Professional Development: Communities of Practice

What’s a Community of Practice?

More than just the latest trend in engagement and education circles, communities of practice offer an alternative approach to learning and development. Communities of practice bring together people with a shared passion and a shared work practice to network and expand their knowledge. UBC has a variety of public and private groups, and the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) may be able to offer some support to those who are considering launching a community of practice.

CTLT uses this definition of a community of practice from Etienne Wenger:

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

How do communities of practice differ from other learning models?

While it would be unrealistic to assume all communities of practice (CoPs) function exactly the same way, they do share the principles of fluid learning, individualized participation, and collective decision-making. They are built around a practice that participants already do and would like to do better.

In CoPs, the group is made up of shared practitioners (as opposed to shared interests) focused around what they do. All groups will have facilitators or co-facilitators. However, the community will determine the CoP’s activities, which can range from getting input on a situation or issue, to solving a problem, and documentation projects.

Fluidity is part of the CoP’s ethos. It is expected that an individual member’s participation will vary from person to person and/or from year to year. For example, one could start by joining a listserv (peripheral member) and eventually move into actively participating in regular gatherings (core member), but then, due to circumstances, go back to just participating on the listserv.

A CoP as compared to...

Seminar series: topics chosen by staff

CoP: topics chosen by community

Committee: reports to an authority

CoP: stewards of the domain, no reporting

Journal club: discusses topics

CoP: explores details of practice

Staff meeting: attendance required by all staff

CoP: core and peripheral members benefit

                                 *Table prepared by CTLT

I’m interested in joining a community of practice

There are a variety of communities of practice at UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan. If you would like to explore this model of learning further, there are public communities of practice that may mesh with your current work practice.

For Example

I’m considering launching a community of practice

There are some key elements to consider before launching a community of practice.

  1. What is the domain?
  • A domain is “definition of the area of shared inquiry and of the key issues.” (Wenger)
  • Is the domain an area that can be explored long-term?
  • Is the domain a good fit for the community?
  1. Who is in the community?
  • A community is “the relationship among members and the sense of belonging.” (Wenger)
  • Who might join?
  • How many might join?
  • How will you reach out to this community?
  • What relationships might already exist among community members?
  • How will the community create a sense of belonging?
  • Who will facilitate this community?
  1. What is the Practice?
  • A practice is “the body of knowledge, methods, stories, cases, tools and documents.” (Wenger)
  • What details of practice can be explored?
  • What other structures exist already to support this practice?

AAPS has established a LinkedIn group as a place for members to connect, ask each other questions, and share resources. It offers members the space to explore the question “What is the shared practice of M&P staff at UBC.”

If you are considering launching a community of practice, The CTLT may be able to help. Please review the great resources on their blog and New Facilitator Checklist. You may contact the current Community of Practice Developer, Mali Bain at if you have additional questions or would like to discuss your ideas.

A special thank you to Mali Bain for sharing her insight and resources for this article.