What Is a Community of Practice?

Sam Cook


What Is a Community of Practice?

I remember the excitement I felt the first time I attended a collaborative session as a high school English teacher. As a K-12 educator, it’s easy to live in a bit of a bubble that’s partially of your own design, partially a consequence of the role. You might snag some lesson plan ideas here or there from your colleagues, but everyone is time-crunched and you protect your planning time with fervor. Finding opportunities to learn from more experienced peers requires giving up the time you need to get stuff done (like grading papers). However, most school districts are intentional about creating communities of practice for their educators and carving out that time in the form of professional development days.

Here’s the thing, though: Communities of practice are not unique to K-12 education. In fact, every industry and every job can have communities of practice. What’s more, these communities can be internal to the organization, although they don’t have to be. That’s because a community of practice is an intentional, collaborative group of individuals (usually, but not always) within the same profession who meet to enhance each others’ personal and professional development.

Learning and development happen best when people learn from each other. Consequently, communities of practice are not just essential but something that many organizations are beginning to create for their employees with the intention of ensuring their people are the best in the business.

This post is designed to help you understand a few things about communities of practice:

  • A high-level overview of how to define a community of practice (also known as CoP)
  • Examples of both internal and external communities of practice
  • Advice on how to create a community of practice

Did You Know?

Group and peer mentoring can serve as an internal community of practice! Download our 5 Steps to Create a Mentoring Program to get started

Did you know that group and peer mentoring can serve as an internal community of practice? Learn more about how to create mentoring programs like these with our step-by-step guide: 5 Steps to Create a Mentoring Program!

Community of Practice: Definition

A “community of practice” is a group of professionals who are organized and meet with the intent of personal and professional development. Typically, a community of practice is structured around a specific industry, function, or role. However, a community of practice can be much broader than that and can encompass different affinities, as well.

To determine if something is a community of practice (CoP), we can create a simple checklist that you can use to determine if a group you’re considering creating, joining, or assessing, meets that criteria:

  • A common domain of interest: There should be a shared interest, problem, or challenge that unites the group. This could be a specific industry, software program, teaching approach, or anything else that brings people together.
  • Shared practices: Members of the CoP develop and share ways of doing things, best practices, and resources related to the domain of interest. This can involve discussions, workshops, online forums, or other methods of knowledge exchange.
  • Community of 2 more people: There should be a sense of community among members. This involves interaction, collaboration, and a willingness to help each other learn and grow.

We recommend you keep this short list of criteria in your back pocket. Now that you know what a community of practice is, you’ll likely start noticing more of them. What’s more, you may want to play the game of “let’s see if this fits the CoP criteria.”

Examples of Communities of Practice

Let’s put into practice what you just learned above about how a community of practice is defined and its basic criteria.

Three levels of CoPs

There are multiple levels of a community of practice. They can be exceptionally large, such as international associations, or exceptionally small, such as three professionals meeting weekly to help discuss best practices and strategies.

For better and easier categorization, let’s split communities of practice into three distinct levels:

Level 1: Associations

Associations are large, sometimes internationally-centered communities that host a variety of different collaboration structures. These can include, but are not limited to, groups forums, hosted talks, and large or small events. Associations typically require some type of membership to take part in all that the community has to offer, but that’s not always the case. Many associations invite participation from non-members, with limitations.

Examples of associations aligned with learning and development professions include:

MentorcliQ at ATD's community of practice annual event.

This year (2024), I attended ATD’s annual conference. As with most large association conferences, the location rotates to different cities. This year, it was in New Orleans (where I was living at the time), making it easy enough for me to get to. ATD’s conference highlights all of the reasons why someone might join a Level 1 community of practice: there were dozens of sessions, thousands of attendees, and amazing opportunities to learn and network.

(Never mind the fact that I got to be glitzy as heck, but that’s another matter altogether). There’s a clear benefit to making an association part of your community or practice, as they tend to have the membership size and the resources to ensure you have access to others who can help you learn and develop within your profession.

That said, association membership does come at a cost. That cost can be prohibitive to some professionals unless their company is footing the bill.

Level 2: Corporate and company-sponsored development communities

Companies and organizations often create their own, internal groups to support learning and development across and within functions. These internal communities of practice are essential not only because they leverage internal knowledge and expertise but are excellent at protecting and growing company culture, reducing employee turnover, increasing employee productivity, and preserving institutional knowledge.

These communities are established and supported by organizations for their employees’ personal and professional growth. They provide targeted learning opportunities, peer-to-peer support, and networking within a specific company or industry.

Examples of company-sponsored communities of practice include:

The great thing about Level 2 CoPs is that they’re distinctly ubiquitous, easy to create, and ultimately low cost per employee, especially at scale. In many companies, for example, ERGs are employee-created, led, and operated. While we don’t recommend it, 21% of resource groups run without an ERG budget at all, meaning they’re a community of practice strategy that costs companies almost nothing to create and maintain.

However, whether you launch ERGs or mentoring programs, structure, and matching are essential to making them highly effective, measurable, and sustainable. Mentoring and ERG software increase participation, create visibility across those programs, reduce administrative time and effort, and help tie those programs to key business objectives.

💡Did you know that companies using MentorcliQ’s software see an average 32% reduction in turnover, and those running ERGs and Mentoring programs see an average decrease in retention of 62%? I definitely recommend you book a demo to see how this magic combination of communities of practice leads to incredible impacts on your teams!

