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Driving Successful Virtual Communities of Practice In Your Org

The term community of practice (CoP) was coined in the early 1990s by educational theorist, Etienne Wenger, to describe “a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis”.

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As organizations move from hierarchical models to flatter, networked models, organizations are looking for the most effective ways to support greater collaboration across departmental and geographic divides. Virtual CoPs, aided by the latest collaboration technologies, are a great tool for this. They help people who share a common area of practice come together to learn from one another and in doing so, advance individual levels of productivity and performance.  

CoPs are distinct from other types of internal groups, such as departments, units and project teams, in that they are self-selecting and have fluid goals around learning rather than strict, management-driven objectives and outputs. While CoPs can take a variety of forms, they are generally positioned within an organization to achieve the following: 

  • Support a continual cycle of learning and doing
  • Bring together a range of perspectives to address critical challenges
  • Link people with shared functional expertise across organizational boundaries
  • Ensure “mission-critical” knowledge is accessible to those who need it
  • Supporting use of tacit and explicit knowledge through reflection, interpretation and feedback

Below are some best practices that you can use to drive sustained member engagement and organizational value in your virtual CoP. 

How to Be a Star CoP Facilitator

For a CoP to be successful it must generate value for the organization as well for its individual members. Making sure this happens is largely the responsibility of one or more CoP facilitators. While CoPs can be self-organizing, it’s highly recommended that one or more people act as a facilitator to make sure the group remains active and relevant to its members.

I’ve adapted the following guidelines from the Overseas Development Institute for general use by CoP facilitators. Following these guidelines can help get your community off to a strong start and stay relevant in the face of ever-changing organizational priorities and structural changes.

Foster instead of control

  • Empower members to set the group’s goals and objectives (which can change over time) with a focus on group learning rather than simply the fulfillment of tasks.

  • Routinely recognize and thank members for their contributions.

  • Help members move their ideas into wider practice and stimulate their thinking through constructive feedback and challenges.

Focus on facilitation

  • Facilitators should develop their skills and dedicate adequate time and energy to ensuring the group remains active and useful to its members.
  • Where facilitator time is limited, consider using multiple facilitators who can share or rotate this function.
  • Facilitators should model the behavior they would like to see from group members (i.e., lead by example).

Be responsive to members’ needs and capacities

  • Make regular efforts to assess and respond to what members are looking for in terms of value to their work and what they would like to contribute.
  • Identify the capacities of key group members (such as specialized areas of expertise) and encourage them to play a designated role, such as subject matter expert (SME).
  • Send out a semi-annual survey to group members assessing their level of satisfaction with the group and soliciting input on group management, structure, and objectives.

Encourage critical thinking

  • Actively steer members away from “group think” by encouraging dissent and sharing opposing viewpoints, whether personal or from outside sources (such as an article or editorial).
  • Encourage questioning of the status quo and lively (but constructive and respectful) debate on hot topics of the day.

Support two-way learning

  • Use content that is shared as a centerpiece for active discussion; CoPs are not meant to be solely a means for dissemination of information, but rather an active space of knowledge generation through discussion and peer-to-peer learning.
  • When sharing a piece of content, include one or more provocative questions to encourage discussion on key points.

Balance learning and producing

  • Intersperse production-focused activities (such as the development of guidelines or standards) with more learning-focused activities (such as formulating solutions to a key challenge).
  • Place equal value on deliverables and “softer” learning exchanges to ensure participation in both streams of activity.

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Methods to Increase Member Engagement

One of the biggest challenges CoP facilitators face is sustaining member engagement over time. The following are a few approaches that can assist in encouraging active participation by members as well as support from senior leaders and others. (Note: In addition to these methods, facilitators should routinely assess the CoP’s relevance to members and adjust the focus and activities of the group accordingly).

  • Hold monthly or bi-monthly calls featuring brief presentations followed by “round-ups” of hot topics related to recent discussions.
  • Send quarterly conversation summaries and/or newsletters to group members and other interested staff (i.e., subscribers).
  • Invite a “special guest,” such as an internal or external expert, to field questions from group members for a limited amount of time.
  • Invite group members with specialized expertise or a recent experience of interest to publish a blog post.
  • Hold a challenge or contest to generate ideas or solutions around an issue identified as a priority by the group and allow group members to vote for the best contributions.
  • Establish a “cost-of-membership” model (e.g., each member must document at least one promising/good practice per year or post X amount of questions/responses in order to remain in the group).
  • Hold an annual conference where only top CoP contributors or those with accepted presentations can attend.
  • Provide incentives for group contributions, such as non-financial rewards.
  • Formally recognize community membership as part of staff performance evaluation.

Measuring Success

CoPs should be routinely monitored to assess their contribution to the organization. This can be done through measurement of group activity (quantitative) as well as through the active collection of stories and perspectives from group members on how the CoP is contributing directly to their work (qualitative). Information gathered should be routinely shared with group members as well as key stakeholders within the organization to demonstrate the organizational value of the CoP and to drive member engagement. Types of measures that can be used to assess the productivity and value of a CoP include the following:

Quantitative

  • Proportion of active/contributing members among all members
  • Total number of questions and/or discussion threads posted (broken down by member- vs. facilitator-initiated and topic)
  • Average number of responses per question/discussion
  • Proportion of questions/discussions that received at least one response
  • Number of outputs/products produced
  • Number of resources (e.g., tools, guidelines) shared

Qualitative

  • Member stories of how knowledge generated through CoP positively impacted their program/project (can be in the form of a written narrative or video clip)
  • List of promising/good practices shared
  • List of ideas or innovations shared
  • Examples of successful peer-to-peer learning instances 
  • Member feedback and suggestions on group management gathered through routine surveys

CoPs can be a great way to accelerate knowledge exchange and learning across the organization, but they do require some work. Hopefully these tips will get you off to a strong start. And don’t forget to routinely tap into the wisdom of your members to identify areas for improvement and new ways to breathe life into the community.

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