community of practice

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Anna Steynor, Katharine Vincent (Kulima Integrated Development Solutions), Katinka Waagsaether and Tracy Cull (Kulima Integrated Development Solutions)

The establishment of a “community of practice” (COP) is an idealised vision that is often expressed as a desirable outcome of research projects.  The successful establishment of a COP is seen to embody the notion of extending the research influence beyond any single contract/workpiece.  However, can a COP really be established by a project, or does it need to develop organically?  Should funders be more realistic about their influence in attempting to develop COPs?  We are using this blog to unpack our learning around when and how COPs fail or thrive, based on various experiences with climate change and development-related projects in southern Africa.

COPs can have a very broad or narrow scope, but in essence, they are a group of people (a community) who share a common interest or passion, and who learn how to do it better through regular interaction (Wenger et al., 2002).  COPs have long existed in a variety of fields. When successful, they provide effective mechanisms for knowledge sharing that augment the capacities of the individual members as well as the fields in which those individuals operate. They can vary significantly in their membership composition and modality of working, which means that it can be difficult to precisely define a COP.

Given their great scope for added value, it is not surprising that there is often motivation to attempt to create, or support the creation of, COPs through research projects.  This is true particularly in developing country contexts where COPs could play a key role in the pressing need for capacity building. However, our experience and the associated literature, suggests that there are particular aspects around the establishment of a COP which aid its ultimate success or demise.

Fundamental to the establishment of a successful COP is its organically driven nature.  The desire for the development of a COP needs to come from a recognised opportunity within the community itself. Through this, the involved community recognises and harnesses the potential gain from active participation. A COP is not a mechanism that can be imposed on a group of people, because it requires commitment from each and every member but particularly from a “champion” member who can act as the “core” and provide leadership (Wenger, 2000). This is essential to ensure that the COP provides added value to its members, which likely encourages their ongoing participation in a virtuous circle of growth and consolidation. Equally, the lifetime of the COP is also internally determined by its members. The COP will only be sustained while the members continue to recognise the value of its existence and participate accordingly.

Despite the need for organic generation of COPs, the role of external support by donors and other external organisations should not be underestimated. While such external organisations cannot be the sole driver, they can play a critical role in providing a platform that may lead to the formation of a COP, and later supporting its evolution (Cundill et al, 2015). Creating the impetus for generation of a COP may include hosting a workshop of like-minded individuals. This provides the space for rich discussions and recognition of the opportunities for collaboration for knowledge creation. If common aims emerge, and the community recognises the potential gains of active participation, under the leadership of key individuals, the COP has the potential to survive past the initial burst of post-workshop enthusiasm. Once the decision has arisen from participants to create a COP, external organisations can continue to play a key supporting role. This may include hosting a virtual platform, or providing funding for face-to-face interactions in the early days to consolidate momentum.  However, it is essential that the identification, need for, and aims of, such opportunities should arise from the potential COP itself.

Our learning has indicated that, rather than setting out with the objective of developing a COP through a research project, focus should rather be placed into processes that bring together relevant communities for networking and sharing of knowledge. These meeting places may or may not result in a COP – but they can certainly create the potential for participants to identify an opportunity and build upon it.

Acknowledgement: the International Development and Research Centre funded the research that resulted in this piece.


  1. Cundill, D. J. Roux, and J. N. Parker. “Nurturing communities of practice for transdisciplinary research” Ecology and Society 20(2): 22. (2015)
  2. Wenger, E. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  3. Wenger, R. McDermott and W. Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice. (Boston MA: Harvard Business Press, 1st edition, 2002)


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