Education Theory Made Practical – Volume 1, Part 3: Community of Practice


Community of Practice

AuthorsAndrew King, Michael Abraham, and Kevin Scott

Editor: Teresa Chan

Community of Practice
Main Authors or Originators:

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger

Key Books:

Lave J, Wenger E. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press; 1991 Sep 27.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity.

Other important authors or books

Virtual Communities of Practice were later introduced as an adjunctive concept by L. Dubé and A. Bourhis.

Dubé L, Bourhis A, Jacob R. The impact of structuring characteristics on the launching of virtual communities of practice. Journal of Organizational Change Management. 2005 Apr 1;18(2):145-66.

Dubé L, Bourhis A, Jacob R. Towards a typology of virtual communities of practice. Interdisciplinary Journal of Information, knowledge, and management. 2006 Jan 1;1(1):69-93

Part 1:  The Hook
Steve, who recently completed his emergency medicine residency and medical education fellowship, just joined a new institution as a heavily recruited junior faculty member. He was successful as a resident and a fellow with several scholarly projects and regional/national lectures. Steve was ambitious and hoped to translate his success to his new institution with the goal of ultimately becoming a member of the residency program leadership.

He quickly assimilated himself into the many available resident and medical student education opportunities. Learners frequently lauded Steve for both his willingness and his ability to teach. For his efforts, Steve was awarded the departmental Teacher of the Year award based upon his excellent evaluations.

Despite his “overnight” success, Steve was not satisfied. His accolades were coming mainly from the people he was teaching, and he wondered why the senior educators and departmental leaders not recognize his achievements? He was still working a full clinical load and had not yet received the departmental support for his educational endeavors and scholarly activity that he was promised. He finally arranged a meeting with the department chair asking about the status of the departmental support he was promised; however, the chair claimed that he did not recall this agreement and that departmental support is dependent upon scholarly activity. Steve proclaimed that scholarship is extremely difficult while working a full clinical and teaching load. He also explained that he was teacher of the Year and has a successful past track record. The chair congratulated him, yet remained steadfast that departmental support is commensurate with scholarly output.

Steve was very discouraged by his discussion with his Chairperson; however, he accepted the feedback as motivation to improve. How was he going to successfully complete scholarly projects while working a full clinical load? Steve’s answer to the preceding question was to enlist the help of a mentor. He had lost touch with faculty from his residency and fellowship since joining his new institution, so he began reaching out to seeka mentor within his current department. He targeted senior education faculty who have had successful careers with medical education scholarship. Emails were sent and meetings were held, but Steve never received the mentorship he was promised. Potential mentors often told him that they were too busy to mentor such a young faculty member. Senior faculty also told him they didn’t have advice because they received departmental support throughout their career.

Once again dejected over a broken promise and lack of mentorship, Steve reached out to residents and medical students interested in assisting with scholarship. The opportunity to mentor residents and medical students reinvigorated Steve; however, they were only interested in performing case reports. Steve successfully mentored residents and published several case reports, but this was not the scholarly productivity that interested Steve. He felt alone within the department, lacking  support and mentorship. He could feel his ambition declining; his career trajectory was blurring. Steve recognized that he needed a break and time to reflect, so he decided to attend a national emergency medicine education meeting in hopes of reinvigorating his career passion or identifying an alternative career path.

How should Steve approach this dilemma? Are there resources or programs available to assist Steve?

