Developing communities of practice

A recent trend has been the emergence of practitioner-driven communities of practice (CoP) (also called SIGs – special interest groups), some of which have emerged from Higher Education Academy/JISC funded innovation/transformation programmes e.g.





An example of a non-UK CoP is the Australian e-Portfolio project which focused on using an online forum and e-portfolio symposium activities.



Critical Success Factors

There are a number of critical success factors associated with successful Communities of Practice, as follows:


  • Ownership primarily needs to lie with practitioners, not HE agencies.
  • A core steering group should drive forward the CoP/SIG aims and objectives.
  • CoPs/SIGs should develop a communications and stakeholder engagement strategy and plan.
  • Communications with stakeholders should be regular, high quality and profiled to different stakeholder needs.
  • Appropriate technologies should be adopted.
  • Communications need to be co-ordinated and facilitated – though this does require significant effort to achieve (some CoP/SIGs rotate responsibilities for this in order to lessen the “load” on one individual).
  • Steering Group members should commit to agreed “sweat labour” in respect of CoP/SIG activities.
  • The CoP should aim to produce useful outputs, resources and toolkits (as appropriate) for use by its membership.
  • Sustainability of CoPs/SIGs must be a core focus for the steering group and this must take account of what contributions the steering group and membership can make.
  • It must be recognised that the community membership and steering group will have limitations on how much time they can contribute without being funded or rewarded in some way. It is not good practice to adopt a total-funding approach, however, the steering group should consider potential reward mechanisms e.g. sector recognition of member’s work, publication of shared articles, journal and conference papers and aligning the CoP/SIG goals/activities with development/innovation projects and programmes.   
  • CoPs/SIGs should aim to seek funding – this could be in the form of e.g.

o   Agency funding to cover basic operational costs (typically low-amount funds from agencies such as the Higher Education Academy, JISC, QAA).

o   Project funding to fund specific collaborative projects which have defined outputs.

o   Advertising/sponsorship.

o   In-kind contributions e.g. institutions hosting meetings, travel funding.

  • If operational funding is available, it should be prioritised towards effective communications and stakeholder engagement.
  • CoPs/SIGs should not become “funding junkies” – they should primarily be driven by “sweat labour” from its membership and using micro-funding to cover operational essentials such as travel/meeting budgets. 




Highlight messages from the JISC Innovation Forum (JIF2010)

Helen Beetham

  • People who both “care and can” are often those who become members of communities of practice – and have the power to effect change.
  • JISC should support communities that support people with vision.


Jenny Mackness

  • ELESIG is an excellent example of a UK-based community of practice.
  • The community receives small amounts of funding but largely depends upon voluntary effort.


Ross Gardler

  • Do not fund the community – fund activities that the community is supporting.
  • Leadership is vital to sustaining communities – it is not about ownership but empowering others. If you are a good leader, people will follow you.
  • “Community over Code” – if you focus on community, the code will emerge.
  • “Community of People” – rather than “Community of Practice”.
  • Let the community decide on revenue streams but don’t let it trigger competition within the community.
  • An important role of communities is to manage records, data, code and information for software developments.
  • A clear community governance is important, with clear managed IP.


Terry McAndrew

  • Concepts and approaches should be sustained.
  • Key features of communities that support adoption and sustainability of innovation include funding and advancing teaching.


Paul Walk

  • We need to learn lessons from companies who innovate in market downturns.
  • In order to innovate, “organisational space” needs to be created.


John Slater

  • Sustainability is more likely to occur when you are close to the practitioner.
  • Researchers are fickle – they are after recognition and money – therefore the key to sustainability is money.
  • More than one community should be involved.


Richard Goddard


Key features of communities: