Diversity and InclusionEngagement

Day 3 – Misconceptions, challenges and solutions

“What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community”. – T.S. Eliot, Selected Poems

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

In Day 2 of this course we looked at how to create and grow a Community of Practice (CoP). In this post we will explore misconceptions surrounding Communities of Practice (CoPs) as well as consider potential challenges in creating and fostering a CoP and ways to minimise these challenges.

Misconceptions about CoPs

CoPs are not a one size fits all model that develop and evolve in the same way, instead, they are all different and each have unique characteristics. For instance, a CoP can be small or large, meet mostly face to face or online, be based in one geographical area or global, be supported by a broader organisation or member initiated, be formal or informal. Misconceptions can thus arise, and E & B Wenger-Trayner (2015, p.6) have identified 9 common myths associated with CoPs:

    1. CoPs are always self-organising.
    2. There are no leaders in a true CoP.
    3. True CoPs are informal.
    4. The role of a CoP is to (only) share existing knowledge.
    5. It is too difficult to measure the impact of CoPs.
    6. Good facilitation is all it takes to get members to participate.
    7. CoPs are harmonious places.
    8. There is a technology that is best for CoPs.
    9. CoPs are the solution to everything!

question mark Self-Reflection Activity

What do you think about these myths? How do they fit with your experience of CoPs?

Potential challenges

By leio-mclaren on Unsplash, downloaded 14/08/19

There can be a number of challenges with CoPs. One of the most significant is time – which is typically an ongoing challenge for both members and facilitators. Indeed, how much time each member as well as the facilitator can give to the CoP throughout each development phase will greatly influence how the CoP evolves and how successfully it functions.

CoPs typically have members participating across different levels – but sometimes this can be a challenge. For instance, if the core members are situated in a central location, whilst the peripheral members are drawn from a broader geographical area this can cause disruption and a lack of cohesion and belonging.

Similarly, if members remain static at a particular level of participation with no flow of new members to the core level for instance, then proactive steps may need to be taken.

Sometimes the community can be too small, where there is not enough new interactions or new members to support learning and knowledge sharing, and sometimes it can become too large so members feel disinclined to interact in meaningful ways.

Also, a CoP may lack cohesion or sufficient structure, produce conflict between members, be exclusive or too narrow or unclear in its purpose and objective. Similarly, the technological tools being used may be ill-suited to the community or lack sufficient stewards (see Day 2 for more).

Possible solutions

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash, downloaded 14/08/19

As mentioned in Day 2, the facilitator plays a crucial role in the success of the CoP. They navigate any emerging challenges, welcome new people and facilitate interactions (particularly in the early stages), nurture the core group, set meetings etc. For many new CoP facilitators, it can be useful to develop more group facilitation skills. The CoP Facilitation Guide from the University of Minnesota and the Center for Positive Organisations Facilitation Guide are helpful resources.

Thus, it is important that the facilitator is cognisant of the typical time and energy demands of the role, and ensure that they have the available resources and capacity, as well as be familiar with the social learning theory behind COPs (see Day 1 for more).

Ensuring the CoP has a clear purpose and goals which are communicated to all members and that evolves over time as needed to best fit each development phase is also vital. Similarly, encouraging members to contribute their ideas and list their professional priorities for the CoP is important.

Using technology in multiple ways to support a CoP can also help reduce potential challenges. As noted by Hoadley (2011) p.299: “Technology has affordances that allow it to represent content, scaffold processes, and shift the user’s social context. These affordances can be applied to support one or more of the key aspects of the functioning of a community of practice: connections, conversations, content, and information context”.

Hoadley (2011, p.296-298), outlines 4 ways technology can support a CoP:

      • linking others with similar practices
      • providing access to shared repositories
      • supporting conversations within a community
      • providing awareness of the context of the information resources

Of course, there are many more ways to both anticipate and minimise potential challenges to creating, growing and sustaining a CoP.  For instance, McDonald and Reaburn (2017), p. 21-22 at Central Queensland University (CQU), identify four key challenges, and share how CQU has used the associated success factors to sustain and build CoPs.

question mark Discussion Activity

Can you identify some strategies and/or recommendations to minimise potential challenges? What has been helpful from your experience in CoPs?

Post your comments in the discussion forum.

References and Further Reading

  1. Hoadley, C. (2011). What is a community of practice and how can we support it? Theoretical foundations of learning environments (Second ed.), 287-300, 2012.
  2. Linet, A. (2016). Communities of practice in higher education: professional learning in an academic career. International Journal for Academic Development, 21:3,230-241, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2015.1127813
  3. Reaburn, P. & McDonald, J. (2017). Creating and Facilitating Communities of Practice in Higher Education: Theory to Practice in a Regional Australian University. 10.1007/978-981-10-2879-3_6.
  4. Wenger-Trayner, E. & B. (2015). Communities of practice a brief introduction. EB Wenger-Trayner. https://wenger-trayner.com/

17 thoughts on “Day 3 – Misconceptions, challenges and solutions

  1. I think variety is important when creating and facilitating a CoP. Having options that allow members to engage in a way that suits them like face-to-face or online platforms like Slack creates flexibility. Movement of face-to-face sessions to different venues may make this options more accessible. Variety in activities may also help with engagement.

