5 Effective Strategies That Create Successful Communities of Practice

Organizations are constantly looking for ways to upskill and improve team abilities and engagement. While methods such as employee development programs, mentoring, or self-paced training can increase engagement and participation in a team, this article centers around a long-standing and engaging learning methodology—communities of practice.

Communities of practice have existed for longer than we think. You might even be part of one already. Before starting to implement communities of practice, it’s important to understand exactly what they are, how to build them effectively, and how to measure their success. Let’s take a closer look!

This article is based on a webinar about communities of practice hosted by HR Exchange at their Employee Engagement and Experience event. The speaker is part of the Open LMS project management team, instructional designer, and technologist.

What Are Communities of Practice?

You might think a community of practice refers to either:

  • A social group
  • A study group
  • A shared interest group
  • A learning forum
  • A team project

Although you’re not necessarily wrong, there’s one small (but very important!) factor that sets communities of practice apart from the groups mentioned above. Communities of practice involve practitioners. They’re built for and by people who are actively working on a particular technical or business domain. Furthermore, the group decides collectively what they want to accomplish, and they steer the group accordingly.

These practitioners will make an active effort to develop, gather, and share resources about a topic for the benefit of their peers. Resources can take the form of stories, experiences, tools, case studies, and much more.

Sometimes, communities of practice emerge without any planning, when groups of practitioners who share a passion for a subject start to exchange knowledge that helps them improve in their roles over time.

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Should You Build Communities of Practice in Your Teams?

The first step toward implementing this kind of community is validating that it’s the right choice for you. More often than not, teams decide to implement communities of practice because they’re cheaper to run than other alternatives. In reality, money shouldn't be the deciding factor. The method might fit the budget, but if it doesn't fit your goals, it won't return the results you need.

Consider your ultimate goals first and confirm if a community of practice can contribute to achieving them. According to an essay from social learning theorists Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, the approach could help in:

  • Solving problems
  • Seeking experience
  • Documenting projects
  • Creating coordination and synergy
  • Discussing developments
  • Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps

Effective Strategies to Create Successful Communities of Practice

Let’s suppose that you’ve already identified existing communities of practice at work, or you’ve determined that this method is the right one to promote engagement and growth among your team members. Take the following strategies into account to ensure a successful experience:

1) Create Optimal Group Sizes

Group size is a balancing act. You need enough people to generate the desired interaction between peers, but also a number that is manageable for the group. When a group is too small, you might miss out on the diversity of backgrounds and thought that comes with a critical mass of people that enables the generation of new ideas.

The larger the community, the fewer external motivators are required. A group of two dozen people might work well, but only if there are enough external or intrinsic motivators to keep such a small group engaged. As a general rule, a group of around 100 people is optimal for most subjects.

2) Keep the Group Motivated

Think of your community of practice as having two audiences: your broader audience (all the practitioners) and your highly-engaged individuals (your primary audience).

Your highly-engaged members are critical at the beginning of the process to generate motivation and build a sense of community. They’ll act as moderators of all the knowledge and resources. This specific audience has extra needs and it’s important to ensure they’re getting some benefit out of engaging with the community.

Likewise, you should ensure that the broader audience remains motivated and keeps participating in the group. One way to establish this habit is to encourage interaction within the flow of the members’ work. Think about who your audience is and how they congregate. If you can integrate a habit of checking in and engaging with the community and within a member’s regular flow of work, the group will typically be more successful.

3) Ensure the Focus Is Specific

A community of practice should center around a specific topic that keeps members motivated. Subjects that are too broad can leave members unsure of how to contribute. A broad focus can also make it hard to establish measurable and meaningful outcomes.

What makes a topic “too broad”? A good indicator is the number of practitioners a topic could potentially attract. If it’s relevant to thousands of users, you probably need to narrow it down. A community about “how to drive engagement at work” may attract too many members. By contrast, one centered only on “how to drive engagement at work using digital learning technologies” may be more likely to attract the narrower group you require.

When narrowing the topic down, you can uncover multiple communities of practice to implement later on. Just bear in mind that the domain has to be specific enough so that the community can focus on actionable knowledge building.

4) Build a Shared Space

Before deciding which technology to use for a community of practice, you’ll need to invest in understanding how its members like to communicate.

Does your group of highly-engaged individuals already have a shared space, such as a chat or a forum? Is it working? Do they want to make videos, write long-form article content, or simply message their ideas to their peers? Can what they need be achieved using existing tools, or do they need a dedicated learning space?

Select a tool for the community once you understand the member’s content-creating preferences. That tool may be just a chat group, a wiki, or a physical space. To increase learner engagement, a learning management system (LMS) could be the best option because it can provide:

  • Forums where members can communicate with each other
  • Options to share content such as PDFs, spreadsheets, or resources
  • The ability to create wikis to organize, search, and review all the shared data

5) Foster Community Diversity

A diverse group of people will guarantee that the ideas and solutions discussed within the community are broad and meaningful. Diversity might mean something different depending on the subject matter. For example, having members from multiple places can bring a variety of cultural perspectives to a topic. In other cases, diversity of roles can generate discussion and an exchange of opinions.

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How to Measure Success in a Community of Practice

Have you been implementing communities in your team for a while now, but don’t know if they’re working?

Your goals should be set from the start, and they must be measurable. If your goal is to increase employee engagement, is the number of participants increasing monthly? If your goal is finding innovative problem-solving ideas, how many have been proposed in a given time period? Establishing that goal number from the beginning will help the community move in the right direction.

To learn more about leveraging communities of practice using our Open LMS technology, contact us—We’re more than eager to help!
Joanna Perdomo
About the author

Joanna Perdomo

Journalist and content writer with a background in technology and culture. Passionate about helping people understand online education and learning technology through easily digestible materials.

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