Social media allows friends, family, and co-workers to easily stay connected. Those same tools can be used to establish a community of practice (CoP) where participants connect to nurture and learn from one another.

"Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

CoPs are organized either formally or through happenstance. They may focus on promoting a business, or on training and professional development, or even on a hobby or topic. Membership in a CoP requires a passion for the community’s domain, a willingness to contribute to its knowledge base, and application of new skills. Both novices and experts have insights to contribute.

Why participate in a CoP?

CoPs may be organized by an organization. Participants may work in the same job role within an organization. These communities mentor new hires, disseminate processes and best practices to a large group, solve emerging problems, and engage in continuous improvement initiatives. Participants can share stories about challenges, collaborate on tasks, and share resources. These activities promote life-long learning and an environment of cooperation.

While many CoPs focus on institutional roles, they need not be limited by geography or organizational departments. Communities can connect multiple departments where members experience strategies used by others. CoPs can include members from multiple organizations, nurturing cooperation between business and government, education and business, professionals and volunteers. Communities can connect participants in different cities, regions, and even nations. Membership can be dynamic when members influence the group’s structure and direction. So even if you establish a formal CoP, be prepared for it to evolve and develop subgroups on its own.

How can you establish a CoP?

CoPs can be planned through a formal process. For example, employees attend training where they collaborate to apply new skills for solving new problems. After completion of the training, you establish an online forum to support participants as they apply the training in unique situations.

CoPs can also emerge spontaneously. Teachers can discuss common challenges, such as classroom management, during their lunch break. Software engineers can discuss code they submit to an open source project with others contributing to similar projects. Professionals can share resources and ask for guidance on LinkedIn discussions. These communities emerge without support from any institution. Yet even these spontaneous, participant-driven communities maintain passion for their domain, active participation, and contributions to the body of knowledge.

Many suggest using multiple approaches for establishing a CoP to address past experience with social media and multiple learning styles. These suggestions can get you started:

  • Social bookmarkingSocial bookmarking takes the individualized practice of saving URLs in Favorites to a social level. Instead of bookmarking on one computer, with social bookmarking you save by keywords in a cloud application. Therefore, if you want to locate a site on a team member’s computer during a meeting, you log into your social bookmarking site, enter your password, and search by keywords.You can also set up private (or public) groups for your CoP. For example, everyone in your CoP may be interested in social media for marketing. You set up a group for your community where all members can add links that all can access. Even better, with some social bookmarking applications, such as Diigo, you can highlight and add sticky notes to sites that all group members can see. View this video for more information:Diigo improving how we find, share, and save information.

  • BlogsYou can take two approaches with a community blog. You can publish scheduled entries, where members subscribe to email notifications or access through an RSS feed. This is a “push” approach. Another approach is to send a “teaser” email containing the entry’s introduction followed by a link to the blog for more information. If the email recipient isn’t interested, she deletes. If she is, she accesses the blog to continue reading. This is a “pull” approach.
  • Private LinkedIn groups*Spontaneous CoPs can emerge within larger LinkedIn groups. You can also establish your own LinkedIn group specifically for your CoP. It’s simple. Log into LinkedIn and select Create a Group from the Groups drop-down menu. Populate the form and select Create a Members-Only Group. Such a group can function as your CoP’s discussion forum. Individual members can personalize their options for receiving notification of new posts.This approach is simple to implement and intuitive for group members. You can encourage active participation by posting questions, asking for further clarification, and establishing a social presence. Launch the group with an introduction or ice-breaker activity. Establish social connections first to promote a sense of trust, then participants will feel more comfortable contributing to problem-solving and mentoring activities. * by Christopher Pappas: I highly encourage you to join one of our LinkedIn Group
    1. Instructional Design & E-Learning Professionals' Group 35k+
    2. Freelance in Instructional Design and E-Learning Industry 5k+
    3. E-Learning Companies 3.2K+
    4. Rapid e-Learning 2,6K+
    5. Moodlers 1K+
    6. Moodlers Online 3,8K+)
  • CurationMuch like social bookmarking, curation allows communities to archive sites of interest. Curating sites such as Pinterest and ScoopIt serve open communities. You can invite friends to follow your Pinterest board(s) but as a public site, anyone can search for your “pins”. ScoopIt is public, also. Public curation can add multiple perspectives to a CoP from outside comments on a pin or scoop. Additionally, community members can search for other boards and scoops to broaden their exposure.

Involve management in any social media initiative. Use input from the community to improve processes, increase employee motivation, and provide insight on the organization’s mission. Developing online CoPs can move training and problem-solving beyond onsite meetings. CoPs can provide continuous improvement through an organic collaborative process.