    I am keen to hear what strategies others use!

    1. Courtney, do you have any tips on using online platforms like Slack for CoPs? I find them a bit mechanical, and either there is no discussion, or I am flooded with stuff to read.

      1. Hi Tom,
        I have used Slack for a small CoP (3-4) and it did work quite well for when someone had a question or something they wanted to discuss. We could trouble shoot together and add links to literature etc. I am not sure how this would go on a larger scale. We used it fairly informally on an ad hoc basis. We would then have a broader discussion face-to-face as needed. Personally, I didn’t feel I got flooded with information. Slack allows you to break out of group threads and have one-on-one discussions too. This was helpful if members wanted to continue a discussion outside the general thread based on interest of what was being discussed.

        1. Hi Courtney and Tom, for me the most effective and long-running CoP I have been a part of is on Twitter. By following a range of educators in higher ed, and participating in discussions around hashtags (like #digped, #highered, #edtech, #ouranu, #phdchat and #ecrchat) I have met and gotten to know many new people and built relationships with them despite never meeting in person. I always love the moment at conferences when several members of my network all realise we are tweeting from the same room for the first time! It is a very ad-hoc and unorganised type of CoP, but I think the informal nature of Twitter helps to build relationships, as we are tweeting not just about our work and things directly related to the CoP, but also pictures of our families, pets, reactions to the latest episode of whatever show, and other things as well.

          Are there any other tweeters out in the course? (I know Scott is a bit fan!) How do you find it works as a CoP?

    2. Hi Courtney,
      Thanks for sharing these ideas! Providing online and face to face options to engage in the CoP is a such helpful way for people to feel included in the community. Thanks for sharing your experiences of using Slack too – I like how it can be used for both broader and one-on-one interactions.

  2. Is there enough research into what actually happens with CoPs, to say how they really work, and what is a myth?

    My experience is that there is usually one person leading a CoP, it is not self-organising. Membership is usually informal: anyone interested can come along. Participants might need some pre-qualification, such as belonging to an organization, professional body, or have a security clearance, but even then enthusiastic outsiders may be admitted. There is usually a set format, to discuss a particular topic, but it may be to develop a policy, paper or project.

    It is difficult to measure the impact of a CoP. Peter Chen (2000) attempted this in PhD research at ANU, on the groups which influenced the Australian government’s policy on Internet censorship, in the late 1990s. I was interviewed about my involvement (he must have analyzed hundreds of hours of interviews). One point he made was about the overlapping memberships of informal groups, and formal organizations, having influence.

    I suggest it takes more than good facilitation to get members to participate in a CoP. They need to be able to see some short term tangible benefit, to sustain the effort. There will inevitably be conflict, but perhaps not enough. People are more likely just drift away when something happens at the CoP they don’t like.

    The technology which best facilitates a CoP, I suggest, is food and drink. An old fashioned e-mail list also helps.

    One aspect of a CoP I don’t like is where the organizers have a hidden agenda. If this is part of someone’s research, they need to tell us up front. Also if they are going to encourage us to sign up with some sort of fellowship, that needs to be made clear.

    My preference is for the informal CoP, under the Chatham House rule. That is, participants can use what is discussed at the CoP, but not identify who it came from. This way participants can speak freely, without the fear of retribution from their boss. But obviously if something is a significant piece of original work from one member, that will need to be acknowledged. At one point I became frustrated that I was contributing a lot to groups and others were taking the credit. So I started to write my own narrative about it, in blogs and talks. I once managed to sneak my own name into an example in an appendix of a report, just so I could show I had something to do with it. 😉


    Chen, P. J., “Australia’s online censorship regime: the Advocacy Coalition Framework and governance compared”, Doctoral dissertation, ANU, 2000.

    1. Hi Tom,

      I generally agree with your analysis. However, I interpreted “self-organising” slightly differently. Over the last 2 days, there have been several discussions about the importance of CoPs being voluntary endeavours. As such, I understand “self-organising” to mean not required or “work”. In which case, I believe myth #1 is not a myth. Even formal CoPs are still fundamentally self-organising.

  3. I’ve just finished reading Linet Arthur’s article (on the list below the post) and found their typology of CoPs interesting in that perhaps the mix of individual experience may at some points create conflict and other points be helpful. If everyone’s agendas and reasons for participating are different that may lead to disharmony and an unproductive flailing CoP. I think a semi-structured CoP provides flexibility for all participants. Those who need to learn more are given space and those with the experience are able to help others. Perhaps a blend of formal and informal is best. Some activities can be more informal and adhoc, but a regular schedule of formalised sessions might help.

