Communities of Practice (CoPs), Virtual Teams, and Social Networks


Pic from


Difference between Online Communities and Communities of Practice (CoPs)

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.

Wenger, E. (2006).

The main difference between online communities and CoPs is that members of CoPs actively seek out like minded members based on a shared domain of interest, and build their relationships with other members to provide a vehicle for sharing knowledge and to learn from each other. They are true learning networks.

In comparison, while an online community may also consist of members who share a passion for something, their focus isn’t on learning from other members of the community. For example members of an online neighbourhood-watch community are interested in what is happening in their neighbourhood, the latest crime statistics, etc., but aren’t necessarily interested in learning anything new about their neighbourhood – rather they are part of the online community to monitor what is currently happening in their area.

Characteristics of CoPs

Also according to Wenger (2006), there are three crucial characteristics that define a CoP:

The Domain

The CoP has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Note that online communities could also share this characteristic, for example a group of car enthusiasts who share a love of vintage vehicles have a shared domain of interest.

The Community

The CoP may not necessarily work together on a daily basis, but they must interact and learn together.  Their members engage in joint activities and discussions, they actively help each other and share information and knowledge.  By contrast a group of people who enjoy going to the movies may wish to join an online community to share their reviews of movies amongst other movie buffs, but they are not a CoP as they are not actively learning from other members, rather just sharing their opinions, not actively collaborating.

The Practice

Members of a CoP are practitioners, who develop a shared practice, as opposed to, for example, a group of people who like reading books. Members of a CoP develop a shared repertoire of resources, experiences, stories.  Individual members contribute their knowledge to the shared pool, and they in turn learn from the knowledge of other members of the CoP.

virtual team

Pic from

Virtual Teams

Virtual teams may consist of members of an organisation who are separated geographically, so some members of the team may be in different cities to others, but together they still form a team. CoPs are another example of virtual team in that, due to their structure being knowledge-based as opposed to based on their position in the organisation, the members of the CoP may be on completely different levels of the organisation’s hierarchy.

A CoP also:

“Brings together experts from different fields – together in cooperation and collaboration.” Gelin, P. & Milusheva, M. (2011).


Differences between CoPs and other Organisational Teams

Timing & Knowledge Management

CoPs are generally responsible for long term development, looking ahead to the future and identifying knowledge which may be used to solve future problems that haven’t even been identified yet.

By contrast teams focus on a specific outcome, generally with specific timeframes, for example delivery of a project with budgetary and timing constraints.


Members of CoPs focus on collaboration with their fellow members and share a collective responsibility. However no one member has authority over another member – the hierarchal structure is flat with all members sharing the same level of authority within the CoP.

Teams generally have a team leader who guides and leads other members of the team and accepts responsibility for the management of the team members.

Social Networks (SNs) and how can they be of use to business

The HMI CoP as described in the Gelin, P. & Milusheva, M. (2011) reading, highlighted some of the benefits of SNs in business:

  • Members are united by a shared interest and the CoP is seen as one of the mechanisms to share that knowledge.
  • The CoP is an enabler of sharing the knowledge and best practices in an organisation.
  • The CoP created a space within the company to share product application and solution knowledge in addition to the traditional product features knowledge sharing.
  • Through the CoP, staff get to know about changes in policies that can help them to shape strategies in their own areas, e.g. sales staff used knowledge shared via the CoP about changes to marketing policies to help reshape their commercial strategy – i.e. the information was shared in a different manner, sharing that may not necessarily have happened without the HMI CoP.
  • Technical experts can debate possible new features and share their experience with customers.
  • There are opportunities within the CoP to exchange information about updates on products and solutions that are in planning or development phase.
  • As with many other social networks there is no externally imposed hierarchy; contributors are free to discuss issues without deadlines or the need for an immediate follow up. Virtual meetings are mostly friendly and informal.  Members feel comfortable sharing their views.
  • Solutions can be found quickly and with minimal new resources, by the members of the CoP cooperating and collaborating with each other.
  • Overall value for the company is created through the exchange of knowledge and best practices, and through cooperation to solve problems. Sharing reduces the waste of resources that can occur when people try to resolve the same problem separately. Prevents “re-inventing the wheel”.



Gelin, P. & Milusheva, M. (2011). The secrets of successful communities of practice: Real benefits from collaboration within social networks at Schneider ElectricGlobal Business and Organizational Excellence, 30(5), 6-18.

Wenger, E. (2006). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.




Home Page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s