Intellectual Capital Newsletter   April 2003
Thema: Communities of Practice (CoP)
More and more organizations discover communities of practice as a valuable knowledge management tool. This newsletter provides a brief introduction, a CoP-scan and lots of references to valuable sources for those who want to know more about the subject.

What is a CoP?
“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.” (Wenger, 2002)
Communities are not a new thing – everybody belongs to several of them. The growing attention however, is the result of the increased strategic importance of knowledge. More and more communities are seen as an instrument to nurture knowledge and develop knowledge strategies.

The focal point of a community is a specific knowledge domain. Within this domain several topics are defined. It goes without saying that these domains and topics should be of strategic importance.

Aim and expectations
Before starting a community it is important to make an inventory of aims and expectations among your potential community members. This inventory is needed to design your own community infrastructure.
Wenger (2002) classifies communities according to the following functions:

  1. Peer-to-peer help in problem solving
  2. Developing and verifying best practices
  3. Upgrade and distribute knowledge in daily use
  4. Foster unexpected ideas and innovation

Communities are not per definition a tech-thing. They are about bringing people together, which can be achieved through technical instruments – like groupware, teamware, etc. – or through physical meetings – like workshops, seminars, etc.. Given the specific characteristics of knowledge (tacit and explicit) it is important to make a combination of 'tech' and 'touch'.

Members and content
Key success factor of a community is not only the number, but also the quality of participants and contributions. Moreover, the only way to keep members motivated is the ability of the community to create a constant flow of valuable information.

“Although communities of practice are fundamentally informal and self-organizing, they benefit from cultivation.” (Wenger, 2000) To make communities successful, management support alone is not enough. Managers should identify potential communities, facilitate the infrastructure (both virtual and physical), stimulate and motivate active participation and assess and reward the outcomes.

Community-guidelines (McDermott, 1999):

  1. Start with a few COPs focused on topics strategically important to the organization
  2. Build on natural networks of people who already share knowledge about that topic
  3. Appoint a coordinator who organizes and maintains the community
  4. Support and encourage the communities
  5. Be patient

Effective communities create short- and long-term value to both organizations and community members. Wenger (2002) classifies these benefits as follows:

  Short-term value Long-term value
  Improve Business Outcomes Develop organizational capabilities
Benefits to
  • Arena for problem solving
  • Quick answers to questions
  • Reduced time and costs
  • Improved quality of decisions
  • More perspectives on problems
  • Coordination, standardization and synergy across units
  • Resources for implementing strategies
  • Strengthened quality assurance
  • Ability to take risks with backing of the community
  • Ability to execute a strategic plan
  • Authority with clients
  • Increased retention of talent
  • Capacity for knowledge-development projects
  • Forum for "benchmarking" against rest of industry
  • Knowledge-based alliances
  • Emergence of unplanned capabilities
  • Capacity to develop new strategic options
  • Ability to foresee technological developments
  • Ability to take advantage of emerging market opportunities
  Improve experience of work Foster professional development
Benefits to
  • Help with challenges
  • Access to expertise
  • Better able to contribute to team
  • Confidence in one's approach to problems
  • Fun of being with colleagues
  • More meaningful participation
  • sense of belonging
  • Forum for expanding skills and expertise
  • Network for keeping abreast of a field
  • Enhanced professional reputation
  • Increased marketability and employability
  • Strong sense of professional identity

Tips and tricks
Many practitioners share their experiences in terms of tips, tricks, guidelines, pitfalls, preconditions or critical success factors. Examples of these can be found at:

Online communities
Of course communities do not have to be limited to a company. Knowledge exchange across borders can be of great value too. Many, many, many cross border communities can be found at the internet. Some examples with a focus on Knowledge Management are:

Interesting links

In order to help you build your own community, Intellectual Capital Services developed a questionnaire that helps you to build your own communities of practice, communities of interest or special interest groups. The questionnaire is based on state-of-the-art literature and best-practice-experiences. This questionnaire is available online: Building communities of practice questionnaire.


  • Cashel, J., (2003), Top Ten Trends for Online Communities, Contribution at
  • Kruizinga, E. and T. Kouwenhoven (1999), Real and Virtual: Best of breed environments for knowledge sharing in communities, in: Knowledge Management, May, pp.17-21
  • Le Moult, D., (2002), How to make a CoP fly?, Contribution at KnowledgeBoard
  • McDermott, R. (2000), Community Development as a Natural Step, Five stages of community development, in: Knowledge Management Review, Volume 3, Issue 5, Nov./Dec.
  • McDermott, R. (1999), Learning Across Teams, How to build communities of practice in team organizations, in: KM-Review, Issue 8, May/June
  • Wenger, E.C. and W.M. Snyder (2000), Communities of Practice: The organizational frontier, in: Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb, pp. 139-145.
  • Wenger, E., R. McDermott, W. Snyder (2002), Cultivating Communities of Practice, A guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, Boston

More information:
For more information on how to build your own community, contact:

Christiaan Stam

+31(0)35 6982544
+31(0)651 989280

©  2003 Intellectual Capital Services