Stop building “communities” and start designing for communities of practice

Julie Keane
Participate, Inc.
Published in
4 min readMar 14, 2022

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Smiling people at computers looking at each other while working

In Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block wrote that we have become stuck in traditional ways of building community, specifically that “in the midst of growing awareness of and innovation in thinking about the need to build community, the dominant practices for how to engage people civically and organizationally, remain unchanged.” Strategies are often too top down and not actually built for the exact needs and pain points of community members. For Block, the most important glue for any community is that each member has a sense of belonging.

Humans crave a sense of belonging no matter how much we are physically and socially distanced. This feeling of belonging is essential for learning and refers to a sense of connectedness to others: an individual’s experiences of being valued, of forming relationships with others and making contributions as part of a group and a community. When we think of communities in terms of learning — building community to support ongoing and continuous learning — consideration has to be given to the structures needed for all members to contribute, learn together, and transform practice. Using a Communities of Practice (CoP) framework scaffolds participatory design. It takes into account that CoPs are emergent — and that top down community-building models are ineffective. For CoPs to thrive, the tools and design infrastructure must be present for members to build as the collective practice takes shape over time. These tools can provide opportunities for CoP members to participate, create, recognize one another AND for all activity and products of collaboration to be easily visualized and accessible.

What is a Community of Practice (CoP)?

Communities of Practice (CoP) are a key component of effective professional learning because all learning is a social activity. According to Wenger-Trayner, “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” At Participate, we design for robust CoPs that support all members to collaborate, learn, design, experiment and reflect.

4 Key Function of Effective CoPs

When we set out to design a virtual learning ecosystem, our aim was to shift the traditional method of professional learning we saw in what Block described, from content dissemination to knowledge creation, and informed by our understanding that learning is a social activity. We have designed the only intentionally designed CoP platform. Using our platform, members are able to achieve the four key functions of effective social learning — participation, creation, recognition and visualization. The intention is that members can form CoPs to learn when, where and how they want.

Four functions of an online community of practice: participation, recognition creation and visualization

Inner and Outer Loops Drive Learning and Practice

Building knowledge and competencies in any field occurs through processes of co-construction (Vygotsky, 1978). Whether professional learning is offered by an organization for their employees or any stakeholders, it must create innovative, fluid environments that provide participants structured and unstructured learning opportunities to explore, investigate and connect. Competency-building occurs when ideas take on new meaning and learners create something unique that they otherwise couldn’t construct on their own. When individuals work together, Vygotsky theorized, their understandings are deeper and more developed. A connected and participatory learning approach builds upon this notion of social learning and is the heart of any effective CoP. CoPs cut across informal and formal learning contexts as learning happens anywhere and everywhere.

Inner and outer loop of learning: informal and formal

The CoP model is evidence based and has been in use internationally over long periods of time across multiple sectors from healthcare to higher education. We are Increasingly seeing a desire to integrate CoPs in the workplace as employers are looking for more engaging and effective models for ongoing professional learning. As more effective tools are developed to support the key functions of CoPs AND leverage the inherent engagement benefits of the Inner and Outer Loops model, we can expect to see CoPs emerge as the dominant professional learning model.

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Julie Keane
Participate, Inc.

Dr. Julie Keane is Chief Learning Officer at Participate. She leads research and evaluation of all Participate programs