Online Communities v Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice:

A Community of Practice (CoP) is formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of interest.Or as explained below:

“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.”


Communities of Practice have three defining characteristics:

1. The Domain

People are connected through a shared interest/domain. They commit using membership – a shared competence links members and separates them from other people.

2. The Community

Members communicate with each other, by joint activities or discussions, helping each other and building relationships by sharing experiences so they can learn from each other. Members meet with each other regularly, but this doesn’t have to be every day.

3. The Practice

Members of the practice are ‘practitioners’, who have a shared practice as they share resources and tools.

Online Communities:

Online communities are different to Communities of practice in various ways, which is expanded on in this article by Stork and Zhang. Where a CoP demands private membership of users, online communities are open and accessible to anybody, meaning the number of members an online community can have is limitless.

Another difference between the two is that Communities of Practice are based around face-to-face communication at a regular meeting, but an online community is internet-based, where members mostly communicate online. Members of an online community are dispersed geographically and they have a segregated practice.

Online communities, unlike CoPs, have a recorded history. As almost all information produced by members of an online community is on a public site, the information will always be accessible.

Communities of Practice in Business Strategies

CoPs are use in companies as they focus on long-term problem solving of issues for senior management – each CoP is usually sponsored by a senior manager. However, CoPs only work as well as the human systems that run them. CoPs need focuses, goals and management oversight to make decent contributions to the organisation and operate efficiently.When used properly, CoPs can be a powerful management tool.

For many organisations, CoPs provide a new approach to managing knowledge – using people to bounce ideas off each other so everyone can learn. This creates a direct link between learning and performance, as people that are in the same CoP may be in the same business unit.

Benefits and Limitations of CoPs

There are many benefits to using CoPs:

  • Improvement of internal communications and knowledge sharing in an organisation.
  • Any issues can be identified quickly as there  is little need of providing extensive background knowledge.
  • Awareness of other members abilities helps to speed up processes.
  • Inexpensive but efficient way for experts to share knowledge.

There are also limitations to CoPs:

  • Time – time is needed for members to engage in a CoP enough to make it effective
  • Organisational Hierarchies – CoPs are usually formed within a company where there are already established roles and heirarchies. This is difficult for CoPs as forming a CoP, which usually does not have a heirarchy, can interfer with the already decided roles of the business – which can cause problems as some people are more focused on following a heirarchy rather than working towards the best possible outcome.
  • The Socio-cultural environment – Socio-cultural differences such as whether a region is more egoistic or collective effects how a Community of Practice works. More collective societies are better at sharing ideas and helping others as they work together to achieve the same goals, which means that CoPs in these regions have more effective results compared to an egoistic community where people prefer to keep things to themselves.

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