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Communities of Practice

A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who "share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Introduction to communities of practice). This document gives guidance on forming and running a CoP.

According to Emily Webber, author of Building Successful Communities of Practice:

Connecting with other people, finding a sense of belonging and the need for support are natural human desires. Employees who don't feel supported at work don't stay around for long or if they do, they quickly become unmotivated and unhappy. At a time when organisational structures are flattening and workforces are increasingly fluid, supporting and connecting people is more important than ever. This is where organisational communities of practice come in.


Members of a CoP have a shared enthusiasm and commitment to a particular topic. They engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other and share information. Through this they build relationships that enable them to learn and gain support from each other. A CoP can become a supportive community which members reach out to for advice and which builds confidence. The community can become something members identify with and care deeply about, which creates a sense of belonging and purpose. Active participation in a CoP can also be a great way for individuals to raise their profile and build relationships with people in other areas of the organisation.


A primary aim of most CoPs is learning, which typically happens in two ways:

  1. Members share knowledge and experiences good and bad.
  2. Members stimulate each others' interest in learning from outside the organisation.

Learning from outside the organisation includes discovering new tools and techniques from reading books or blogs, watching or participating in external events and so on. Having a community to share new ideas with encourages individuals to seek out new knowledge and to experiment with the new things they have learned.

For individuals, this learning can become an important part of their personal and professional development. For organisations, they see the benefit from having individuals who are more engaged and effective in their role.


CoPs are formed around a single subject which should be neither so narrow as to give little value to members (e.g. unit testing), nor so broad that it is difficult to find topics within the subject which are of broad interest to the group (e.g. all of software engineering). We discuss scope more in Format, as the scope can have an influence on the most appropriate format. As well as being of interest to members, to attract investment (see Time) the subject should also be of relevance to the goals of the organisation, e.g. testing would be an appropriate subject for an organisation which delivers software, basket weaving would not, public speaking may be.


It is important to set goals when forming a CoP to avoid it losing purpose and direction. Goals should be valuable to individuals and the wider organisation.

Not all goals need to produce output in a material sense. Some focus more on harder-to-quantify results like individual learning. Having a balance of these is quite healthy and encouraged. If attendees start to see the CoP as just more actions to add to their to-do list they could disengage. On the other hand, without clear goals a CoP can lose focus and can end up being little more than "a chat". When this happens, busy members can feel they don't get enough out of attendance to justify pulling themselves away from their busy schedules and again can disengage. It is a delicate balance to strike!

Some common goals are listed below. We use the term practitioner for someone whose primary job or role aligns strongly with the CoP's scope, apprentice for those who view the subject as an outside interest, other for everyone else in the organisation and public for anyone outside the organisation.

  • Support individual practitioners with the specific challenges they are facing, usually with advanced or difficult topics.
  • Support individual apprentices with the challenges they are facing, often with more basic techniques.
  • Educate by broadening and deepening practitioners' and apprentices' knowledge of the subject.
  • Educate by helping practitioners and apprentices learn about new and emerging tools and techniques.
  • Educate to help others do their job better, typically for topics which are useful for all but not of sufficient interest to attend a CoP (e.g. writing user stories, load testing).
  • Evaluate projects, teams or individuals using specific knowledge of the subject. For example, a CoP could be used to develop and refine the way that practitioners are assessed for recruitment and progression. CoPs could also be used to assess a team's maturity to understand where outside support may be needed.
  • Evangelise to improve public awareness of the organisation's capabilities in this subject, usually to drive recruitment or customer acquisition by building credibility.

It may be beneficial to focus on one or two goals initially with the intention to take on other goals over time. A common challenge which CoPs encounter is maintaining focus to deliver useful outcomes with the limited time available (see Time). The best way to overcome this is to set achievable goals rather than being overambitious.


