TAO/Activities/Communities of Practice

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This module will give you an idea of what communities of practice are and help you define the current status of your community.

What are communities of practice?

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A community of practice (CoP) is, according to cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, a group of people who share a craft and/or a profession.

The group can evolve naturally because of the members' common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to their field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger 1991).

CoPs can exist online, such as within discussion boards and newsgroups, or in real life, such as in a lunch room at work, in a field setting, on a factory floor, or elsewhere in the environment.


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A community of practice is a unique combination of three fundamental elements: a domain of knowledge, which defines a set of issues; a community of people who care about this domain; and the shared practice that they are developing to be effective in their domain. Domain, community and practice build an ideal knowledge structure for communities of practice.


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Do we know who our target audience is?

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You always need to be clear who your target audience is. A survey can help to find out the audience’s requirements, interests and problems.

Do we know what influence we will have to the project / the wider organization? And what topics and issues we care about?

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To know what influence you will have helps to know on what the community has to focus.

Is the domain connected to the organization’s strategy?

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Because we are like a subgroup of a larger project / an organization it is important to follow the same strategy and targets as the project / the organization does.


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Does each team member bring his/her knowledge to the community?

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Especially in a community of practice is it important that each person brings his/her knowledge to the community. So the group can profit from everyone’s experience and knowledge.

Check if the most common intern and extern roles have been set.

Intern roles:

  • chairman
  • minutes taker
  • coordinator
  • creator
  • caretaker
  • leader
  • mediator.

External roles:

  • stakeholders

Does a regularity of online meetings as well as face-to-face meetings exist?

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Regular meetings are needed to inform everyone about progresses and to take common decisions. Further are face-to-face meetings important for boosting the team spirit and to meet each other; knowing each other usually improves the quality of team work.

Do we have guidance for members about conflicts?

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You need to differentiate between different kinds of conflicts, such as personality, style, value, leadership, pseudo conflicts, etc.. Furthermore; it might be useful to have a generally recognized mediator to turn to in case of conflict.


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Do you use ideal tools for your community? Such as tools for communication, shared documents, etc?

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The right tool can simplify your teamwork, especially for distributed communities. First you need to know your exact requirements for choosing the right tool. Often companies offer a whole package of needed software which covers all the requirements.

Does the community have templates for official and non-official documents? And does a glossary exist, so everyone talks about the same thing?

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Templates are needed for a consistent image outwards. Templates contain information about date, document number, status, distribution list, etc. A glossary defines keywords, which can avoid misunderstandings.

What language will be spoken, if a multilingual meeting is taking place? Does everybody understand that language?

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To get the best out of meetings and conversations, communities need to define a language that will be spoken. Therefore everyone needs to be confident with it.

Cultivating communities of practice

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Does the community of practice consist of different levels of participation?

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The architecture of the community invites many different levels of participation. Usually a community consists of a coordinator who organizes events and connects community members. The rest of the community is divided into three different groups, such as the core group which actively participates in discussions etc.

At the next level outside this core is the active group which attends meetings regularly and participates occasionally in the community forums, but without the same regularity or intensity as the core group.

The rest of the members are peripheral and rarely participate. Instead, they keep to the sidelines, watching the interaction of the core and active members.

Do we have a combination of familiarity and excitement?

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Successful communities offer the familiar comforts of a hometown, but they also have enough interesting and varied events to keep new ideas. The familiarity of these events creates a comfort level that invites candid discussions.

Do we have found a rhythm for the community?

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Regular meetings, teleconferences, Website activity, and informal lunches and flow along with the heartbeat of the community. When that beat is strong and rhythmic, the community has a sense of movement and liveliness. If the beat is too fast the community feels breathless. When the beat is too slow, the community feels sluggish. The rhythm of the community is the strongest indicator of its aliveness.


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Does our website have a clear structure and attractive design?

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Especially for handicapped people and people who are not used to work in the internet is it important to have a clear structured website. So they can get the information they want as easily as possible.

Do our members want to communicate apart from emails?

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robably a life-time-chat is required or a message wall, as facebook or twitter has.

Challenge – Distributed Communities

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Does distance play a role in our community of practice?

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Distributed communities have to resort to technologies that are not real substitutes for face-to-face interactions. They are generally less “present” to their members. Because of this barrier, it takes more intentional effort for members to consult the community for help, spontaneously share ideas, or network with other members

Does culture play a role in our community of practice

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Distributed communities are also likely to cross cultures. National cultures are the most obvious type, but organizational and professional cultures can also present problems in diversified organizations.

Cultural differences can easily lead to communication difficulties and to misinterpretation. Further, language differences also introduce a very basic barrier to communication.

Non-native speakers may not understand the nuances and connotations behind certain terms or may hesitate to speak if they are uncertain of their ability to express themselves effectively.


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  • Cultivating communities of practice, 2002
    By Etienne Wenger
  • Community Building, 2000
    By Amy Jo Kim
  • Enabling knowledge creation, 2000
    By Georg von Krogh
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Information on Communities of Practice (by Etienne Wenger)

Other Handbook Chapters:

Online Communities

Online Tools