Connecting people together

How to Build Communities of Practice in the Public Sector


In this blog post, we will take you through the key elements of building a successful online community practice.

Image showing people building a online community together


A. What is a community of practice

A community of practice is a network of individuals with common problems or interests who get together to:

  •  explore ways of working
  •  identify common solutions
  •  share good practice and ideas.


Communities of practice bring together people and resources related to a specific area of knowledge.

Informal communities exist in some form in every organisation or across organisations. The challenge is to support them so they can create and share organisational knowledge.

Communities of practice are organic and self-organising, and normally emerge naturally, others are set up with a recognition of a specific need or problem to address.

This blog will assist you in building your online community of practice and take you through the things you need to be aware of.


B. What you need to start your community of practice.


Not all communities of practice will succeed, but the more you can plan and prepare, the more likely you are to succeed.  

When developing your community of practice there are 7 key questions that you need to ask.

To help you out we have added supplementary questions that will help you build a comprehensive toolkit for your community, so you are prepared to engage with the members and meet the purpose and the objectives that have been set for the community.


1. How will you develop your purpose?

The purpose of your community will be the linchpin to all the activities you plan for your community.

Ask yourself these questions as a starter:

  • Why does your community of practice exist?:
  • What are the objectives for the community of practice?
  • What specific problems does your community of practice solve or want to solve for your members?

2. How will you gather the relevant people?

Your members will be the driving force for your community but how do you get the right members to join?

Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Who are your potential audiences (job titles / roles / organisations)?
  • What are the requirements for membership?
  • What are your members’ demographics (e.g. age, occupation, location, etc.)?


3. Where will members gather?

Communities need a space or spaces to come together.  How will you pick what will work for your members?

  • Where do your potential members currently gather (online and/or offline)? 
  • How many members do you want to gather?
  • How often do you want members to gather (online / offline)? 


4. How do you want your members to participate?

Participation is key to the community’s success. Knowing the types of engagement that work for your membership and what might stop them from participating is a huge advantage. 

  • What kind of participation will be the most meaningful for your members?
  • What do you want members to experience and understand when they first join the community of practice?
  • What possible barriers could prevent members from participating and how can you remove them?


5. What policies do you want to put in place? 

Every community will need a set of rules or guidelines regarding its membership and behaviour to ensure the community is a safe and trusted environment. How will you communicate this to the community?

  • What are your community of practice’s guidelines and values?
  • What acceptance and rejection policies do you have in place?
  • How will your guidelines make members feel safe when participating?


6. How will you promote and grow your community of practice?

How will people know about your community and how big would you like the community to grow?

  • How do people discover your community of practice?
  • What do you want people to know about your community before joining?
  • What tools and resources can you use to help more people discover your community?


7. How will you know your community of practice is a success?

The success of a community is more than just about numbers. It’s about meeting the original purpose and objectives set out by you and the members, as well as sharing those successes. But how do you identify your community’s successes?

  • What are the goals and objectives of the community of practice, and how can these be measured?
  • Are there any success stories or case studies of community members applying the knowledge they have gained from the community to their work?
  • What is the level of satisfaction among community members, and how can this be measured?


C. The Role of the Community Manager


Image shwing a group of community managers working together on the community

Community managers play a pivotal role in the success of the community of practice. Their primary responsibility is to cultivate and nurture the community of practice, build and encourage meaningful interactions and build a sense of belonging among members. 


Qualities of an Exceptional Community Manager

A successful community manager possesses a unique blend of skills and characteristics that contribute to the community's growth and vibrancy. They are empathetic listeners, skilled communicators, and adept problem solvers. Their ability to establish genuine connections, support members' needs and provide valuable insights is crucial for maintaining a healthy and engaged community.  For a community of practice to flourish, it needs to be nurtured with passion and coordinated with intentional, strategic actions as self-sustaining communities of practice do not exist.


Benefits of a Multi-Community Manager Approach

Enlisting multiple community managers can amplify the impact of an online community. Having a diverse team of community managers brings a range of perspectives, skills, and availability, resulting in a more well-rounded community management approach. With different community managers focusing on specific aspects such as content creation, engagement and technical support, the community as a whole can benefit from enhanced responsiveness and a wider range of expertise.

Going alone into a community manager role can be hard. The role and the time needed is often not fully understood. In fact, there are a lot of myths about hosting a community of practice and this can lead to unrealistic expectations and frustration. Working as a team can really help this

Depending on the number of members and the focus of the community, a community manager can be looking at a minimum of 4 hours per week to facilitate the community and this number can easily go up depending on the type of community.