Level 3: Independent forums and groups

When I switched from teaching to freelance writing (the role I did full-time before joining the team at MentorcliQ), I built my writing career pretty much solo. It wasn’t until I was very well established and ready to give back that I discovered various freelance writer communities, particularly /r/freelancewriters on Reddit.

Since then, I’ve contributed a ton of content, and benefited from a ton of content. Forums such as that are a perfect example of a Level 3 community of practice. A Level 3 CoP are those that form organically, are typically free, and can exist in any medium, from small in-person groups to online forums on social media.

Level 3 communities of practices are a great starting point for individuals who are just starting out in a field, or who really want to give back to others within their field or profession but outside of the framework of their immediate workplace.

An AI-generated image of a latte art community of practice.
If my fictional barista community, “Drip It Like It’s Hot” had a creepy AI-generated logo with a character that sort of looks like me, this would be it.

Examples of Level 3 communities of practice include:

  • Online forums and discussion boards (Reddit, Stack Overflow)
  • Social media groups (LinkedIn, Facebook, Discord)
  • Independent meetups (sometimes organized through MeetUp, in fact)
  • BarCamps

For example, let’s say the baristas in your city decided to start a collaborative group for other baristas called “Drip It Like It’s Hot”. Each week, that group has topical discussions relevant to the world of baristas, such as roasting temperatures, foaming strategies, and of course, demonstrations and practices in latte art.

This group (which I would love to be a part of, despite not being a barista myself) would be considered a community of practice. It would fit the most basic criteria required for a CoP:

  • Common domain of interest (brewing and serving caffeinated beverages)
  • Shared practices (especially latte art)
  • Community of 2 or more people (because few latte artists are self-taught)

There’s a certain beauty in not only joining but also starting Level 3 communities of practice. They give access to individuals who, due to life circumstances, may not be able to join a Level 1 or Level 2 CoP. They are distinctly personal in nature, usually without the rigors and requirements common with the higher-level communities.

That said, some Level 3 communities of practice may still have membership requirements and, at times, may still require membership fees or dues. But they’re more likely to be local, and that makes them a great place to grow friendships within your own hometown or city.

How to Create a Community of Practice

Now that you’re familiar with how to define a community of practice, how they’re categorized, let’s take this one step further and briefly cover how to create a community of practice.

Creating a CoP is a strategic endeavor aimed at fostering collaboration, knowledge sharing, and professional development among individuals with shared interests or goals. Here are a few steps to consider as you build out a community of practice:

Define your purpose and scope

Before diving into creating a community of practice, clarify its purpose, goals, and scope. Determine the domain or topic of interest around which the community will revolve. Define what members hope to achieve by participating in the CoP, whether it’s professional development, skill enhancement, problem-solving, or networking.

Identify potential members

Identify individuals within your organization or industry who share a common interest or role relevant to the CoP’s focus. Look for enthusiastic participants who are willing to contribute and engage actively. Consider diverse perspectives and backgrounds to enrich discussions and learning experiences.

Establish guidelines and structure

Develop clear guidelines and expectations for participation, communication, and collaboration within the CoP. Define how often and where meetings or interactions will occur, whether in-person or virtually. Establish norms for sharing resources, asking questions, and providing feedback to create a supportive and inclusive environment.

Select communication and collaboration tools

Choose appropriate tools and platforms to facilitate communication and collaboration among community of practice members. This may include email listservs, online forums, social media groups, video conferencing tools, or dedicated collaboration software. Ensure that the selected tools align with members’ preferences and accessibility needs.

Promote engagement and participation

Encourage active participation and engagement within the CoP through various initiatives and activities. Schedule regular meetings, workshops, or webinars to discuss relevant topics, share insights, and exchange best practices. Foster a culture of knowledge sharing and mutual support where all members feel valued and heard.

Facilitate knowledge sharing and learning

Create opportunities for knowledge sharing and learning within the CoP by organizing skill-building sessions, guest speaker events, or peer mentoring programs. Encourage members to contribute their expertise, experiences, and resources to benefit the entire community. Foster a collaborative learning environment where members can learn from each other’s successes and challenges.

Evaluate and adapt

Continuously evaluate the effectiveness and impact of the CoP in achieving its goals and meeting the needs of its members. Solicit feedback from participants through surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one discussions to identify areas for improvement. Adapt the structure, activities, and resources of the CoP based on feedback and changing needs to ensure its long-term sustainability and relevance.

Make This Process Easier with Software

All of the above steps are distinctly necessary if you want to create a functional community of work that’s rewarding to participants and effective for the company sponsoring the group. But for you, the organizer, it’s likely going to be a lot of work, especially if you’re focused on taking an ERG or mentoring approach to your CoP within a corporate environment.

Consequently, others have been in your shoes. Companies like Disney, AMD, Cardinal Health, and Sodexo have all been in your shoes. Ultimately, they landed on MentorcliQ’s mentoring software to help them launch, match, engage, and measure the results of their learning engagements, including mentoring programs and ERGs.

Communities of practice are too important to get wrong, and engagement in those programs at work can make the difference between an employee who grows and stays, and one who stagnates and quits. Book a demo to learn more about how mentoring and ERG software make communities of practice something everyone at your company gets to enjoy.

Sam Cook

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