Part 2:  The Core

Communities of practice (CoPs) are part of the family of social learning theories.  CoP are neither legislated nor formally mandated; they simply develop in response to a specific need. The underlying principle is that learning occurs through social engagement in authentic contexts.1 Specifically, CoPs are comprised of individuals that share a particular interest and interact together based on this domain. The foundation of the community is built upon the interactions of the members with each other and their shared experiences of personal engagement within the context of a shared practice.  Through these interactions, resources are created that are valued by the community.  The most general role of a CoP is the advancement of expertise within the shared context.  Specific outcomes of interactions and collaboration may include learning, innovation, and the spreading of knowledge regarding the particular domain of the CoP; recognizing that particular outcomes may not have been the initial intention of the community.2


The term Community of Practice (CoP) was first coined in 1991 by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger.1 They suggest that the concept of communities of practice has been present though the entirety of humankind, and that the groups may evolve spontaneously as a result of the need to solve a unique problem or accomplish a particular task, although the most productive are likely cultivated.2  Lave and Wenger described a CoP while studying apprenticeship. They identified that rather than apprenticeship being an isolated learning process between student and master, there were complex social interactions, resulting in many learners and different levels of apprentices within a domain.  The impact of social relationships on social learning underpins the idea of a community of practice.3

CoPs comprised of three foundational elements:

1) a domain,

2) a community, and

3) a practice.

The domain refers to the shared interest of the group.  A community develops as a result of interactions and collaboration surrounding the domain.  Through these interactions, the community forms a practice that leads to the compilation and development of resources that serve the group.3,4 Over the existence of the CoP, continued growth and transformation of the community occurs through the continued development of these three elements.2

Communities of Practice are found in many different fields, with the purpose often being to improve in some aspect of understanding, performance, or knowledge.  The knowledge base of the community is expected to be greater than that of an individual.  As the community’s knowledge expands, whether that is through increased participation or acquisition of knowledge, so does that of the  individual participants’ within said community.

The basis of knowledge expansion is through discussion and collaboration of members, which is similar by other social learning and constructivist approaches to education. Although knowledge is one potential outcome of a community of practice, a significant achievement is more likely in innovation within the particular field of interest.  Building of knowledge and innovation results in the continued evolution of the group and its members. CoPs often exist over extended periods of time and experience variability of participation. .  In addition to the collaborative basis of growth, the dynamic nature of the community results in continued introduction of new experiences, ideas, and innovations that serves as the basis for continued advancement of the community and its individuals.5

When a new member enters into a new CoP, their participation is often described by Lave & Wenger as “legitimate peripheral participation” (LPP).1  New members are often welcomed into a CoP by participating in low-stakes, simpler tasks that still hold value to the community.1  The idea is that via these introductory tasks, they learn and grow – acquiring skills, knowledge, language, and a sense of the implicit culture of the CoP.1  LPP opportunities where the new members can actually observe or collaborate with more experienced members can expedite the growth of the more inexperienced members.1

In many ways, Steve’s participation within his local group can be seen as a form of LPP, since he is participating in low-stakes projects with the residents and medical students, learning the craft of supervising and mentoring others.  The problem in his situation is that within his locale he seems to lack the mentors that can help him to grow (either by explicit apprenticeship or by passively observing their actions within the CoP).

Modern takes or advances

Communities of practice can exist in many different forms and typically have a degree of informality and frequent connectivity among community members. With the continuous advancement of technology, members of communities of practice have benefited in several ways.

A community of practice can certainly occur within a local work environment or educational setting; however, technological advances, the explosion of social media, and the development of virtual or online communities have resulted in new innovations and opportunities for improving the functionality and accessibility of a community or practice. The initial community of practice theory developed by Lave and Wenger focused on the linking of people with similar interests and practices within a local or restricted area.1

Dubé & Bourhis have written extensively about the emergency of the virtual Community of Practice (vCoP)7,8, which is a more digitally-oriented extension of the conceptual framework first described by Lave & Wenger.1 With the development and increased utilization of online communities like Google Hangouts/Groups, Slack, Vsee, etc., members of a community of practice can be in different locations throughout the country or even the world and remain active participants in community discussions, activities, and output. Members with diverse backgrounds, different professional training, and regional practices result in communities with numerous ideas and unique output given the various points of view.

