A Guide To Build and Run CoP

Jo Mahadevan
5 min readDec 26, 2020

A Community of Practice (CoP) shares a common concern, a set of problems, or an interest in a topic; consisting of individuals who — in the pursuit of fulfilling both individual and group goals — come together. They often focus on sharing best practices and creating new knowledge to advance a domain of professional practice: a key factor of this is continual interaction.

Components of a CoP

According to Etienne Wenger, aspiring CoPs must have three distinct traits to be truly considered a Community of Practice: as shown in Figure 1.1 below.

  • Domain — An area of shared interest
  • Practice — A shared body of knowledge, experiences, and techniques
  • Community — A self-selected group of individuals who care enough about the topic to participate in regular interactions
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/etienne_Wenger — Fig. 1.1

Agile framework supports cross-functional teams to help focus on a specific outcome. While this is a great way to remove functional silos where people doing the same role sit together, in an Agile setup, communication among people doing the same role is still vital: Engineers need to talk to other Engineers; Architects to other Architects; Scrum masters need to communicate with their peers from other Agile Teams; et cetera.

There are two types of Communities of Practice that can work in an Agile Organisation:

  • A Role-based CoP
  • A Topic-based CoP

The former tends to exists longer than a Topic-based CoP. It is always better to start with a Role-based CoP before creating CoPs of the latter kind.

Role-based CoP:

also called chapter meetings.

A Role-based Community of Practice brings people performing the same role in multi-disciplinary teams together to interact regularly whilst keeping the value of the multi-disciplinary team. This is critical in leveraging the multiple experiences and different types of practical knowledge available.

Topic-based CoP:

These are often called ‘guilds’ and are usually lead by the subject matter expert or anyone who is interested in the topic.

As the Role-based CoP gains acceptance and popularity, Topic-based CoPs emerge. They are focused on a particular topic and would last as long as the agreed goals are achieved: Topic-based CoPs typically entail more diverse activities than their Role-based counterpart.

Benefits of a CoP

Organisations who don’t have Communities of Practice in place will notice that work is often duplicated and people are not benefitting from others’ experiences. Those in organisations who do not have CoPs in place are highly susceptible to counterproductive redundancies within their workflows as they are unaware of others’ roles within the company and as a result lack necessary support in. For this reason, the use of CoPs is vital in an Agile organisation.

So, how does one start out?

Good leadership and support

A success or failure of a CoP depends on its leader*. As a leader of the community/chapter/practice, one must awaken their potential and always look forward. In the beginning, a Role-based CoP often feels superior to its Topic-based variant as it provides more opportunity and common interest to bring people together.

*Having support from the senior leadership team also helps.

Creating clear vision and goals

Create a mission statement for your community and publish it — it may seem quite peculiar (especially if you are doing this for the first time) but have an enterprising attitude — and soon you will see people understanding the vision better.

An example of a mission statement is provided below:

Our community of practice will help set and improve our skills and competencies as a <role> , to enable us to contribute and adapt better to < any vision>We will do this by :

<list of actions and good practices you want the community to follow>

Be aware of the experience and knowledge each member brings :

“Always pass on what you have learned.” — Yoda

A community only works with people’s participation. To encourage people in making more effective contributions, attempt to understand the knowledge and experiences of each member. This helps in generating content for discussion and thus encourages people to share knowledge. Albeit that people are generally interested to share knowledge, it is vital that a leader of the community identifies what every member can share: this will motivate the individual and also benefit the community. This is more effective in a Role-based CoP as you (the members) perform the same role (meaning greater quantities of experience)

Patience , Patience and More Patience

It is natural to think of oneself as a ‘content machine’. Sometimes you may be the only person talking and sometimes you may perhaps notice that many chose not to attend the meeting. It is at this point that one must exercise patience and persevere.

These behaviours are completely normal; soon you will notice people wanting to participate more, wanting to talk about something they have learned and even thanking you for a good session.

Fostering a safe and supportive environment

The foundations of an organisation is the individual. Those who don’t feel supported at work quickly lose motivation and may leave.

A key factor in ensuring productivity, therefore, is a secured environment for the member. What are the consequences of developing this environment?

  • The encouragement of sharing stories and challenges will enable members to start building trust.
  • Consequently, problem solving is improved as a wider range of people will be willing to work to solve issues.
  • Better working practices will emerge.
  • The validation of ideas and accelerates learning will be facilitated

Make CoPs a part of the learning and development plan

CoPs should be seen as a part of the organisations learning and development plan. If made part of the employees’ objective, the participation is taken more seriously. Participation in a CoP is not mandatory — but for an organisation which is in its early transformation journey, a little push in the right direction enables people to participate in CoP better — until the community becomes more matured and can self-sustain.

Learning is more effective when it is done as a group as individuals are able to collaborate and build upon others’ work. In a Community of Practice there are various ways to support learning:

  • Presentations by internal and external speakers
  • Practicing new skills in a safe environment (I often encourage my members to create a working group to research on a topic and come and present their ideas).
  • Making individuals Proof-of-Concept new ideas and present them back to the community
  • Organising games and workshops; assorted teambuilding exercises.

Meet Regularly

The community meetings are only effective if they happen regularly. Decide on what works, and keep at it.

Ultimately, let the community evolve. When strong bonds and trust starts developing among the members of the community, it is able to self-sustain: this is when it becomes an integral part of the organisation.