Good CoP, Bad CoP

Community of Practice (CoP) continues to be interesting and challenging topic among people working in large-scale development organizations. I got familiar with this concept end 2009 for the first time. After discussing the topic couple of times both in public conferences and in company internal meetings I have just recently realized this is not after all an obvious practice in all organizations. What makes it then so challenging and what community of practice is all about. I will describe my view and describe also some characteristics for a good CoP to avoid bad CoPs.


Community Meaning

Community is a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. When comparing the community of practise (CoP) to other organizational groups and ways of thinking and working, big differences can be realized in the purpose, who belongs to it, what holds together and how long it will last 1.

When a CoP is meant for developing member capabilities, building and exchanging their knowledge, a project team is meant to accomplish a specific task, or a formal work group is to deliver a product or service. A CoP consists of members who select themselves meaning it is an open community welcoming everyone interested in the topic. For the other groups, members are usually assigned by their managers. A CoP holds together as long as there is passion or commitment, a need to solve the set of problems or deepen the knowledge. Formal work groups are usually there until the next reorganization no matter if there is a real need or not.

The CoP concept was first proposed by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning 2.

Group of people

The Challenge, Actually Several Challenges

When introducing the community thinking the main challenge usually is the change from formally appointed work groups to open community. Typically, the decision making has been top-down driven and given for these formal work groups. One significant area of learning is the manager’s ability to step back and let people start sharing and learning together and making the needed decisions. Managers need to stop managing. They have to start learning the new way of thinking as leaders enabling the people to find their empowerment, feeling of ownership and motivation.

People instead have to learn to take the real responsibility on taken decisions and in many cases also the end to end thinking in all they do. The end to end thinking in product or service development plays important part in securing the contented customer experience. Employee motivation and responsibility taking as such tend to grow when autonomy, mastery and purpose 3 are in place. They can be described as follows: 1) autonomy; people can make important decisions impacting their work, 2) mastery; people have needed skills to perform their tasks and 3) purpose; people have meaning in their work for example why they are working towards agreed goals.

The community of practice supports perfectly all these areas and many times helps the change makers to grow. To not put the challenge too easy, every work and organization need some agreed frames. We anyhow have the customer requirements and the priorities; the further challenge is to find a good balance in what and when. Let the people, the experts, decide on how to. The fast-changing world we live in adds its own complexity to our daily work. To me this makes the need for community of practice even more urgent.

Good Trying to Avoid Bad


Everything starts with an interesting topic with concrete benefit to participants. In case meetings or forums are just renamed to CoPs and continued as is there is a huge risk for frustration on ‘I have to participate’ type of discussions. One of the good findings in early years for us was to realize the right momentum for a CoP. There is no use to discuss that much details on continuous deployment if there is no automation in place and no real sign on continuous integration either. Take the topics step wise understanding of course the big picture.

The most successful CoPs has been around a topic which has a clearly passionate leader – someone who feels the topic is very important, he or she based on charisma can lead other people to talk, share and decide.

Especially when expecting a decision to be made the proper agenda is vital. Include prepared material, express clearly the expectation on decision making and the participation is high and well respected. When joining the CoP it is really important to be prepared; get yourself familiar with the topic, read the material provided beforehand, start the thinking process. This will help the meeting itself being efficient.

Decision making authority is in most cases new possibility since people are used to top-down decisions. In my experience, it really requires effort to get the managers step back and let the people, the experts, to discuss and understand they can decide. They also need to realize that no-one will make the decision on behalf of them.

Open Community means that everyone in the organization is welcome. Deliver information or send invitation to all – you never know who wants to contribute and has valuable information to share. Again in past experiences, at first people didn’t dare to send the invitation to all. There were questions like: What if “wrong people” come meaning they don’t know the topic well enough? What if all let’s say 100 people come and there is no real discussion? What if after all no-one comes? When trying out the good practice on involving people, we sometimes realized someone got hurt not getting the invitation when the invitation was not after all wide enough. Also we may lose valuable brain power and hidden enthusiasm by not spreading the invitation wide enough.

Start adding all kinds of supporting tools to create transparency. Wiki pages for documenting, chatrooms for discussions, video conferences for cross-site communication, these are just the basic ones.

Suitable rhythm is all about the momentum – relevant timing. Some CoPs need first even daily interaction but later weekly or bi-weekly gathering is enough. Meanwhile the supporting tools and people meeting in daily work supports the community. CoPs come and go based on the need!

Cross-site participation is a topic which is worth to highlight more. In global organization video connection is something to think wider. On-line video connection is valuable to try at all sites that working together. In my experience, the open connection muted when no-one is discussing is efficient when you wish to see who is present. When there is a need for discussion you just open the microphone, and start talking. Simple and efficient!

There are lot of stories behind good CoPs and bad CoPs there. More can be discussed in various events whenever there is a need. This is a topic where I feel myself as a passionate leader!


1 E. Wenger, R. McDermott, W.M. Snyder Communities of practice: the organizational frontier Harvard Business Rev. (January–February) (2000), pp. 139-145

2 Lave, Jean; Wenger, Etienne (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42374-0.; first published in 1990 as Institute for Research on Learning report 90-0013

3 Daniel H. Pink, Drive (2009), ISBN 978-1594488849

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