Six tips for building communities of practice

Posted by j.laird on 3 August 2021 - 10:00am

painting of two colourful hands holding each other
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

This blog post was co-authored by Malin Sandström and Lou Woodley based on a speed blogging session at Collaborations Workshop 2021 in which Louise Chisholm, Giulia GuizzardI, Sorrel Harriet and Simon Hettrick also participated.

Communities of practice (CoP) are a specific type of community focused on enabling social learning i.e. through their interactions with one another (their “practice”), members advance their knowledge and develop new skills. Understandably, these are increasingly important across the STEM ecosystem, and this post describes six key considerations for convenors or community managers looking to successfully nurture their own CoP.

1. Start from a common need  

CoPs typically form somewhat spontaneously when a small group identifies that it has a common learning need that members can solve together more effectively than trying to do so alone. E.g. keeping up with social media platforms is a lot for one editor to do, but multiple editors could each focus on a different platform and swap notes. 

A community of practice needs problems to gather around and a strategy for solving them - the “I bet somebody else has dealt with this issue” is an excellent driver to find others doing the same type of work or using the same tools.

When you have found your idea, do your due diligence to make sure your effort is not duplicative of other projects, not too narrow or broad in scope, nor of insufficient interest to multiple people.

Three tips:

  • Define the scope of the community - what is the topic of interest that members will share in common? Find a clear need or gap that you could be fulfilling. For instance, for code clubs lots of people want to learn to code but don’t have access to somewhere to learn or others to learn with.
  • Define your target membership - who do you need in the community to be able to effectively learn together about the subject of interest? E.g. SORSE (a Series Of Research Software Events) was time-limited but grew to be very effective.
  • Start to think about what activities you will do together to make progress in the community’s area of focus.

2. Find your core: it is crucial to start with the right people 

This is arguably the first and most critical step you will take in building a community. At this early stage it is the quality of engagement that matters more than the volume of people you attract. Your goal at this stage is to identify and support a core group of people with a shared vision. They will ultimately act as ambassadors and influencers by bringing in others from their networks. Building a critical mass may take some time. Here are a few tactics you could try:

  • Find opportunities to pitch your idea at events which are likely to attract like-minded people (for example, a lightning talk at an RSE networking event).
  • Write a blog post (including a way for people to register their interest).
  • Reach out to people and organisations in your network. Having the backing of an established organisation (or a senior person with a well-developed network) may help to convince others there is value in your venture.
  • Reach out to people who are already doing the work - but perhaps alone. They may provide the injection of energy you need to keep things moving.

3. Identify community values and relevant rewards to support an inclusive culture

Once you have succeeded in aggregating a core group of founding members of the community, it’s time to get more specific about the community’s mission and values. Now is when you may also consider what rewards or incentives your community offers its members, paying careful attention to whether these are equitable and supporting participation from a range of members. A typical CoP will provide learning opportunities for members and also opportunities to gain leadership experience, for those who would like it. 

We suggest coordinating an inception event with your early adopters in which you will flesh out the answer to these questions together. Liberating Structures offers a ’Purpose to Practice’ template which is one format you might want to consider for this.

Once you have a clear sense of your purpose, principles, participants, structure and practices (or similar), it will be easier to articulate the community’s value to others - including potential members and sponsors. Take time to update any materials to make the mission and values visible e.g. on your community website.

As your community grows, you will likely want to formalise different roles within the community - and explore how these might support members’ career needs e.g. providing informal professional development experience or including their contributions to the community in promotions pathways.

4. Make interactions easy to enter (and re-enter!)

Members may wish to engage with one another in different modes at different times - as described by CSCCE’s Community Participation Model. For example, during busy periods, a member may be content to stay engaged in the “consume” mode, e.g. by reading a newsletter. When a topic is particularly resonant, they may move to collaborating or co-creating for a period of time. As a community convenor, your role is to lower or remove the barriers to engagement for your members. This includes making it easy to re-engage after an absence. As an example the CSCCE has its main community in Slack, but also rounds up the most important/interesting interactions and information in a weekly round-up newsletter for members, making it easy for them to jump back in.

If funding is needed for members to allocate time to community activities, then coordinating a seed funding campaign might be an effective way to both engage new members and to get more insight into what existing members really care about and prioritise. Competitions can inspire new collaborations, but can also be divisive if the reward structure is badly chosen.

5. Measure, evaluate, adjust 

A fundamental challenge in facilitating a community is how to understand what members need, and how the community can help them to meet those needs together. These needs may evolve over time, which makes ongoing evaluation and iteration a norm in community management.  

Running a survey of your community members is an obvious way of collecting this information, but it might be difficult to do early in the community’s lifetime when commitment levels may be low or membership small. 

In the absence of direct research into member needs, you might be able to infer their preferences from easily accessible metrics such as clicks in a newsletter. Studying these metrics might enable you to determine popular topics and programming that you could build upon. 

Additionally, collecting data about the community is invaluable for making a case for support e.g. from funders and review panels. They will want to know basics such as the size of the community, as well as more in-depth information about current engagement to determine the potential of the project.  

At this stage, running a few focus groups can also be effective. 

6. Iterate / Grow / Nurture / Evolve

Successful communities take ongoing support to ensure that they continue to flourish and grow. Don’t let your community grow stale and stagnant; have processes for recruiting, promoting and off-boarding members. Leaving the door open for members to have different levels of engagement, from being active and running activities to taking breaks, counters the possibility of gatekeeping and eases the sense of accessibility of the community.

Setting up a reward system for community managers and how they will be recognised is key. Setting up roles and responsibilities on minor or major projects, and having a temporary council regarding a specific issue or topic could help structure and organise the community without falling into hierarchical patterns. 

While community work is an ongoing, constantly iterative process - it can also be extremely joyful to see the potential that is released when members are able to learn and build together. Don’t forget to celebrate those wins as a community and enjoy your shared successes!


Useful resource

'Building Successful Communities of Practice' by Emily Webber, published by TACIT.


Want to discuss this post with us? Send us an email or contact us on Twitter @SoftwareSaved.  

Share this page