CoP Approach

Introduction to CoPs

The concept of learning through CoPs is presented and developed by Etienne Wenger in his book Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning, and Identity (1998)2. According to Wenger, CoPs use communal learning, expertise, and knowledge to achieve shared goals. CoPs are not a new concept. Although largely unnamed and unrecognized as such, people have always gathered in groups to discuss ways to learn, improve, or address issues, problems, or situations.

puzzle graphic
According to Wenger, CoPs must have the following three crucial elements:
  1. Domain — the shared interest that provides the incentive and passion for the group to come together. Because CoPs are autonomous, the scope of the domain is agreed upon by the CoP members, thus ensuring that the group focuses on what is important to the community.
  2. Community — the group of people who come together with a common interest, who share their perspectives and knowledge with one another. The community fosters a sense of belonging and collaboration.
  3. Practice — the agreed upon ways of formalizing and implementing the collectively developed knowledge and solutions that further the community’s mission. This includes developing and implementing new technology or best practices, innovation and problem solving, conducting research, and developing standards.

CoPs are autonomous, self-organizing, and operate with varying degrees of formality; they focus on a domain, which is defined collaboratively and reflects the interests of the group. Members may enter and leave a CoP at any time, and CoPs remain active as long as the members benefit from participation and there is a need for a CoP in the domain.

There is often a lack of understanding around the distinctions between a CoP and other similar groups. A CoP is not simply a network of people who have a common interest. Nor is a CoP a group of people who focus on the use of a common tool, as this more commonly defines a user group. CoPs grow organically with a specific purpose in mind, whereas a user group typically works toward a common assigned goal and a certain level of participation is largely required. The defining characteristic of CoPs is that members have a shared practice and are mutually engaged with one another in that practice. CoPs are more participatory, focus on all members’ needs, and make community-based decisions. The following illustration shows how CoPs go a step further than a user group or working group.

User Group / Working Group

Communication practices are largely unidirectional, with management’s needs as primary

Goals and deliverables are identified by management; members make recommendations and decisions are made by management

Focus is primarily on “Practice” such that “Domain” and larger “Community” initiatives are often neglected

Arrow from User Group to Community of Practice
Community of Practice

Communication practices between all levels are more transparent and bidirectional

All community members’ needs are voiced and considered

Decisions are community-based; project direction takes on a participatory approach

CoPs provide equal emphasis on “Practice”, “Domain”, and “Community”