Major characteristics of a community of Practices (CoP)

Factors that contribute to the success of any CoP.

A community of practice (CoP) refers to “a group of people having a common identity, professional interest and that undertake to share. Participate, and establish a fellowship” (American Heritage Dictionary, 1996). These are a group of people in an organization formed to share what they know and learn from each other. This is regarding a particular aspect of their work which also provides a social context for their work.

The term ‘Community of Practice’ or CoP was coined recently; however, such groups have been around for an extended period. CoPs have characteristics that separate them from similar entities like knowledge networks.

CoPs are different from teams or task forces. A task force ceases to exist when a task to which it is assigned is completed. A team is tied to a process or a function with varying roles and functions. In CoP, generally, they are the same. CoP helps develop members’ expertise and, based on that, define their role in the community. Members can self-elect to be a part of CoP (voluntarily) and similarly decide to leave. Typically, members are part of the CoP for a more extended period as they are interested in improving the practice and maintaining the CoP.

The CoP members are glued to a common mission. CoPs are formed to accomplish something ongoing, opposite to that of a task force. They see a big common goal in the work that they are pursuing. This quality of CoP is considered a joint enterprise.

The engagement with the members of CoP is always mutual in nature. Members interact with each other not just while doing the work but whenever they are in doubt, have questions on how to get a thing done, or even agree on changing a particular process. This mutual engagement helps in establishing the social identity of the CoP members.

Apart from CoP members’ work, they also have their tools, techniques, and methodologies in common. In addition, they have language and behavior patterns. This brings the cultural context of the work to the light. This is all possible because they have a shared repertoire.

In the CoP, many best practices and innovations first emerge; they are discussed and nurtured. That is why many organizations promote and encourage CoPs. As a result, companies can rip benefits coming out of CoPs.

Multiple factors contribute to the success of a CoP. Some of these factors are discussed here.

CoPs have a clear focus on a problem of practice. This clear focus brings them together with a common objective of getting over a particular problem or improving a particular process. A CoP is not built around multiple problems with multiple people working with different skill sets. Instead, it is a group of people with a common focal point.

CoPs actively learn together through a process of inquiry. CoPs assess their current state in relation to the milestone they want to reach while gathering information around the common focus area, planning a detailed plan of action, and implementing them.

CoPs have a mix of partners that bring different views, skillsets, and opinions to the table. These different perspectives on the problem and finding solutions make CoPs a potent pool of individuals capable of cracking the problem. This mix of partners can help communicate to peers about the new opportunities of learning and better ways of doing things.

Based on the above observations and explanation, the key factors that contribute to the success of any CoP are a clear focus on a shared problem, active learning, collective ownership, and mixed partners.

Though CoPs are self-emerging and self-organizing networks, they are not self-sustaining. If an organization fails to nourish and cultivate CoPs, they may cease to exist. Organizations such as Unisys and Ericsson deliberately establish CoPs or strategically support their existing informal networks (Chua, 2006; Van Winkelen and Ramsell, 2003). More and more organizations are interested in cultivating the CoPs networks by providing intrinsic and extrinsic rearward (McDermott, 1999).


Chua, A. Y. (2006), “The rise and fall of a community of practice: a descriptive case study,” Knowledge and Process Management, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 120-128.

Fred Nickolas, (2012). “Characteristics of A Community of Practice (CoP)”

Michelle Bowman, (2016), “6 key features of a successful community of practice”

Suchul Lee Yong Seog Kim Euiho Suh, (2014), “Structural health assessment of communities of practice (CoPs)”, Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 18 Iss 6 pp. 1198

Van Winkelen, C. and Ramsell, P. (2003), “Why aligning value is key to designing communities,” Knowledge Management Review, Vol. 5 No. 6, pp. 12-15.

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