What is a Community of Practice? (CoP)

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See the | KSToolkit Page on CoPs

What is a Community of Practice?


"Groups of people who come together to share and learn from one another - either face-to-face or virtually - are held together by a common interest in a body of knowledge and are driven by a desire and need to share problems, experiences, insights, templates, tools, and best practices." Source: [1]


community, communities of practice, learning, domain, practice

Detailed Description

  • Lave and Wenger (1991) described a Community of Practice as " a set of relations among persons, activity and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping CoPs". They studied the ways in which people naturally work and play together. Communities of practice are groups of people who share similar goals and interests. In pursuit of these goals and interests, they employ common practices, work with the same tools and express themselves in a common language. Through such common activity, they come to hold similar beliefs and value systems.
  • In their article Communities of Practice and Organizational Performance, November 2001 edition of the IBM Systems Journal, Eric L. Lesser and John Storck defined 'communities of practice' as groups whose members regularly engage in sharing and learning, based on common interests and can improve organizational performance. To build an understanding of how communities of practice create organizational value, they suggest thinking of a community as an engine for the development of social capital. They further suggest that the social capital resident in communities of practice leads to behavioral changes, which in turn positively influence business performance.
  • "A group of professionals, informally bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, common pursuit of solutions, and thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge." Peter & Trudy Johnson-Lenz, Awakening Technology
  • More than a "community of learners," a community of practice is also a "community that learns." Not merely peers exchanging ideas around the water cooler, sharing and benefiting from each other's expertise, but colleagues committed to jointly develop better practices. George Pór, Community Intelligence Labs
  • John Seely Brown, VP and Chief Scientist at Parc Xerox describes such communities as "peers in the execution of real work. What holds them together is a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows." What sets these apart from teams, however, is that communities are defined by knowledge rather than task. Further, a community life cycle is determined by the value it creates for its members, not by project deadlines. [2]
  • Etienne Wenger writes, "Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." [3]

Share an interest in a topic - The domain

    • Why is this important to the organization?
    • Why would people want to participate?

Interact and build relationships - The community

    • Who should be involved?
    • What are ways to foster trust and engagement?

Share and develop knowledge - The practice

    • What knowledge matters?
    • What activities are needed?
    • … and thereby contribute to the success of the organization."1 Wenger, Etienne. (2001). Supporting Communities of Practice: A Survey of Community-Oriented Technologies.
  • A community of practice is a group of people who shares knowledge, learns together, and creates common practices. Communities of practice share information, insight, experience, and tools about an area of common interest. This could be a professional discipline--like reservoir engineering or biology--a skill--like machine repair--or a topic--like a technology, an industry, or a segment of a production process. Consulting companies, for example, usually organize communities of practice around both disciplines, such as organizational change, and industries like banking, petroleum or insurance. Community members frequently help each other solve problems, give each other advice, and develop new approaches or tools for their field. Regularly helping each other makes it easier for community members to show their weak spots and learn together in the "public space" of the community. As they share ideas and experiences, people develop a shared way of doing things, a set of common practices. Sometimes they formalize these in guidelines and standards, but often they simply remain "what everybody knows" about good practice. Since communities of practice focus on topics that people often feel passionately interested in, they can become important sources of individual identity. -- Borrowed from Richard McDermott (Richard@RMcDermott.com), a member of my community. From [4]
  • "Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis." Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Etienne Wenger, William Snyder, Richard A. McDermott

KM4Dev Discussions

1. What is a Community of Practice (CoP)?

- CoPs are informal networks dedicated to sharing knowledge among practitioners.

2. What is the role of a CoP in Knowledge Management?

- 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.

3. Who takes part in a CoP? - 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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. http://www.dgroups.org/groups/km4dev/index.cfm?op=dsp_showmsg&listname=km4dev-l&msgid=17932&cat_id=11846

8. 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.

9. Does anyone have participation stats for CoP? Does anyone know of any research undertaken looking into the 'profile' of member activity in such communities?

- Here's a summary of the data provided by KM4Dev members (links to original sources provided):


  • 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

Women s 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

People who contributed to the discussions:

Examples in Application

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.

Related FAQs

Starting a CoP

Further Information


Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press.

Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press.

Etienne Wenger (2001) “Supporting Communities of practice; a survey of community-oriented technologies” at http://www.ewenger.com/tech/

Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William Snyder (2001) Communities of Practice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press)

Etienne Wenger’s home page. Wenger is the researcher and consultant who coined the term along with Jean Lave. EWenger.com

Richard McDermott (1999) "Learning Across Teams: The Role of Communities of Practice in Team Organizations," Knowledge Management Review, May/June, 1999.

Eric S. Raymond, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar.html.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (1991) "Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation" at: http://www.parc.xerox.com/ops/members/brown/papers/orglearning.html.

Chris Kimball’s excellent set of links.http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~kimble/teaching/mis/Communities_of_Practice.html

Open Directory list of great links http://dmoz.org/Reference/Knowledge_Management/Knowledge_Flow/Communities_of_Practice/

John Smith’s Techniques for Supporting CoPs http://www.learningalliances.net/CP_bib/how_support_CP.html from his larger link list http://www.learningalliances.net/CP_bib/index.html

John Gotze’s Gotzelink site -- http://slashdemocracy.org/links/Nurturing_knowledge_and_shared_practices/Communities_of_practice/index.html

TCM’s extensive CoP link list http://www.tcm.com/trdev/morecops.htm

IBM Watson Research Lab has some terrific papers http://domino.watson.ibm.com/cambridge/research.nsf/pages/papers.html?Open&count=500 and a list of key references http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/404/gonglref.html



CoP links in Dutch http://communities-of-practice.pagina.nl/

Bronwyn Stuckey’s papers and links http://rite.ed.qut.edu.au/oz-teachernet/profiles/papers.htm

Definitions Galore http://www.kmadvantage.com/cop_directory.htm, http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/definitions.shtml

Cpsquare - Resources and information for individuals and organizations who are developing expertise in the cultivation of communities of practice. Features educational resources, publications, etc. http://www.cpsquare.com

Fred Nichols’s CoP resource page [6]


SDC Shareweb - Communities of Practice: Flyer, examples, etc.: http://www.communityofpractice.ch

Original Author and Subsequent Contributors of this FAQ

Nancy White

Dates of First Creation and Further Revisions

February 2006

FAQ KM4Dev Source Materials

Most of this material was gathered outside of KM4Dev conversations.