The work by Bourhis & Dubé9 have suggested that success of a vCoP may hinge on a number of structuring characteristics such as:

  • The amount of time the leader can devote to the Community
  • The leader’s selection based on his/her personality, enthusiasm, and skills
  • The presence and selection of a coach.

Having a dedicated, full-time leader has been shown in this previous work to be of great benefit.10  When launching a new vCoP it is also important to consider the environment in which the vCoP is launched.10  Groups that have a surrounding “obstructive environment” are likely doomed to fail.10  Having support from established organizations/institutions was also found to be helpful for nascent vCoP.10

The advent of online communities of practice has resulted in some very successful groups measured by participation and output. Within emergency medicine education, Academic Life in Emergency Medicine (ALiEM), created by Michelle Lin, has created multiple successful communities of practice for physicians at differing stages of their career. These communities of practice, referred to as “Incubators,” include cultivated networks s for chief residents (Chief Resident Incubator), fellows (Fellowship Incubator), and more recently, junior faculty members (Faculty Incubator). Members of these online communities of practice have the opportunity to collaborate, learn from one another, and produce tangible scholarship products aimed at advancing emergency medicine education. Members of these emergency medicine virtual communities of practice collaborate with other members and mentors with unique interests, different backgrounds, and perhaps regional variation in practice and educational practice given the widespread reach of these virtual communities. Members exist throughout the United States, Canada, and even South America!

Other examples of where this theory might apply in both the classroom & clinical setting

An interesting aspect of CoP’s is that they can be either cultivated or occur spontaneously. Examples of cultivated CoPs can be found in various realms of undergraduate medical education. Practically, the central concept of these CoPs is that participants are of varying levels of expertise and participate in domain specific activities that promote both content and tacit knowledge, and potentially innovation.

One example from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania is the “Doctoring Course” where MS1 and MS4 students, along with a few faculty, are divided into large groups and spend several semesters exploring the complex psychosocial aspects of the doctor-patient relationship.  The groups meet weekly sharing personal experiences and thoughts surrounding topics such as communication, culture, spirituality, religion, race, social disparities, professionalism, and ethics in order to develop a better understanding of relationships and a framework for guiding interaction.  Although there is a guide for topics to be discussed, the group and individual members determine what knowledge and skill set they take away from the group discussions.

Along similar lines, some medical schools have fostered the concept of CoPs with ‘Academic Societies’ or “Houses of  Learning” that help establish and allow for mentorship and education surrounding the societal aspects of medical education.  These CoPs establish the foundation for societal learning, where everyone has a vested interest and is an active participant to promote their individual educational requirements.

Annotated Bibliography of Key Papers

  1. Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Published April 15, 2015. Accessed June 6, 2016.

This website is a great overview of the beginnings and development of the concept of communities of practice.  In addition, various the authors discuss the variety of organizations and setting one can find CoPs, while also addressing many misconceptions.

  1. Li LC, Grimshaw JM, Nielsen C, Judd M, Coyte PC, Graham ID. Evolution of Wenger’s concept of community of practice. Implement Sci. 2009; 4(11):1-8.

This paper is a useful tool for better understanding the limitations of communities of practice with regards to their role in health professions education.  This paper sheds light on the varying interpretations of CoPS and the lack research into their effectiveness.

  1. Polin LG. Graduate Professional Education from a Community of Practice Perspective: The Role of Social and Technical Networking. In: Blackmore C, ed. Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. 1st ed. London, UK: Springer; 2010:163-178.

This book chapter examines more closely the social aspects that underlie the concept of communities of practice.  Additionally, it discusses the role of CoPs in graduate professional education and the role of technology in cultivating these learning communities.

  1. Lin M, Sherbino J. Creating a Virtual Journal Club: A Community of Practice Using Multiple Social Media Strategies

This paper identifies a virtual journal club using various social media platforms can form communities of practice that involves groups of people who share a passion for something they do and learn how to improve based on frequent interactions.