CoPs are fuelled by interactions between individuals. Broadly, interactions are either "live" (either in-person or remotely by video call) or asynchronous (recorded or written). Several interaction formats are common, and CoPs often use more than one of these:

  • Some form of regular meeting (e.g. monthly) is usually the cornerstone of a CoP. These can take different formats at different times, e.g.
    • Live "round table" or lean coffee format discussion. This works well for small groups (5 to 10 people) to provide structure without imposing an agenda.
    • Meeting with a specific topic or purpose and potentially an agenda. This is good when the CoP has identified an area they want to focus on or an outcome they want to achieve, but highly structured sessions like this are best used sparingly.
  • Internal or public "clinic".
  • Chat channel, e.g. in Slack or MS Teams.
    • This does not constitute the community nor replace regular meetings, but it encourages members to keep interacting with each other
  • Live or recorded training sessions.
  • "Dojos"
    • A hands-on practical session to try out specific new or unfamiliar techniques or tools in a safe environment.
    • Works well for small groups (5 to 10 people) to learn how to use a specific tool or technique in a practical and quick way.
  • Social events. Getting members together in a more social setting can help people to get to know each other and create a sense of belonging and community.
  • Live or recorded show-and-tell or presentation for internal or public audience.
  • Written show and tell or presentation (blog post style internal or public).
  • Shared written examples (e.g. definitions of done or test strategies). Usually in a raw state and for internal use only.
  • Written training material for internal or public use.
  • Written policies or standards for internal use, but could still be public.

Different formats are better suited to different goals, depending on:

  • How repeatable the communication needs to be, e.g. providing bespoke support vs a set of interview questions.
  • The interest level of the audience, from practitioner to public.
  • The amount of information to be communicated, e.g. a lessons learned presentation vs a policy or standard.

Think carefully about which format or combination of formats will best suit the particular goal in mind.


Well-functioning CoPs do not come about by accident and good leadership is essential to establish clear goals and the operating model. The aim is not to direct or control the CoP, but to create common purpose in the group and to evolve the goals and format over time.

Typically, CoPs which work well have a designated coordinator plus a core group. The coordinator can be a rotating post, e.g. with a different person being appointed every three months. The core group is simply the members who most actively and regularly participate and contribute.


CoPs provide valuable learning opportunities, which benefit individuals and the organisation. As such, it is often appropriate to run CoPs over lunch time or after work to avoid impacting the working day. Many CoPs will provide refreshments of some sort to recognise and encourage the personal commitment from participants anything from biscuits to sandwiches or pizza are common.

However, experience has shown that CoPs are most effective when at least some "work" time is allocated also. This is especially necessary where preparation is necessary (e.g. for presentations), for those coordinating CoPs, or where the goal is more clearly to deliver benefit for the organisation than the individual (e.g. creating interview questions, assessment frameworks or policies and standards). In areas where the organisation wishes to place particular focus (e.g. security) it may be appropriate to hold regular meet ups in work hours.

Time can be allocated using a combination of a per person budget and a per CoP budget:

  • The per person budget provides rough guidance on an appropriate amount of "work" time for each individual to spend on CoP activity across all CoPs they participate in. It should be personalised and agreed with the individual's manager or equivalent. The appropriate amount of time will naturally vary between individuals. It has to balance benefit to the individual and the organisation from participating in CoPs with the demands of the individual's primary role. This is the main mechanism to regulate the cost of recurring sessions such as monthly meet ups.
  • The per CoP budget is a monthly time allocation for the CoP to be distributed by the coordinator to members of the group and is on top of the per person budget. The amount of time should be appropriate to deliver the agreed goals but would typically be a few hours to a few days per month. This allocation could vary over time and would be higher for periods where there is particular focus on delivering goals which will take more time commitment.

Any allocation of "work" time for CoP activity or cost associated with providing refreshments or materials (e.g. software licences) for the CoP will need to be approved by someone. This person is called the sponsor and should be invested in the goals of the CoP and authorised to allocate these resources.

