A Community of Practice Is More Than a Website

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

Over the last year or so, the term communities of practice has entered the social media buzzword lexicon along with virtual collaboration, engagement, platforms, and Enterprise 2.0. Senior leaders want to establish them, new employees are being told to join them, and middle managers are being told to support them, but what, exactly are they?

Nowhere in the definition above does it mention the words website, wiki, blog, or social network. Nowhere does it say that it has to be virtual or physical or even either/or. There is no reference to the tools that are used to facilitate the communication and collaboration, nor is there a defined set of characteristics that define how a community of practice works or what topics they discuss.

A group of people who share an interest, a craft and/or a profession. Sounds pretty simple, right? Sounds like we might already be members of dozens of communities of practice – at work, at church, at school, etc. It’s just a group of people communicating and collaborating openly around a topic that they all care about. CoPs have existed for as long as people have had a desire to learn from each other.

Whether your organization knows it or not, your company/government agency is already filled with CoPs. Just because all of their communication and collaboration doesn’t happen to occur on your designated SharePoint site doesn’t mean that people aren’t already communicating and collaborating around a shared topic of interest. Whether it’s the group of new hires who coordinate the monthly happy hours or the new parents who get together over lunch to discuss work/life balance, communities of practice are alive and well within most organizations. They just might not be the ones with a unique URL on the Intranet.

Are you creating a community of practice or are you just creating another website? How does your CoP stack up to some of these statements?

  • People voluntarily spend time helping others in a community of practice. People visit a website to download what they need.
  • CoPs focus on adding value to their members. Websites focus on getting new users.
  • The success of a CoP is measured in anecdotes, efficiencies, and employee satisfaction. The success of a website is measured by hits, visits, and referrals.
  • The members of a CoP volunteer their expertise to create new tech features. A website has paid developers who add new features.
  • A CoP is built around conversation. A website is built around content.

Communities of practice have been around for decades, and for decades, they’ve helped countless organizations navigate major changes, increase productivity, cut duplication, and make work more enjoyable. In many cases, the use of social media has enhanced these CoPs by providing more tools and opportunities for people to connect with other people. Unfortunately, social media has also given rise to zombie communities filled with content on blogs, forums, and wikis, but which lack any actual human interaction. What are you building?

For more about Communities of Practice, check out Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, 2002 by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder.

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Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately and I think there’s actually a continuum between content sites and community of practice – kind of a 1-10 scale. And some sites that look like a content site (like Avc.com) actually have strong community of practice and vice-versa. Plus generally I think it’s easy to start as a community of practice (like say the PMF listserv or the original YGL happy hour) and become more content focused (YGL became 501c3, launched research products, trainings, etc). Hard to go other way around.


Steve Radick

@GovLoop – I think that’s a fair statement, and one that gets at my main point that CoPs aren’t just a “thing.” They can exist in happy hour format, they can be an email distro, they can be a content-focused site, a forum, etc. The tech that’s used doesn’t really matter. When tech does get introduced, it’s hopefully to fill a need – to supplement the people-to-people connections with people-to-information connections. I think you can have content-focused sites that develop community as well – it just takes a lot of work and commitment to bring that sense of community and value to it.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Steve – Amen! The community has to come first before you start introducing the tech. In my own agency, I argue that we shouldn’t even introduce tools until there is an establishing CoP pounding on the doors demanding we help them collaborate even more effectively.


@Radick – agree. Fun part about community of practice is they are always changing in their needs. I saw that with YGL – at first our needs were solely meeting others while drinking. Over time, our needs evolved and we became more passionate about items like having a voice in discussions like student loan repayment, getting our feedback heard on PMF program, getting leadership and mentorship, etc. Some occasionally worry that our happy hours aren’t as awesome recently but I think that’s perfectly fine – communities of practice change and evolve.

Lisa Nelson

Is anyone aware of any government sponsored research communities? Would be very interested to connect with them and see how they operate.