Community of practice

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A voluntary group of peer practitioners who share lessons learned methods and best practices in a given discipline or for specialized work. The term also refers to a networks of people who work on similar processes or in similar disciplines, and who come together to develop and share their knowledge in that field for the benefit of both themselves and their organization(s).


Community of practice (CoP) is a network of people who work on similar processes or in similar disciplines, and who come together to develop and share their knowledge in that field for the benefit of both themselves and their organization. Communities of practice may be created formally or informally, and they can interact online or in person. In a less-formal context, they are sometimes referred to as Communities of interest. An example in the nuclear industry is the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Community of Practice.

The original thoughts behind the concept of a CoP are generally attributed to E. Wenger, and the techniques and benefits are described in his book [10].

CoPs are generally self-organizing and usually emerge naturally but need management commitment to get started and continue working effectively. They typically exist from the recognition of a specific need or problem and are particularly important in realising benefits in R&D organizations through increased innovation and collaboration.

A CoP provides an environment (face-to-face and/or virtual) to connect people and encourage the sharing of new ideas, developments and strategies. This environment encourages faster problem solving, cuts down on duplication of effort, and provides potentially unlimited access to expertise inside and outside the organization. Information technology now allows people to network, share and develop ideas entirely online. Virtual communities can thus help R&D organizations overcome the challenges of geographical boundaries.

Communities of practice in the literature

Within the KM literature there are numerous definitions for CoP, but most definitions highlight the features first set out by Etiene Wenger the originator of the concept of Communities of Practice, along with anthropologist Jean Lave. He defined the term Communities of Practice as:-

"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."[1]

In a further text Wenger and others go on to describe CoP as:-

"an informal group of peers, sharing ideas, insight, information and help about a topic they are deeply, sometimes passionately, interested in." [2]

Wenger elaborates that CoP have three essential characteristics: a knowledge domain; secondly a community of people who care about the domain be it through a shared set of problems or desire to learn; and thirdly a shared practice that is documented and shared within the community, including policies, operating principles and reference documents. Wenger [3] also distinguishes CoP from other forms of organisational collaborative groups, such as formal working groups and project teams. The essence of CoP is that their purpose is around developing the capabilities of, and exchanging knowledge between, its members; a membership which is self-selected or voluntary.

Emphasising the informal nature of CoP McDermott notes that:-

"membership of is often voluntary and, as community members share ideas and information, they deepen their knowledge of each other as they increase their knowledge of the topic and sense of connection." [4]

Others have distinguished 3 broad classes of CoP [5]:

  • A community of learners
  • A collaborative group within an organisation;
  • A ’virtual’ (online) community.

Whilst their development and use is not exclusive to the world of business, CoP have become a key element within the KM strategies of many industrial and commercial organisations. In those organisations, a proactive approach to enabling the formation and maintenance of CoP has demonstrated a number of benefits that support effective knowledge sharing.

In particular CoP can support key strategic objectives, such as:-

  • Providing greater visibility and access to key domain experts in order to address short and long term technical and business issues.
  • Development, across geographically distributed networks, of groups for the purpose of enhanced knowledge sharing and collaboration.
  • Supporting professional career development, education, training and mentoring programmes
  • Providing a mechanism for long term knowledge retention and transfer.
  • Providing a mechanism and process for the capture and sharing of lessons from operational experience.

In the context of the objectives set out above CoP can be seen as providing valuable environments in:-

  • Finding specific expertise.
  • Providing a forum for ad hoc requests for information, solutions to problems, troubleshooting and operational feedback.
  • Enabling collaborative development of guidance, procedures and training material.
  • Supporting the sharing of experiences and learning in the development and use of methods techniques, and technologies.
  • Supporting the identification and implementation of technical and safety related process improvements.
  • Facilitating learning and knowledge sharing across supply chains.
  • Other examples like university networks

In summary, CoP can provide benefits to organisations and to individuals. CoP provide organisations with the opportunity to leverage their knowledge networks and knowledge assets through a mechanism that does not rely on a centralised, hierarchical organisational structure for transferring knowledge. Individuals on the other hand are motivated to participate in CoP as a means of supporting their own professional development and their professional identity.

Communities of practice in the nuclear context

Researchers have identified that since these early studies organisations have adopted CoP into their own context because of their manifest benefits. It has also been noted that in order to fit these CoP in large hierarchical organisations where centralised control is the prevailing culture, the CoP model has had to be adapted to fit [8 ] . In order to develop a more practical definition of CoP in the Nuclear context the IAEA has hosted a number of meetings to consider recent experience and good practice in a range of countries and types of facilities. The resultant definition that fits the Nuclear sector’s experience is one that is broader and more inclusive than the original theory suggests.