Starting a new CoP

The process for starting a new CoP is:

  1. Briefly outline the subject to be covered (see Scope), a set of goals and a proposed time allocation and agree these with the sponsor.

  2. Appoint a coordinator and agree whether this will be a rotating post. The coordinator should be someone with the time and energy to actively drive the community, and the ability to excite and enthuse members. They need to be able to provide just enough direction and structure while ensuring members' individual points of view are clearly heard and respected.

  3. The coordinator will facilitate a kick off along with interested others where the format will be agreed. The goal here is to get people excited and engaged and to align members so they can act as an effective group.

  4. As the community forms the members should refine the scope, goals and format in conjunction with the coordinator and sponsor. This will ensure they feel ownership of the community and gains the benefit of their experience and knowledge. These should be recorded somewhere easily accessible to the whole organisation, and easily editable by CoP members, e.g. Confluence.

  5. It's often helpful to have a backlog and/or schedule of what the CoP will be focusing on and any events which are planned. This should be lightweight to avoid the CoP feeling like a project, but a little structure can help the team maintain purpose. Making this visible to anyone in the organisation and regularly publicising it can help others understand what the CoP is specifically doing and help them know whether and when they want to get involved.

Worked example

We include a worked example to illustrate how this thinking can be applied in a specific case. This is an example of a new CoP which is starting with relatively modest goals and time budget.



Stacy Leblanc


These will be the initial goals to be reviewed after three months on DATE.

  • Support individual practitioners and apprentices with specific challenges.
  • Educate by broadening and deepening practitioners' and apprentices' knowledge of the subject.
  • Educate by helping practitioners and apprentices learn about new and emerging tools and techniques.


This group will focus on AWS native services. AWS marketplace services are out of scope for this group.


This will be a rotating post. Seren Howarth will be coordinator for the first three months.

Format and time

The group will meet monthly for one hour over lunch, where food will be provided (up to £6 per head). The coordinator will help the group determine the format for the next session each time. A time budget of two hours per month (on average) will be used to prepare for sessions when required.

Tips for success

  • Make the CoP visible. Help potential members easily understand the purpose of the CoP and what it is doing, as well as how it relates to other CoPs or working groups. Most importantly, focus on what they can get out of it! Regular communications using a variety of channels (e.g. Slack, email, mentions at all hands calls) can help build awareness and interest. Public endorsement from the sponsor will increase credibility and authority.
  • Use the tools you know. Many of the tools we use for managing our day to day work can help CoPs, including group messaging systems, places to store knowledge (e.g. Wiki) and hold a lightweight backlog of things the CoP wants to work on (e.g. Jira, Trello).
  • Individuals must be willing and keen to participate. Participation should be voluntary. In this way, Communities of Practice live on because they create value for members, not because of an edict or a box to check. Individuals can be encouraged to join, but it must be their free choice to avoid the CoP becoming just another meeting to go to.
  • Be realistic about what can be achieved with the time available. Members will likely be willing to spend an occasional lunch time for CoP meetings if they get value from them, but where tasks are picked up to be done between meetings, more will be achievable if there is some allocated time, rather than it being down to "best endeavours".
  • Keep it interesting. Try different formats and play with different ideas. Find out what other CoPs are doing and try things which seem interesting.
  • Focus on people. CoPs are there to serve people, not to act as another project. Be mindful of their needs and devote time to serving them, which may include acting as a support network.
  • But also, focus on outcomes. Get the balance right between serving individuals and their immediate needs and producing wider and longer term benefits for the organisation particularly if work time is being allocated to CoP activities.
  • Don't try to solve everything. While the CoP can be a great focal point, ideally it will put in place mechanisms for and champion peer to peer knowledge sharing and support throughout the organisation, rather than expecting everything to flow through the CoP.
  • Individuals should continue to get value from their participation. Meetings do not need to be formal or highly structured, but participants should feel that it is productive use of their time. Hold retrospectives periodically to ensure the community is still delivering value and to refresh the goals and ways of working.