  1. Sherbino J, Snell L, Dath D, Dojeiji S, Abbott C, Frank JR. A National Clinican Educator Program: A Model of an Effective Community of Practice. Med Educ Online. 2010 Dec 6; 15.

This paper introduces another example of a successful community of practice. A national clinician educator program was developed using the community of practice model. Several benefits were identified including: improved problem solving, recognition of educational needs, development of new projects, and improved professional satisfaction.


The interpretation of Community of Practice is in a constant state of evolution. As a result, the best role for implementing this type of learning community remains unclear.  Furthermore, due to varying motivations for the development of CoPs, there remains difficulty in identifying and measuring outcomes, leaving a lack of evidence for their impact on individual and group learning.   Additional limitations include balancing the growth of individuals with that of the group and a functional dependency on member buy-in and participation, which is reliant on a high level of trust amongst the community. Furthermore, as with other constructivist and situated learning frameworks, the blurred lines between teacher and learner, although potentially encouraging further group interaction, may leave others reticent to joining in.6 Overall, as we continue to see the development of CoPs in the healthcare setting, our understanding and the effective implementation of these learning groups will be reliant on the continued elucidation of others’ experiences…perhaps a CoP on CoPs.

Part 3:  The Denouement
While attending the national emergency medicine education conference, Steve registered for a few sessions specifically dedicated to medical education and junior faculty development. These sessions allowed him to meet other junior faculty members from across the country who reassured him that they were experiencing similar struggles. He was also exposed to several mentors and educators within emergency medicine education who introduced him to the power of an online community of practice. He remembered learning about the Lave & Wenger theory as a Medical Education fellow, but never considered himself a member within that community of practice.

Mentors and attendees encouraged him to join an established virtual community of practice consisting of junior faculty participants and mentors from across the country. He was able to remain an active participant in this program while working a full clinical load because he was able to check the online forum and participate when he had time. This program allowed him to collaborate with other junior faculty members while receiving peer coaching/professional growth within a group. Because of this collaboration and mentorship, Steve’s scholarly output exploded with peer-reviewed publications, national lectures, and invited lectures. He became reinvigorated, and his passion for his career returned.

Because of his exuberant success, the unthinkable happened: Steve’s accomplishments were eventually recognized by his department chair and he received departmental support by being named a core faculty member and assistant residency program director.

Unfortunately, Steve’s problem remains common in academic emergency medicine. Communities of practice, specifically virtual communities of practice can provide the mentorship and collaboration that many junior faculty members lack within their own institutions.



  1. Lave J, Wenger E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. 1991.
  2. Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Published April 15, 2015. Accessed June 6, 2016.
  3. Wenger E. Communities of practice: learning as a social system. The Systems Thinker. 1998; 9(5):1-11.
  4. Smith, MK. Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Published 2003. Updated 2009. Accessed June 6, 2016.
  5. Polin LG. Graduate Professional Education from a Community of Practice Perspective: The Role of Social and Technical Networking. In: Blackmore C, ed. Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. 1st London, UK: Springer; 2010:163-178.
  6. Li LC, Grimshaw JM, Nielsen C, Judd M, Coyte PC, Graham ID. Evolution of Wenger’s concept of community of practice. Implement Sci. 2009; 4(11):1-8.
  7. Dubé L, Bourhis A, Jacob R. The impact of structuring characteristics on the launching of virtual communities of practice. Journal of Organizational Change Management. 2005 Apr 1;18(2):145-66.
  8. Dubé L, Bourhis A, Jacob R. Towards a typology of virtual communities of practice. Interdisciplinary Journal of Information, knowledge, and management. 2006 Jan 1;1(1):69-93.
  9. Bourhis A, Dubé L, Jacob R. The success of virtual communities of practice: The leadership factor. The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management. 2005 Jul;3(1):23-34.
  10. Dubé L, Bourhis A, Jacob R. The impact of structuring characteristics on the launching of virtual communities of practice. Journal of Organizational Change Management. 2005 Apr 1;18(2):145-66.