28. Communities of Practice

28.3. Designing Effective Communities of Practice

Most communities of practice have no formal design and tend to be self-organizing systems. They have a natural life cycle and come to an end when they no longer serve the needs of the community. However, there is now a body of theory and research that has identified actions that can help sustain and improve the effectiveness of communities of practice.

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) have identified seven key design principles for creating effective and self-sustaining communities of practice, related specifically to the management of the community, although the ultimate success of a community of practice will be determined by the activities of the members of the community themselves. Designers of a community of practice need to:

Design for Evolution

Ensure that the community can evolve and shift in focus to meet the interests of the participants without moving too far from the common domain of interest.

Open a Dialogue between Inside and Outside Perspectives

Encourage the introduction and discussion of new perspectives that come or are brought in from outside the community of practice.

Encourage and Accept Different Levels of Participation

Different levels of participation include:

  • The ‘core’ (most active members)
  • Those who participate regularly but do not take a leading role in active contributions
  • Hose (likely the majority) who are on the periphery of the community but may become more active participants if the activities or discussions start to engage them more fully

Develop Both Public and Private Community Spaces

Communities of practice are strengthened if they encourage individual or group activities that are more personal or private as well as the more public general discussions; for instance, individuals may decide to blog about their activities or a small group in an online community that live or work close together may also decide to meet informally on a face-to-face basis.

Focus on Value

Attempts should be made explicitly to identify, through feedback and discussion, the contributions that the community most values.

Combine Familiarity and Excitement

Focus both on shared, common concerns and perspectives, but also on the introduction of radical or challenging perspectives for discussion or action.

Create a Rhythm for the Community

There needs to be a regular schedule of activities or focal points that bring participants together on a regular basis, within the constraints of participants’ time and interests.