In the process of gathering actual experience from the field it became apparent that a number of key dimensions of CoP needed to be described to better describe the more inclusive working definition and good practice in the field.


In terms of their formality, then CoP may:    
  • Be formal or informal in their operation and structure
  • Be sponsored and sustained by management or entirely self-sustained by the members
  • Have a designated budget or have the costs of the CoP absorbed by the employers
  • Have a defined task or a defined interest


In terms of their membership, then CoP may:

  • Have a membership consisting of defined roles or the roles develop organically
  • Have members appointed or membership is entirely voluntary
  • The members can be relatively inexperienced or experts
  • Membership consists of a single discipline or is multidisciplinary


In terms of their outputs, CoP may:

  • Produce tangible outputs or intangible benefits
  • Outputs are shared only within the group or shared out with the group
  • Outputs are shared only within the organisation or outside the organisation

Financial support and outcomes

In terms of their costs, it was also noted that:

  • The purpose of a CoP is not directly financial, however it can often contribute to the success of commercial organisations
  • In many cases where umbrella organisations are used to support the operations and activities of CoP such as organising meetings, inviting speakers etc. then membership fees are charged

Sponsoring organisations

Numerous different operating models are being used internationally and the following is a list of examples of the organisations that are influential and successful in sponsoring and organising CoP activities:

  • Industry associations like INPO, WANO
  • Institutes like EPRI, IEEE
  • Standards like BSI, ISO
  • IAEA, e.g. Technical working groups
  • Technical societies like CNS, JNS,ANS, VVER, SNE
  • Professional societies like BNES, ASQ, ASME
  • Lobby groups like FORATOM, NIA
  • Regulators such as WENRA
  • Government sponsored organisations such as NDA in the UK
  • Unsponsored groups include numerous informal technical CoP

Activities and aims

CoP undertake a wide range of activities and exist to achieve different ends. Among these are the following categories and examples of objectives often found in practice:

Sharing good practice

  • Recognise, define, promote, develop, share good practice
  • Develop normative practice (e.g. mandatory standards)

Sharing knowledge

  • Produce documents in order to disseminate and capture knowledge
  • Disseminate and preserve knowledge by sharing and communicating experiences and ideas
  • Information exchange and sharing of knowledge

Problem solving

  • Identify potential improvements that can be implemented by others
  • Identify and solve mutual problems and challenges members find in their own work
  • Innovate; developing new ways of doing and new processes, finding new ideas for improvement
  • Create knowledge by analysing problems and resolving them collaboratively

Connecting people

  • Create networks to connect people with similar interests and problems
  • Mutual support between members


  • Members develop each other
  • Learn together as a community and as individuals
  • Develop collective expertise within the domain

Providing leadership

  • Contribute to the advancement of the body of knowledge, to advance the ideas of the practice
  • Legitimise courses of action through collective decision making and agreement, peer verification, testing practices etc.

Promote cooperation

  • Introduce collaborative processes into organisations

Bodies of practice for CoP – Knowledge Domains

The ways CoP define their domains of practice varies widely between different organisations, cultures and industry sectors. The dimensions on which CoP domains are circumscribed include inter alia:

  • Functional
e.g. maintenance, safety,
  • Processes
e.g. equipment reliability, management systems
  • Innovation
e.g. waste without a disposal solution, digital applications (I&C)
  • Technology
  • Discipline
e.g. engineers, physicists
  • Ad Hoc – Single strategic issue
  • Problems
e.g. fuel defects
  • Destiny
e.g. final waste repository solution
  • Projects
e.g. de-Tritiation
  • New regulations
e.g. nuclear liability, new standards
  • Emerging issues
e.g. response to Fukushima lessons,
  • Regulatory issues
e.g. environmental assessments,
  • Public acceptance
e.g. stakeholder consultations
  • Nuclear life cycle
e.g. waste management

Good practice and lessons learned in CoP

The increased use of CoP within organisations’ KM strategy has prompted several benchmarking studies and ’good practice’ reviews (e.g. [6], [7]). These studies have sought to identify what makes effective CoP, and conversely what the challenges are to implementing and sustaining active CoP.

The KM literature contains many examples of reviews of the critical factors that underpin successful CoP (e.g., [5], [6], [7]). Such factors include, but are not limited to:

The basic elements that underpin effective, proactive and sustained CoP include clear objectives and purpose; a clearly understood and motivated membership; an available, accessible and user friendly online platform; and effort available for defined and resourced roles to support the running of the network.

Effort and resources are required to create, sustain and organise CoP if they are to have positive outcomes.