Community Manager's Weekly Task List

The day-to-day responsibilities of a community manager can vary, but a typical weekly task list might include:

  • Engagement Monitoring: Regularly checking for new discussions, new content, comments, and questions, and responding promptly to encourage interactions.
  • Content Creation and Curation: Developing relevant and valuable content for the community, sharing subject area news, tips, and resources.
  • Moderation: Accepting or declining membership, encouraging community guidelines and maintaining a respectful and safe environment.
  • Problem Solving: Addressing members’ concerns and providing solutions to technical issues.
  • Communication: Highlighting key content and actions that you would like members to take and posting regular reminders to members of all the current, future and essential content the community holds.
  • Planning and Strategy: Developing short-term and long-term discussions, activities and content that meet the purpose and objectives of the community


D. Building an Action/Content Plan for Your Online Community of Practice


Image showing a group of community managers working of an action / content plan


Creating a successful community requires a well-structured but flexible action plan. 

Many of the items are repetitious, like newsletters, blogs, discussions, announcements and polls.

Don’t forget to include any conferences, meetings and other initiatives at the appropriate time in the plan.

Here's some tips on how to build one:

  • Dates - Many activities may be repetitious or happen around the same time every month or year. But planning this far in advance gives you some wiggle room if you're busy with other projects. Your action plan is a living document and can be modified.
  • Priority - Sometimes, you’ll have several things going on at the same time. Often one is dependent on another. Creating an order in your action plan allows everyone to know which content needs to be published, and in what order.
  • Types of content - There are a range of different types of content that can be created (e.g. blog posts, videos, documented events, infographics, audio etc.). Select the most appropriate content formats for your members and try to mix it up every now and then to keep them engaged.
  • Content Owner - The content owner in the action plan refers to the person who is accountable for bringing the content together - not just the person who will post it.  They will also be responsible for any actions around the content such as promotion, feedback and measuring the success of the action.

E. Where communities of practice can go wrong


Image of community managers trying to work out what is wrong with the community of practice



Technology First

One of the main reasons why communities of practice fail is that they prioritise technology over people. While technology can certainly enable collaboration, it is not a substitute for people-to-people interaction. To prevent this from happening, prioritise the wants and needs of the members and select the appropriate technology to support and enhance their engagement, not replace them.


Time Constraints

Another common reason why communities of practice fail is that community managers and members may not have the time to commit and participate. This is particularly true for communities that are not an essential part of people's job responsibilities. 

People have limited time and may be unwilling or unable to commit to participating in a community of practice regularly. 

To overcome this challenge, the community should be realistic about the time commitment required for community participation and ensure that members understand the benefits of being involved. 

They may also need to be flexible in terms of when and how community activities take place, so as not to create additional time pressures.


Poor Community Management

Effective community management is essential for the success of a community of practice. However, many communities fail because they lack a strong purpose, facilitation and guidance. Community managers must be able to engage members, facilitate discussions, and provide support. They must also be able to create a sense of belonging and ownership among members. When community management is poor, members may feel disengaged and the community may fall apart.


Unrealistic Expectations of Engagement

Finally, communities of practice may fail because of unrealistic expectations of membership and participation. Sometimes, it is assumed that members will be highly engaged and active in the community, even if they have not provided sufficient incentives or support. This can lead to disappointment and frustration when members fail to participate at the expected level. To prevent this you should be clear about the expectations and incentives for community participation early on. 


F. Selecting the right platform for your community


Image of a group of people working through and selecting the technology to support the community of practice


When selecting a platform or a range of tools that you can use to build a platform, your first thought should be: “What will your members be comfortable using and what can they access?”

The second question is: Do you build it yourself or do you select an established product?”

Platforms will normally include a range of different functions. Identifying what types of activities your community of practice will focus on will help to determine the collaborative functions you should choose.

Here are some of the most common collaborative functions that communities of practice will use.

  • Discussions Forums
  • Document Management / Online Documents
  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • Event Calendars
  • Ideas generation
  • Members list
  • Polls
  • Community Management Tools and Analytics


Checklist for selecting your online community of practice

These questions are not exhaustive, but ask them of any platform you consider. 

  • Can every member access and use the potential community of practice platform?
  • Can you choose the relevant privacy of the community (open, restricted or private)?
  • Does the technology offer the necessary features for discussions, content sharing and engagement?
  • Can members easily post, comment and interact with each other?
  • Can the technology accommodate a growing number of members and interactions?
  • Does it offer a search facility?
  • Does it provide email notifications and alerts on community content?
  • Can members identify and contact each other?
  • Does the technology provide tools for moderating content, enforcing community guidelines and managing the membership?
  • Does the technology provide analytics to track engagement, activity and member interactions?
  • Is there reliable customer support available and access to help guides on using the technology?

Are you ready to create a thriving online community of practice? Take the first step by planning and preparing your online community of practice and evaluating your options for the technology to support it.

Whether you're starting a new community or looking to enhance an existing one, making an informed decision is crucial. 

Interested in talking to an organisation that has been supporting the delivery of online communities in the public sector since 2006? Request a demo to find out more.


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