community_of_practice.jpgCommunities of Practice

See also Comunidades de Práctica
Les communautés de pratique

Brief Description:

Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a passion for something that they do, and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better. From Wikipedia: "The group can evolve naturally because of the member's 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 lunchroom at work, in a field setting, on a factory floor, or elsewhere in the environment.

Organizations often use CoPs to share knowledge thematically, across traditional silos and team work. While teams focus on work outputs, CoPs focus on learning. CoPs also can exist across and outside of organizations. (Consider one of the sponsors of this wiki, KM4Dev!)


The concept and theory of CoPs was developed by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the early 1990's, but the practice has been around as long as humans have gathered to swap stories and show each other how they do things. The original research was done with midwives in the Yucatan, tailors in Egypt and insurance adjusters in Canada.

When to use:

  • Sharing and co-learning about related practices across projects.
  • Learning while doing.
  • Support for practitioners spread across the globe.
  • Professional development.

How to use:

Communities vary greatly from each other by membership composition (e.g. very homogeneous or very diverse), dispersion (small and community-focused or international virtual networks), and purpose (very closely-defined or broad and far-reaching). The key ingredients are a community (a set of people) with a defined domain (what they care about or do) who work on the body of knowledge about their practice (their work).

It is tempting to mandate communities, but in many cases communities can better be nurtured into continuing existence. By creating the conditions for communities, they can flourish in an organization. Some of those conditions include: helping people with a shared interest find and connect with each other; securing management support for the time and attention it takes to participate and lead CoPs; recognizing the contributions of a CoP; and providing basic support. Here are some additional ideas in this quick start up guide by Etienne Wenger. (See also "Starting a CoP")

external image CoPStartup.jpg

Tips and Lessons Learnt

  • The purpose of a CoP is to share knowledge and experience, so that each individual can operate more effectively. CoPs are the owners of knowledge in that particular area of knowledge. By exchanging stories, problems and solutions, the CoP can bring heir collective knowledge to bear on individuals' problems. The CoP can also take various experiences and solutions from around the organisation and build a knowledge asset representing best practice.
  • CoPs consist first and foremost of practitioners; specialists who perform the same job or collaborate on a shared task. The Community acts like an in-house professional society, cutting across team and divisional boundaries.
  • How big are they? - Intense face to face CoPs seldom grow larger than 50 people. However, small local CoPs can be bound together into a wider community by communications technology, and a membership of up to 100 or more is not uncommon.
  • What do they need in order to work? - CoPs often form spontaneously, driven by the need of the members for operational knowledge. A workshop or conference often provides the catalyst. CoPs can also be deliberately encouraged in areas where it is known there is a need for knowledge transfer. CoPs do not facilitate themselves. They need a facilitator ; someone they see as an 'insider' and who has the respect of the community. CoPs require organisational recognition to be really effective, and face to face meetings strengthen the communication and relationships.
  • How do they communicate? - They may rely on electronic communication. Email distribution lists and online discussion groups help strengthen relationships that have developed at face to face meetings and provide 'meeting points' for members.
  • Is a CoP the same as a network? - A CoP is a form of a network, but not every network is a CoP. A network could be considered a CoP if it is informal, open to all practitioners, works as a mutual help society rather than having a shared performance contract, and has a means of constant virtual communication rather than relying on occasional formal meetings.
  • How do you plan a workshop to launch a new CoP? - In order to initiate a CoP, it is recommended to conduct a face-to-face event in which the founding members get to know each other, discuss common thematic issues and interests and establish a charter and governance framework for the new CoP. In a past discussion, KM4Dev members shared tips and experiences on Planning a workshop to launch a Community of Practice.

Examples & Stories

  • Participation: In a discussion on KM4Dev, people shared statistics about participation in CoPs.
  • 78% said they ve never contributed to the online discussion
  • The regular posters on ActKM account for about 1 - 5% of the membership
  • Creator to consumer ratio is 0.07%
  • 50% of all article edits are made by 2.5% of logged-in users
  • Over 70% of the articles are written by 1.8% of users
Yahoo groups
  • 1% of the user population might start a group
  • 10% of the user population might participate actively
  • 89% just observe
Womens group in S. Portugal
  • 41% of members are considered active
  • 20% of discussion posts were sent by the group owner
Milk Network in S. Portugal
  • 16% of members are considered active
  • 50% of discussion posts were sent by the group owner
Outcome Mapping Learning Community CoP
    • 2% of members send 50% of posts
    • 80% are silent observers
    • Activity ratio of 2:18:80
  • The Ayuda Urbana story:
  • KM4Dev is an example of a community of practice. The World Bank, UN, Helvetas and many other organizations have applied CoPs as a KM and learning strategy in their organizations. An initiative by the UN Country Team in India, Solution Exchange [5], facilitates 11 CoPs on selected development topics such as microfinance, AIDS or disaster management to connect practitioners from governments, NGOs, development agencies etc.

Communities of Practice in International Development

FAO facilitates online CoPs around topics within its mandate, such as the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition, e-Agriculture, and the
Mitigation of Climate Change in Agriculture. In addition to the knowledge sharing around specific technical matters, FAO has developed recommendations on how to get started enabling a network or a community. These recommendations are based on a Thematic Knowledge Network Review paper developed in 2009.

Example CoP Member Guidelines

Who can tell me more?

  • Simone Staiger (s.staiger [at]
  • Boru Douthwaite (bdouthwaite [at]
  • Nadejda Loumbeva (TKN-Support-Group [at]
  • Gauri Salokhe (gauri.salokhe [at]
  • Sophie Treinen (sophie.treinen [at]
  • Lucie Lamoureux (llamoureux [at]

Related Methods/Tools/Practices:

  • Learning communities
  • Reflective practices
  • Knowledge networks

More Information/References/Related Resources:


Photo or image credits

KM4Dev Meeting 06 in Zeist, Netherlands