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5 Top Tips for Starting Up an Online Community of Practice – Part 1: Planning

The first of a two-part article exploring how communities of practice (CoPs) can take place in an online environment

Communities of Practice are a great way to learn! A social form of learning, CoPs bring people together on an ongoing basis with a common purpose or passion to learn from each other

CoPs can also take place online, but before you embark on an online community of practice, there are a few things that you might want to consider. 

Here are five things you should take into account when planning an online CoP.   

1. Picking a time

Find a convenient time to run the CoP, whether that be during the day or on an evening. One hour is an optimal time to schedule your CoP for. This provides a good length of time to explore a topic but also enables conversations to tail off naturally, rather than prolonging the discussion.


Online v Face to Face CoP:

Online CoPs don’t require people to travel to meet up face to face. How could this impact the learning experience? 


2. Selecting a platform 

There are many different platforms available to host your CoP and most provide a range of similar features. So, choosing which platform to use is likely down to personal preference, as long as the platform has easy access for those taking part and is secure.

Some features are worth considering: 

Can you see everyone on screen? Platforms such as Teams and Zoom are good for this. 

Breakout groups can be a useful addition to a social learning experience. Remo is another platform that offers this option. If your numbers are high or you want people taking part to enjoy a more intimate discussion, using a breakout room function can really enhance the experience.

It is worth considering the size of groups and who goes with who. Do they know each other? And also consider the purpose of the breakout. Is it to discuss a set topic or for the group to chat more informally or ask each other questions?

Ease of connection can also play a part. Platforms like WebEx have many great features but require a link to be set up, sent out and then a login process. Other platforms like Zoom are easier to ‘click to join’.  


Some platforms offer good features for you, the host. Being able to ‘mute all on entry’ for example can ensure the connection at the start of the experience is managed and makes for less technical issues to deal with. 


Online v Face to Face CoP:

Online CoPs require the use of breakout rooms to enable several smaller discussions to take place at the same time, whereas these conversations happen more naturally in a face to face meet-up. How could this affect the learning experience?


3. How to facilitate… or not!

As part of your CoP, you may have a facilitator – someone who helps to provide some structure and guide the discussions. When planning your CoP, you will need to consider whether to have a facilitator or not and who this might be. The facilitator doesn’t have to be the person who set up the CoP, it can be anyone involved. It also doesn’t have to be the same person each time.

As part of the planning phase, it is useful for the facilitator to consider what they would like attendees to do during the CoP, such as ask questions, contribute thoughts and ideas or perhaps even just listen. These expectations can then be relayed to attendees at the start so that everyone gets the most out of the CoP. 


How can rapport be built in an online environment to enable people to be more comfortable to join in discussions? 


4. Selecting a topic 

A big question you might need to answer is how to decide on the topic(s) of conversation at the CoP. Should there be a pre-determined topic or is it better to leave it more open and fluid to let people discuss what they would like to?  

If there is a pre-determined topic, people know what to expect and can think about what they might want to contribute. A pre-determined topic may also help the facilitator to come up with a structure for the session or questions to pose to encourage discussion. Alternatively, a pre-determined topic might prevent people from joining if they think the topic isn’t relevant to them. 

5. Choosing a format 

Some structure of timings/activities for your CoP can be useful as they help to keep people on track and ensure that your CoP covers everything you set out to do. For example, the first 10 minutes might be used by the facilitator to outline the purpose of the discussion and to kickstart the conversation before getting into the discussion. Planning an element of flexibility is also important though to ensure conversations are fluid and your CoP meets members’ needs.   

Using an expert to present their findings or ideas can be useful but be careful this isn’t just a presentation in disguise! Allowing questions to the expert can be really valued by those taking part.   

On the other hand, some of the richest experiences come about through discussing members’ questions, reflections and sharing real-life experiences. From sharing resources, to ideas for practice, the immediate impact of this can be great. Conversely, some people tend to not contribute at all in this scenario. This could be due to a lack of interest, relevance or both.

Another idea for a format is to host a reflection session about the topics covered in previous CoP meetups. This is something that can work well for familiarity, revisiting topics and allowing reflection or application of the topics to provide a stimulus for discussion.  

The format should suit the audience and what they want and need at that moment. For example, people need to be currently practicing to input real problems, and the experience level of the group can impact on the ideas and solutions generated.  

No matter the format, setting the scene at the start of the CoP helps to frame the conversation before starting the discussion. 

The use of a priming stimulus can be useful to provoke thought and ideas. However, be careful not to overload people with too much to do here. For example, a research paper to read might be welcomed by some but put off others. 

Have a go

Next time you are planning a CoP, why not try out one of the formats above?


Our infographic (right) provides more information about why CoPs are a great way to learn and how you can set one up.

Download it below. 

Read Part 2

Now you have a plan in place, here are 5 top tips for delivering a CoP

Learn More

Related Resources

  • 5 Top Tips for Starting Up a Community of Practice

  • Getting Your Community of Practice Members Ready

  • Developing People to Lead a Community of Practice


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