Diversity and InclusionEngagement

Day 2 – Creating a community of practice

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb 

Adventure backpacker climb
By Eric Sanman, downloaded from Pexels.com 29/07/19

So far in this coffee course we have introduced the concept of a community of practice (CoP), and reflected on why taking part in one (or more) is beneficial to teaching practice as well as broader professional development.

In this post we will focus on how to create, grow and sustain communities of practice (CoPs) in both face to face and online spaces.

How to start a CoP

Prominent social learning theorists Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner have identified 3 things to do first when thinking of starting a CoP:

    1. Have a series of conversations with potential members. What issues and challenges are they facing? Do they interact with others facing similar issues and challenges? Do they think it would help to make such interactions more sustained and systematic?

    2. Find potential members who are willing to join you in your vision of a community of practice and to invest their own identities as practitioners in making this happen.

    3. Engage a dedicated core group in designing a process by which the community can get going.

(The first three things to do? E & B Wenger-Trayner, 2011)

It can also be helpful to think about the stages of development of CoPs and what to expect at each stage with member participation and the associated activities:


Communities of Practice: Learning as a social system. Etienne Wenger. downloaded 30/07/19.

question mark Self-Reflection Activity

What do you think about these development phases? Does this fit with your experiences of joining and participating in a community of practice?

Other things to consider when planning for a CoP

  • Will it be primarily online or face to face?
  • How will the members communicate and collaborate? (E.g. through social media, blogs, online forums, email and/or through regular face to face meetings?)
  • Who will facilitate and how will they do this? What other primary roles will there be and who will take them on?
  • When and where will the CoP meet? Will there be regular online or face to face events for instance?
  • How will the CoP sessions run? What types of activities and interactions will there be?

Want to know more? Check out this quick start-up guide, or this comprehensive guide.

How to grow and sustain a CoP

Wenger et al (2002), proposed 7 design principles to cultivate CoPs: 

  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.

Other tips to nurture a CoP

  • Keep it simple, informal and responsive to members needs
  • Provide and share resources such as: information, physical/virtual spaces to meet and interact, the overall structure.
  • Acknowledge and recognise member contributions to the CoP.

How to tell if a CoP is successful?

As CoPs are organic, informal and dynamic in nature they take time to develop and become fully productive, and success depends on many factors. One of the most important however, is the skill, energy and time provided by the facilitator/s to create, grow and sustain a CoP. Indeed, whilst some CoPs may be supported by the broader institution, others will only be formed and nurtured by people who are motivated, proactive and passionate. In a higher education context there are also some specific challenges, as noted by McDonald & Palani (2011), p. 200:

Facilitators also operate in a context where discipline research is valued above scholarly teaching and an academic culture infamous for its individualism, judgementalism and competitiveness (Palmer, 2002). The challenge for a CoP facilitator is to establish a climate supportive of open and deep inquiry, ensuring whole group participation and not falling into existing committee or project group processes.

Learn more about key success factors for CoPs. Learn more on creating and facilitating CoPs in higher education.

What about online CoPs?

Online CoPs require additional consideration and planning and can take longer to develop than mostly face to face CoPs. Building a strong online social presence is vital so that members can communicate and interact easily – as noted by Buckley et al (2014) p.63, “(T)he social presence influences the likelihood of individuals to participate in CoPs, especially in online environments”.

Tip: Select an online platform that is user-friendly, intuitive, cost effective, and that best fits the digital literacy skills of members. It can also be helpful for some members to act as “technology stewards” in the community who can identify and select the most appropriate technology tools. Check out this detailed action plan to support the role of a technology steward.

Finally, keep in mind, that it is the people that make up the community that are most important, not the technology itself.

question mark Discussion Activity

Think about how you might start a community of practice in your area:

  1. What would be the purpose of the CoP?
  2. Who would be your potential members? How would you go about approaching them?
  3. What activities and/or events would you plan for to get the community started?

Post your comments in the discussion forum.

Examples of CoPs

  1. Liverpool Hope University CoPs in the Teaching and Learning space and their impact here.
  2. Griffith University learning and teaching CoPs and guidelines for establishing CoPs.
  3. Higher Education Academy CoPs.

References and Further Reading

  1. Buckley, S, Jakovljević, M, Bushney, M, & Majewski, G. (2014). Forming communities of practice in higher education: a comparative analysis. International journal of multidisciplinarity in business and science, 2(2), 3-12.
  2. McDonald, J, & Palani, A. (2011). Building Leadership Capacity for Community of Practice Facilitators: Edgy Professional Development. In Krause, K, Buckridge, M, Grimmer, C. & Purbrick-Illek, S. (Eds.)Research and Development in Higher Education: Reshaping Higher Education, 34(pp. 198 – 206). Gold Coast, Australia, 4 – 7 July 2011.
  3. Serrat, O. (2017). Building Communities of Practice. In: Knowledge Solutions. Springer, Singapore.
  4. Team BE, (2011). The first three things to do? Wenger-Trayner. Accessed 12/08/19. {https://wenger-trayner.com/resources/what-are-the-first-three-things-one-should-consider-doing-to-get-a-community-of-practice-started/}
  5. Wenger, E, White, N, Smith, J.D, & Rowe, K. (2005). Technology for communities. CEFRIO.