Communities of practice are not universally successful however the following characteristics are generally true of effective CoP:


  • Members feel they get value from membership and that their contribution is valued
  • Members put a lot of effort into the CoP business, often voluntarily
  • The members like to be active with the CoP, in some cases this would even apply after they retire
  • The CoP continues to attract new members
  • Trust amongst CoP members ensures an adequate level of knowledge seeking and knowledge sharing activity.
  • Members have passion and commitment to the domain subject
  • Members feel proud to be a member and have an affinity to the CoP
  • There is a sense of accountability amongst members
  • Members respect and value the other members expertise
  • There is transparency and openness within the group
  • There is a critical mass of active and engaged members
  • The membership includes experts

Group processes

  • Clearly defined and supported roles and responsibilities for CoP leaders and facilitators along with appropriate training.
  • Formal or informal leaders who encourage contributions from members
  • An appropriate balance between achieving the informal and voluntary participation from community members and a degree of formal ’governance’ to ensure quality and coherence of information and knowledge exchange and sustained activity.
  • Having goals or measurable outcomes may be helpful
  • Having rules for operating, with clear roles and responsibilities may also be helpful
  • An appropriate mix of face-to-face and online CoP activities and support
  • Group activities are coordinated and facilitated
  • In large geographically dispersed CoP more organisation and structure is called for and often a virtual workspace

Recognised expertise

  • The value added by CoP and the expertise they contain is recognised beyond the immediate membership
  • The advice of CoP is sought by decision makers
  • Has an authoritative voice and is respected
  • The CoP records its activities and its stories of success
  • Professionals in the field talk about the achievements and practice
  • CoP achieve targets (where they exist)


  • The CoP is Sustainable and has a longevity that survives changes in membership and reorganisations
  • It is part of "the way we work"

Shared purpose and objectives

  • Members understand, sometimes implicitly, the CoP purpose, mission and general goals
  • A clear rationale and link between a CoP and the needs of the members of and participating organisation, or organisations.


  • Continuing sponsorship, by stakeholders provide on-going motivation, enabling resources and materials to sustain activities
  • Senior management, or key stakeholder provide sponsorship to ’permission’ and encourage participation


  • CoP can be self-governed or externally governed by sponsoring organisations or senior management (See Appendix 3)

Things to avoid

Things often go wrong in the initial phases of CoP maturity. The following should be avoided if the CoP is to be efficient and effective:


  • Over control (especially in small communities) or too little control (especially in large communities)
  • Imposed rules
  • Situational (cultural, task, etc.)

Non-collaborative behaviours

  • Not encouraging contributions from all members
  • Internal competition
  • Dominating personalities and personal agendas


  • Too much competition between CoP and overlap with other networks
  • Too short term a task


Appendix 1 - Measuring CoP performance

It is important to define and monitor a range of measures to ensure that the CoP is continuing to meet its objectives, is engaging with community members and is not reliant on sustainability from the facilitation team or a small proportion of core members. Some exemplar measures or metrics associated with a CoP are identified in the Table 1 below.

Table 1 : Indicative performance measures

Metric Description
Quality Measurements
track the quality of CoP experience
  • Level of member satisfaction with the CoP.
  • Number of member’s requests for help.
  • Amount of time spent by facilitators in running the network.
Usage measures
Track member activity
  • Number of members.
  • Level of member activity and contributions to the CoP.
  • Number of new members.
  • Types and quality of member contribution.
Process Measurements
track the efficiency of network processes
  • Percentage of responses to requests for information and support
  • Average response time to requests for information and knowledge sharing.
  • Time taken to submit an online a contribution.
  • Online platform availability.
Cost Measurements
Track the overall cost of running the CoP
  • The cost of the software licences.
  • Cost of maintenance and support.

Appendix 2 Examples and Case studies

It is acknowledged that there is now a potential to complement IAEA Communities of Practice by exploiting the availability of an on-line platform to create broader expertise networks and collaborative activity and to stimulate a greater level of informal knowledge exchange.

Therefore, the IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy, with the support of the Technical Cooperation program and funding from the European Commission, have embarked on the development of the on-line ’CONNECT’ collaboration platform, which utilises Microsoft Sharepoint™ technology. This collaborative platform provides and/or addresses the features that were described earlier in this document, as well as a space for accessing quality learning materials to ICoP participants.

At its launch there were 6 networks on the CONNECT platform hosted by the IAEA (with the NKM ICoP being one of those networks).

