guide planning and activity design. A clearly articulated data collection plan will also help guide participants as they prepare to collect and share best practices, success stories, and lessons learned.

Detailing the kind of data that should be collected (especially by those with a solid understanding of both quantitative and qualitative methodologies and analysis), will also help the CoP clarify its purpose, goals, and focus of the community, and ensures there is a commitment to robust and relevant data sets to share with sponsoring organizations. Documentation and analysis is often helpful in building a case for member and collective efforts regarding specific challenges outside of the CoP. Throughout the life cycle of the community, three basic kinds of data can be collected based on an understanding of action research:

  • Needs assessment (or baseline) data: What do members of the community want and need? What are their organizational and even CoP roles, tasks, areas of expertise, and learning preferences?
  • Participation (or process) data: How active is the community? e.g., How many people participate actively over time? How often? What kind of activities do they engage in?
  • Impact (or outcome) data: How did practice change because of the CoP? e.g., What goals are met at various stages and long-term? What changed? What shifts in practice did members of the CoP observe? What evidence did the community collect?

Note: There may be some types of data that can be used to report both participation and impact.

Encourage a Participatory Culture and Well-Designed Participatory Processes

Participants in a CoP may be inclined to join initially based on shared and common interests as well as clear benefits. However, even when met, participants may drop out of the community if the culture doesn’t promote participation of all members. A participatory culture should include:

  • Relatively low barriers to access and engagement.
  • Strong support for sharing with other members to help foster connections and nurture participation.
  • Standing and Influence of members to ensure their contributions are considered and matter.
  • Informal and formal mentorship and opportunities for personal, professional, and practice growth.

Central to growing and nurturing this culture is the provision of an environment of collaboration that is steeped in mutual respect, trust, and the practice of active listening. This allows participants to express and share ideas, ask difficult questions even if it means exposing knowledge gaps, and promote the kind of risk-taking that can lead to breakthrough ideas and practices. These often form the basis of co-creation, which is at its heart a participatory design process.

Consider Blended or Hybrid Interaction Opportunities

Although many established Communities of Practice were already embarking on hosting meet-ups and collaborations online, COVID accelerated the use of this mode or channel for member interaction, particularly as people’s work included more remote work. CoPs should consider what the best approach is for fostering a sense of community and growing membership. This might include hosting meet-ups as side events of larger conferences in which many members tend to participate. Regardless of channel, it is important to create a sense of connection, especially at the onset of establishing the CoP, as well as regularly when the community is embarking on any projects or major activities.

Goals for these facilitated interactions should include:

  • Helping participants identify common areas of interest and challenges.
  • Reviewing goals, objectives, and rationales for participation, and creating opportunities for the community to establish the same.
  • Creating a common understanding of challenges, concepts, terms, and processes that will be explored collectively as part of the CoP’s aim.
  • Creating time for participants to explore activities and technical approaches that may be used throughout a collaborative project.

Develop a Plan and Channels for Sharing Knowledge and Practices

Developing and building collective and shared knowledge among members is often a paramount goal of a CoP.  A community may establish as one of its many imperatives the need to share knowledge and best practices outside of the CoP as well, particularly when it benefits external stakeholders. Knowledge and best practice sharing is very often important to those working in global development, sustainability, climate adaptation and resilience, and impact work given the complexity of challenges and wicked problems, and the growing acknowledgement that working collaboratively as broader partnerships may yield the best solutions.

Although the CoP may not be able to anticipate the outcomes of its efforts, it should be able to articulate its vision for how research findings, success stories, best practices, and “knowledge” will be shared. This may take the form of communications planning with a checklist of collateral or artifacts the community sees as likely deliverables. To facilitate access and distribution, a CoP website may be necessary, the development and maintenance of which does take resourcing and management dedication. This should be discussed early in the establishment of the CoP. 

Some likely outputs available for stakeholders and broader audiences might include:

  • Research Articles
  • Guides
  • Success and Impact Stories
  • Summary Reports
  • Webinars
  • Conference Presentations
  • Roundtables

Evaluation Key to Lifespan and Legacy of a Community of Practice

A Community of Practice often has a finite lifespan and moves through a series of predictable and overlapping phases. Communities of Practice PhasesWithin each phase different activities help members achieve goals, build knowledge, and move into the next phase. Most CoPs don’t anticipate an end-date when members begin, but certainly regular evaluation of the community alongside its activities should be an important activity alongside monitoring and learning.

Regular assessment of how the community is serving its membership, as well as the broader sector or practice will also enable the CoP to pivot or evolve in response to ever-changing goals and external contextual landscapes. Formalizing opportunities for members to be responsive to pivot points will ensure a legacy of collaboration even if it is determined the CoP should take a new form or dissolve. 

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