19 thoughts on “Day 2 – Creating a community of practice

  1. I see the development phases as being applicable to all voluntary and grass-root communities, not just CoPs. However, I think the dispersed and memorable phases depend on how successful the community was, and the strength of the shared identity that was created along the way. I have been involved in many attempts of CoPs that got up to the active phase, and then fizzled out completely, with neither a bang nor a whimper, but as if they had never existed.

    1. Bhavani, your point on voluntary and grass-root communities, I think is important. One of the things about the CoP is that they are not “work”.
      Also I share your pain on CoPs that have fizzled out. 😉

      1. Hi Tom and Bhavani,
        I think you both highlight a very valid point about the importance of voluntary membership, shared identity and ownership in a CoP. The power dynamic is quite different as compared with something you might be involved with out of obligation. I’ve been part of part of ‘professional learning communities’ that were compulsory for work. I found them to be highly valuable, but I would not say they met the criteria of a CoP because membership was compulsory and generally, members did not drive the agenda or steer the direction- it’s an interesting distinction.

    2. Hi Bhavani,
      I agree that how strongly members identify with the community over time really matters to its longevity and overall success! And of course its a mix of things that contribute to members identifying with the CoP in the first place! Can I ask what you think contributed to those CoPs you mentioned fizzing out in such a way?

      1. Hi Karlene,

        Great question! I have often wondered why some CoPs succeed while others don’t. I think, in some instances, the main driving force comes from a small core of central people, with everyone else merely along for the ride. This is unsustainable, and eventually collapses when those central people move on. The rate of collapse depends on how many people are in the central core, and whether they all leave at the same time.

        If this is even partly true, then it adds a whole other challenge to CoPs. They need to be organic (ie, voluntary, member-led, etc), but also have a succession plan in place. That isn’t an easy balance to strike. Building a strong sense of identity definitely helps in this regard. But, I am sure it is not the only contributing factor.

  2. “Facilitators also operate in a context where discipline research is valued above scholarly teaching and an academic culture infamous for its individualism, judgementalism and competitiveness (Palmer, 2002).”
    I think this is a really important point, and one that could both prevent CoPs from getting off the ground and make them all the more valuable. Formalising (albeit “informally”!) groups or programs that put the importance of teaching at the forefront, and transform it into a collaborative, collegial practice, can be a powerful way to increase the visibility of what we do as educators, and its importance.

    1. Hi Gemma,
      I’m glad you liked that quote – it really resonated for me too! CoPs definitely need to be considered, created and nurtured within the cultural context they are sited in.
      I also agree that a CoP can be a really significant and exciting way to raise the profile of educators both within and beyond organisations!

  3. The diagram has more text on it than I can cope with. If this is what I have to do to set up a CoP it is far too hard. Is there a CoP specific web service somewhere, to guide me through the steps?

    I guess my experience is of worrying about the logistical aspects: When should we meet? Where can we meet? How can we tell people about it?

    Also I take part in many more on-line CoP-like activities than I do physical ones. These typically have a text based forum. Some have an occasional video-conference, or face to face meeting. But most of the participants I have never seen, or spoken to. One group I have been participating in for 24 years.

    As for starting a community of practice, my first step would be to not call it a “community of practice”, as that sounds so academically pretentious. In the computer profession these would be typically called “Special Interest Groups” (SIGs).

    What I might do is a CoP on teaching computer professionals how to teach with tech.

    The potential members would be university academics, school teachers, and those teaching in industry.

    I would approach them via professional bodies, and online forums.

    Activities would be an online forum, and meeting.

    Come to think of it, I tried doing this, but it petered out after a couple of years. The problem, perhaps was a lack of focus, and too much of me wanting force my ideas on the group. It degenerated into a series of meetings with powerpoint presentations by visiting speakers. These were good speakers, and presentations, but this was not a CoP. What I found depressing was that when we went around the room, some present admitted they were just there to get their required professional practice training points.

    Hopefully, by the end of the week, I will have some new ideas, and can try again.

    1. Hi Tom,
      Yes I agree, there’s a lot of text in that diagram! There are more straightforward ones around like: http://www.communityofpractice.ca/background/lifespan/ – that also reflect the lifecycle of a CoP which may be helpful.
      Thanks too for sharing your experiences of setting up and supporting a CoP. Sounds like there were a few challenges which are pretty common with CoPs – such as how to maintain value for members so that they voluntarily (not just for brownie points) engage and share practices and learn from each other.
      I’d be interested to hear more about the online community that you have been part of for 24 years. How does that work? What does the participation look like?

  4. Bhavani – I agree with you. As I read through the post I was thinking about how I’ve volunteered in various organisations over the years and much of it echoed through the post.

