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FreePint BlogImproving Communities of Practice through Distance Learning Principles

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By Robin Neidorf


Communities of practice are one of the highest-value, lowest-cost components of knowledge management, as well as sources of deep professional satisfaction for participants. As and where they already exist, they can become even more effective through thoughtful application of distance learning principles.


Communities of practice bring together professionals who can provide networking, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and pooled know-how to support a business or project. A common application of communities of practice can be found in many multinational organisations, which utilise these communities to connect staff with similar roles who may work in far-flung offices.

These groups may never (or rarely) meet in a face-to-face setting, but they connect regularly via teleconferences, web-based meetings, intranet portals, listservs, and other communication tools common to the digital office and the distance learning environment alike.

For those responsible for leveraging knowledge in an organisation, CoPs are a highly effective and low-cost way to connect workers based on similar interests, skillls and needs, to better foster exchange of knowledge and skills development. With advances in the tools of distance collaboration, as well as workers' growing comfort with using those tools, it's easier than ever to build and run effective CoPs.

Yet for all their successes, CoPs within a KM programme can be more reactive than proactive. When a specific need for skill development or knowledge transfer arises, CoPs are an excellent vehicle for achieving those results. But they can work harder for an organisation through understanding of the interactions of learning, and then applying an "instructor" perspective to their goals and structure over time.

Learning Interactions

Learning is a function of planned interactions: with content, with peers and with instructor. (Read more about the interactions of learning.) 

Members of CoPs interact with content through presentations provided to the group on topics of interest. Members also often share links, articles or resources with each other based on their knowledge of what other members are interested in or investigating.

I'm often invited to present latest FreePint research and facilitate discussion sessions for CoPs, and in doing so I learn a great deal about what information managers, researchers and knowledge workers today are wrestling with. I'm not an instructor in these settings, though; rather, I am a topic expert bringing specific content to the members of the CoP.

By the fact of their existence, CoPs create interaction with peers. This is the interaction that is best activated through CoPs and truly provides the highest educational value. The practical insight that members of a CoP give to each other through forums, listservs, wikis, teleconferences and webinars creates shared knowledge, trust and transfer of skills, not to mention deep professional satisfaction.

So what about interaction with instructor? Who or what is the "instructor" in a community of practice?

Too often, no one and nothing.

This absence is part of the success of communities of practice -- the community members themselves define what they want to learn, source experts (often amongst their own numbers) to present content, and develop topics based on consensus. Their sense of ownership of and investment in the community is part of what makes the experience valuable.

Yet to make CoPs an effective part of a KM initiative, the subtle and gentle application of "instruction" can make an enormous difference.

Creating Instructional Arc

Consider the potential benefit to an organisation's KM programme of assigning an instructional team to a community of practice. Here is an existing structure of peer interaction, in which members are strongly self-motivated to gain new skills. How does the introduction of "interaction with instructor" contribute to better KM outcomes?

Within a learning environment, the instructor defines the instructional arc and selects content. To support a KM programme, this role would entail identifying the knowledge gaps among the learning population, and selecting or sourcing the content with which the population needs to interact in order to achieve defined outcomes.

A knowledge strategist, for example, may lay out the following learning objectives for a community of practice over a 6-month period:

  • Describe the best use cases for each of the three company information databases provided on the desktop
  • Define and document ROI of the application of one company information database for a specific project
  • Name and define three metrics recommended for use to evaluate the success of a particular research source within the corporate portfolio
  • Name five stakeholders in different parts of the business to make aware of these metrics

These are very clear and specific learning objectives that would have a positive impact on the flow and value of information within the organisation. They can be integrated into regular CoP teleconferences, collaborative workspaces or case study presentations to leverage the existing power of interaction with peers. This approach is more efficient, less resource-intensive, and more effective than creating any kind of stand-alone workshop or learning materials to create interaction with the same content.

Keep It Subtle

The trick to success in this approach is to keep the interaction with instructor a subtle undercurrent to the CoP, rather than a driving force. Do not assign an instructor who will "manage" or "run" the CoP (unless the CoP itself requests it).

Rather, set learning objectives for the CoP. Influence the selection of content to move towards those objectives. Suggest ways in which the CoP can document and share results of sessions that touch on these learning objectives. Measure progress at regular intervals, then course-correct to stay on track.

In many cases, it may not be necessary to announce that a formal "learning" component added to a community of practice. No one needs to be identified as "instructor", and learning objectives may not be announced. But if you recognise the strengths a CoP brings to the learning experience and can layer in instructional guidance, you can skillfully achieve KM objectives for almost any knowledge gap.


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Robin has been working with FreePint since 2004, and, since joining full time in 2006, is responsible for strategic planning, product development, relationship management, research and communications. She currently heads the FreePint Research division.

Robin Neidorf ran a research and communications consulting business for 10 years, prior to joining Free Pint Limited. As a consultant, she focused on strategic planning, using information to make better decisions, and creating effective audience-focused communications across different media.

Robin has worked with a wide range of organisations in the for-profit and non-profit sector. She has developed online communities, publications and distance learning modules for a range of business purposes. She is the author of Teach Beyond Your Reach: An instructor's guide to developing and running successful distance learning classes, workshops, training sessions and more (second edition, Cyber Age, 2012) and the co-author of E-Merchant: Retail Strategies for e-Commerce (Addison-Wesley, 2001).

Robin can be reached at

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