Components of a community of practice

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 8, 2005
Filed in Collaboration

This article in Harvard Business Review Working Knowledge is both helpful and confusing. It’s helpful because it reminds community practitioners of the need to stay immersed in the detail of the domain. It’s at this level which inspires member participation. It is also useful because it provides additional case study material.

It’s confusing because I think the authors are talking about different types of leaders. There are the community leaders who care about the community’s wellbeing and actively act as connectors, facilitators, cajolers. Then there are the executives who sponsor the community. Their role it to provide the community with a level of legitimacy, provide funding and support and knock down any organisational barriers which are impeding the community’s work.


Etienne Wenger provided a useful model at KM Australia this year which helps us make some important distinctions. I wont describe what he means by domain, practice and community as you’ll find them described in many of Etienne’s papers and books. Let’s look at the other four factors.

Executive Sponsorship are typically senior leaders within the organisation who appreciate the value of the community and provide it with funding, recognition and guidance.

Support is provided by a small support team whose role is to maximise the value members gain while minimising their effort. The support team organises seminars, conferences, profiles new members, manages the website, connects people etc etc. They have a large and important job.

Both these roles are typically provided by people on the periphery of the community.

Participation refers to members participating in the activities and discussions of the community. There is a paradox here that all new communities will confront: members want to join a community; and a community doesn’t exists without members.

Nurture is provided by members of the community who care for its very existence in addition to caring about the domain. These people become the natural leaders of the community. They help set the community’s agenda, identify speakers, provide advice, sort out any conflicts, make connections between members and help ensure that the community’s goals are useful to the organisation. This last point is crucial because the community leaders need to act as the PR team for the community and demonstrate its efforts are delivering value.

[Thanks to Dinesh Tantri for the link to the HBR article]

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. James Dellow says:

    The full text of the original HBR article is also currently available online. You’ll find a link to it via my blog post here. Its less confusing than the extract in Working Knowledge.

  2. Thanks James.

  3. Matt Moore says:

    I think this distinction between different leadership roles is really crucial. And another example of how a CoP differs from something like a virtual team.
    You could make the case that the Sponsorship and Support roles are Defined/Given and the Participation and Nuture roles are Emergent. Which implies certain things about how they are documented and the skills required.

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