    I’ve also read through Wenger’s article on CoP; Learning as a social system, and was attracted to the multiple types of internal leaders that they outline and how those roles, I think, could influence the success of the CoP in various ways. I also like how they mention that CoP members need time to collaborate and that’s where I think these coffee courses form a CoP. The short term timeframe enables participants accessible chunks of legitimate time.

    I’m undecided as yet as to what I would set up a CoP for, but I do like the idea of being involved in one. Like Tom, I’d want to run an active CoP rather than one where people are participating just for the brownie points. Hopefully by the end of this week the ideas will be flourishing!

    1. Hi Scott,
      I agree with your comments about the types of leadership roles in a CoP and how their effectiveness can impact the success of the CoP. How the leadership roles are negotiated or shared so that people feel ownership and agency could no doubt impact levels of engagement and motivation- hopefully beyond the ‘brownie points’ dilemma!

  5. Gemma – 100% agree that these groups are powerful in increasing the visibility of what we do as educators and the impact of quality teaching for student, professions and industry.

    What would be the purpose of the CoP? I think the first step here is to establish a small collective of individuals that can identify a shared purpose from which a CoP could be founded.
    Who would be your potential members? How would you go about approaching them? As the culture of our Discipline has changed significantly in the last 12 months, I think we could start here. As the group develops this could be extended to the Faculty, as multidisciplinary perspectives are highly valuable in this space.
    What activities and/or events would you plan for to get the community started? I think face-to-face opportunities to start would help get things moving. The activities could be guided by the shared purpose of the group.

  6. Hi Courtney,
    Thanks for sharing your ideas for a CoP! I think its a great idea to introduce broader perspectives to a CoP too, as it can provide a richer resource of shared practice and experiences for all members.

  7. I’d like to start by congratulating Tom on the 24-year long CoP – puts my decade-long involvement in the shade! Tom’s query about “how can we tell people about it” also resonated with me. I will shortly have the opportunity to drive the applied statistics CoP I mentioned to the next level, particularly identifying new members. So in response to the discussion questions posed:
    Purpose: share ideas on statistical analysis in order to ensure high quality research collaborations across campus. (Note: that sentence took several goes, I still don’t think it’s perfect and actually I would seek core group members’ involvement to settle on the final version!)
    Potential members: statisticians across the University (not always based in statistics departments). Approached by personal contact and online (sort of snowball sampling approach, to draw on statistical terminology!)
    Activities: weekly? Round the room of data analysis collaborations currently under way? One presentation of a data analysis with competing options on how to proceed? Journal club i.e. presentation of a recent journal article? This has certainly been the experience to date.
    I think I need to read the CoP article about leadership of a CoP because Scott’s post suggests there’ll be some useful ideas there about types of internal readers. Hope to come back next week with further thoughts!

    1. Hi Alice, this sounds like a great plan for your CoP! Leadership is certainly an important part of building and (especially) maintaining a CoP. One CoP that I have been a part of which was relatively successful had the members collectively set the goals and plans for the year as part of the first meeting. We decided how often to meet, what we wanted our goals to be (writing a research paper together, offering online webinars), and set up some individual and group goals. I found that process really helpful because it gave me a sense of ownership over what we did for the rest of the year. I wonder if that sort of process might be useful for this CoP you are planning as well?

      1. Katie I do like the idea of dedicating an early meeting of the CoP to purpose and goal-setting. I do have a tendency to leap straight I to the How bit of a learning curve with not enough thought given to the Why and What!
        I never did get back to the Wenger paper – the one I did read was all about participation and reification, not quite what Ike expected.
        On to Day Three!

  8. I am not trying to establish a CoP exactly, but still feel that I can take some lessons/ideas for another project I am working on. I have been trying to reach out to international partners/spouses of ANU staff and Phd Students (= ‘people who face similar situations’) and bring them together at the NECTAR Partner Activities (‘coalescing’). We have only had three activities, but it has already made such an impact on people’s lives. People have made friends, exchanged tips, met up outside the activities, etc. I see so much more potential, and have a ton of ideas. But we’ve got funding/approval for only one more activity, and that will be that… For now, because thanks to the support of my supervisor and the ANU Family Friendly Committee, I have put in a funding proposal for a full-fledged support program. Fingers crossed!
    >>> https://nectar.anu.edu.au/family-members/

  9. Friends of mine also doing their PhD through my school have considered organising a mentoring program, assigning a PhD student to an honours or masters thesis student to offer support throughout their first experience in research.
    We each fumbled our way through honours and/or masters thesis with what felt like little direction and support from our academic supervisors and we thought having someone who could play the role of informal mentor would be helpful for students new to research. We have spoken about this a few times, but have never gotten around to setting this up (our schedules are a bit crazy as PhD students). But we had thought we would go through our school’s student society to advertise for both mentors and students who would like a mentor. Our society runs a morning tea once a month so this could be a good platform as a welcome if we were to ever go through with this.

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