Radioactive Waste Management Networks

The first ICoP developed and promoted by the IAEA was in the area of high-level radioactive waste (HLW) disposal. The Underground Research Facilities Network (URF) was organised around the transfer of knowledge and sharing of research facilities for the investigation and construction of underground HLW and spent fuel repositories. Following 10 years successful operation, other ICoP have been proposed, and currently include:

International Decommissioning Network (IDN)
Network of Environmental Management and Remediation (ENVIRONET)
International Low Level Waste Disposal Network (DISPONET)
International Network of Laboratories for Nuclear Waste Characterization (LABONET)
Other Nuclear Energy Networks

Besides the core networks comprising radioactive waste management technologies and NKM, the IAEA, due primarily to the success of these efforts, has encouraged the growth and development of ICoP in other complementary areas. A background description of the other communities of practice on the CONNECT platform is shown in Table 2 below.

International Community of Practice Background
Underground Research Facilities (URF)
Under the auspices of the IAEA, nationally developed Underground Research Facilities (URFs) and associated laboratories concerned with the geological disposal of radioactive waste are being offered for use by various Member States. The URFs and laboratories form a Network for training in and demonstration of waste disposal technologies and the sharing of knowledge. These URFs and the participants in the Member States make up the Underground Research Facilities (URF) Network, a community of practice and learning for geological disposal of nuclear waste.

The objectives of the URF CoP are as follows:
  • To encourage the preservation, sharing and transfer of knowledge and technologies;
  • To work on solutions for Member States currently without URFs;
  • To supplement national efforts and promote public confidence in waste disposal schemes;
    To contribute to the resolution of key technical issues. 
I&C Technologies (ICT)
Nuclear utilities are facing challenges in several I&C areas with ageing and obsolete components and equipment. With license renewals and power uprates, the long-term operation and maintenance of obsolete I&C systems may not be a cost-effective and reliable option. As a consequence, the nuclear industry modernises existing analog I&C systems to digital I&C, as well as implements new digital I&C systems in new plants. The increased functionality of the new digital I&C systems can also open up new possibilities to better support the operation and maintenance activities in the plant.

The I&C CoP is one mechanism by which the IAEA can provide a setting for exchanging information in meetings and a forum to share lessons learned by producing technical documents in various technical areas.
Networking Nuclear Education
The objective of the Networking Nuclear Education (NNE) is to complement new and existing IAEA educational network activities such as the AFRANEST, ANENT and LANENT.

To serve on behalf of IAEA Member States as an international forum to identify best practices and to share lessons learned experiences and resources amongst nuclear educational institutions.
International Decommissioning Network (IDN)
In 2007 the IAEA launched the IDN to provide a continuing forum for the sharing of practical decommissioning experience in response to the needs expressed at the Athens Conference in Dec. 2006 on "Lessons Learned from the Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities and the Safe Termination of Nuclear Activities". This Network is intended to bring together existing decommissioning initiatives both inside and outside the IAEA to enhance cooperation and coordination.  Specifically it’s objectives are:
  • To facilitate direct exchange of information between practitioners, i.e. between and among those with extensive decommissioning experience and those seeking to learn from this experience;
  • To promote application of "best practices" in decommissioning technology, planning, project management, and the management of nuclear wastes;
  • To support the Agency’s agenda on decommissioning as set out in the "Decommissioning Action Plan";
  • To improve the quality and timeliness of responses to requests from Member States for assistance with decommissioning of aging or shut-down facilities;
  • To assist in strategic and systematic planning of assistance resulting in a logical progression from preliminary planning to full implementation of decommissioning.
Integrated Management Systems Network of Excellence (MSN)
A management system is a framework for managing and continually improving an organisation’s policies, procedures and processes.

The MSN CoP is focusing on the sharing of experience and experience on management systems.

Related articles

Knowledge network


[1] Lave, J. & Wenger, E. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[2] Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder, W. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. 2002. Harvard Business School Press.

[3] Wenger, E.C., Snyder, W.M. Communities of Practice: the Organizational Frontier. Harvard Business Review January –February 2000.

[4] McDermott, R. 2005 ’From the Margin to the Heart of the Company: High performance Communities’ Consultancy paper.

[5] Mitchell, J.G., Wood, S.,Young, S., 2001, ’Communities of practice: reshaping professional practice and improving organizational productivity in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector

Reframing the Future Initiative’ .

[6] Communities of Practice (CoP) Benchmarking Report: Using CoP to improve individual and organisational performance. 2006. Knowledge and Innovation Network (KIN) Warwick University, .U.K.

[7] ’What are the conditions for and characteristics of effective online learning communities?’ Australian Flexible Learning Framework Quick Guides series


[8] Li, L.C., Grimshaw, J.M., Nielsen, C., Judd, M., Coyte, P.C., Graham, I.D. ’Evolution of Wenger’s concept of community of practice.’ Implementation Science. March 2009

[9] A Proposal for Establishing an International Community of Practice on Nuclear Knowledge Management (ICoP). IAEA NKM document 2010.

[10] Communities of Practice Harry Scarborough, (Research Director, Leicester University Management Centre, Leicester, UK)