    I also agree with Tom in that ‘Chatham House rules’ are great to use if people need to talk specifics.

  4. One potential challenge that came to mind when reading this (although I haven’t experienced it in any CoP I’ve been involved with) that would be specific to tertiary education is a possible resistance to inviting postgraduates to be members. I think academia often underestimates PhDs, what they’re capable of and what they have to offer, and CoPs would be a great tool for postgraduates not just to learn from more experienced teachers but to share fresh perspectives.

    1. Hi Gemma,
      Inviting PhD students to be involved in a CoP is a great idea (and probably already happens in some places – maybe others have experiences of this and how they have overcome any resistance?). It ties in with the idea within CoP literature about having a mix of novices and experts within the CoP to generate shared thinking practices.

    2. Hi Gemma and Karlene, this is a great question around PhD students being involved. In my own experience as a PhD student, I was not included initially in any of the CoPs happening in my School, but once the idea was floated then the academics were happy to include us. However, once I finished by PhD and was working as a casual tutor, it was a somewhat different story – I found there was more resistance to sessional/casual staff being included in CoPs than PhD students. This was, of course, my personal experience at another university, but I wonder how we can ensure that staff across all levels and modes of employment can be included (without necessarily taking over time from sessional staff who are not salaried employees?) It’s a tough question!

      1. Hi Katie,
        I’m sorry (but sadly unsurprised) to hear that was your experience. I definitely think there’s a shift that needs to occur in academia, and that sessional staff can be marginalised in so many ways that may feel small, but amount to a lot. The most I ever learned in one semester as an educator was as a sessional staff member in France, learning to put on a language course with almost no support!

  5. I believe sharing the load among members both alleviates time pressures on individuals, and builds identity. You want members to invest in the community in sustainable ways. Place too much on a few people, and you will stagnate and struggle to find anyone to move into the core. Similarly, it is easier to identify when you are personally invested, even if that investment is small.

    For geographically spread out communities, use primarily asynchronous methods of communication. Additionally, consider having deadlines by which members can contribute, if you wish to progress discussions on certain topics. This can help level the playing field somewhat, as no one is excluded by time or location.

    1. I really like the point you made on sharing the load, Bhavani! I actually once left a volunteer organisation because I felt that I wasn’t given an opportunity to grow/take on more responsibility (= become part of the ‘core group’). I felt that I was being called upon too much to ‘help out’ and wasn’t given (and wouldn’t be any time soon) the opportunity to take a lead in projects.
      What also really frustrated me was the lack of clearly defined processes, and the lack of in-person meetings. The coordinator allocated the different tasks via Facebook. I don’t feel that that worked well… The popular jobs were snatched up straight away, and I missed out on a few because I don’t check Facebook that often. And about the less popular jobs, we’d get (increasingly passive-aggressive) reminders “I really need someone to do X, and I have already done so much and can’t do everything here”. It really showed me the importance of how the coordinator manages the volunteer organisation – and I think this would also apply to a CoP.

      1. Hi Melde & Bhavani, these are really important things to consider, I appreciate you bringing them up! It’s interesting how workplace teams are managed versus how volunteer or community-of-practice groups are managed in terms of clarity of roles and responsibilities, and opportunities to advance and grow in that space. Not that I would want CoPs to become too managerial but I think a more concrete and transparent approach could potentially benefit in situations like the one you have described, Melde.

  6. Hi All, I am a bit late to this discussion, but have been following this coffee course with interest. I am currently exploring the use of communities of practice in healthcare, frequently recognised as Knowledge Management (KM) or Knowledge Translation (KT) initiatives. My interest lies in how we can prepare students enrolled to study healthcare (or any other discipline really) today for tthe virtual CoPs of their specialisation. Can we use the L&T environment of our courses, and in particular harness the opportunities of discussion platforms (forums) to scaffold students to develop an appetite for becoming a contributor to the process of working together to build share knowledge? Our teachers still struggle with varying levels of participation and engagement in discussion forums across all years and disciplines, yet they can be a great platform to build the competence and confidence to become a vCoP participant in the future. So – my question is really, can we learn from the design, facilitation and management of CoPs for teaching students how to build shared knowledge in their discussion forums. There are lots of articles about, but one that I am currently reading with interest is the article on use of The New England Journal of Medicine Knowledge & Question of the Week forum (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0142159X.2019.1635685). The NEJM blogs are really interesting and I would like to explore how teachers can utilize this format – start with a question (MCQ) to respond to the case and then give feedback to elicit further discussion. I would be interested to hear what others have in terms of experience of preparing students for CoPs in their professions?

  7. The most successful CoPs I have been a part of, have all had a clear leader or facilitator to ensure it runs smoothly. When there is no clear leader, or no one with authority to check in, CoPs can become side-tracked or fall apart entirely. However, when only 1 person is a leader, there can be periods of time where this 1 person is away or unwell, and this means that the CoP cannot function until their return. It might be best to have a team of leaders or a clear second-in-charge type figure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *