Roles in CoP’s Revisited: Purposes, Characteristics, and Types

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(This is the second post in a series of six that is a revision of a post I wrote on ATD’s “Learning Circuit’s Blog” on June 10, 2006 entitled “Roles in CoP’s” in which I introduced the 4L Model of Roles in Online Communities.)


One of the key characteristics of a community – online or face-to-face – is that it has a purpose. Wenger defines communities as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Communities form and grow when new members are attracted to participation by the purpose of the community as it manifests through its activities, content, and members.

These days there are online communities for pretty much anything you can think of. It doesn’t matter what the purpose a community has. What matters is that all members know what it is and are working together toward it. A community’s purpose is the glue that holds it together and the beacon that attracts new members.

You may have noticed I’ve changed my discussion from Communities of Practice (CoP’s) to simply online communities. While many of the principles and practices of communities apply regardless whether they are online, face-to-face, or a mix of the two; narrowing this discussion to online communities allows some efficiency in the discussion. Also, the innovation in the workplace has been the emergence of communities based online.

Finally, Communities of Practice is a specific type of community. (For a complete definition of CoP’s check out There are various types of communities which our organizations can use to drive learning both in and outside the walls of our offices.

Characteristics of Communities

Before I move to types of communities, I think it’s helpful to look at the characteristics of online communities. In his discussion of communities in The Social Leadership Handbook 2/e, Julian Stodd provides a concise characterization of communities by identifying where they fit on three scales (visible to hidden, formal to social, and internal to external). What I like about his categorizations is they avoid characterizing communities by transactions (ie, member/non-members, refereed content/contributed content, etc.). His categories are continuums with numerous combinations possible.

Visible/Hidden – This scale describes how much of the community’s activity, content, and membership is openly available to a wider community beyond. Some communities are completely hidden because they are focused on a defined membership, event, or project. Hidden communities encourage candid sharing and provide safe places to disagree and try new ideas and processes. Totally visible communities have no barriers to participation, access to content and other members.

Most communities fall somewhere in between with part of the community “for members only” and other areas open to the public or the organization as a whole. One example of a hybrid community is the Community Roundtable. On one level, it is an open resource center with a nice array of content available to anyone interested in online communities, but the real community activity is only available to members (who have to meet a set of criteria and pay a membership fee). I’m a lurker in this community, learning from the public content that is the product of the community’s activities.

Formal/Social – This scale has to do with where the power sits, the governance, and control. In a formal community, a sponsoring organization may be providing funding because it created the community to meet specific organizational needs. They might provide staff and control the content. (Although too much control by any person or group can kill off a community quickly.) In other formal communities, membership may be restricted to specific groups of people and/or activities may be prescribed to meet the purpose of the community.

In a totally social community the members set the agenda, any leadership roles are voluntary and likely rotate regularly. Those who wish to participate in a totally social community may need to register with the community, but this is usually a technical consideration to set up an identity in the community. If the community has expenses, they may be covered by nominal membership fees, donations, or advertising revenue.

A good example of a hybrid community along this continuum is Github. This community for developers hosts some of the world’s largest open source tools (including the xAPI specification) providing a common structure and protocol that is open for any project while also including for-fee closed, secure spaces for non-open source tools. Access to GitHub is available to anyone. Participation is limited only by your knowledge and it is filled with folks who will patiently help you learn – if you are authentically willing to work. I’m somewhere between a lurker and learner on. GitHub.  I have learned about specifics of the xAPI specification via content posted in Github and I’ve downloaded a couple of open source tools.  I say I’m a lurker/learner because I’ve been learning from the community, but not with the community.

Internal/External – this scale is about where a community seeks to draw its membership from and the scope of its purpose. Internal communities may be formed by a company for a project, a change management initiative, or to connect a franchise network. Often they will focus on proprietary issues to be held confidential within the organization. External communities are set up either by an organization to empower, engage, or learn from the marketplace or their customers.  Communities of interest are often not part of any organization – forming completely on their own.

Hybrid communities are common along this scale, combining organizational content, context, and control with customer and user feedback.  Microsoft’s customer support communities or Articulate’s E-Learning Heroes are two examples.

Types of Online Communities

If you google “types of communities” you’ll see quickly that there is no real agreement on what types of communities there are.  I do believe that the above conversation about characteristics of communities may help in reducing the noise regarding types of communities.  In the end, true communities are individual and unique from any other community but there is some benefit in setting a few broad types.

Communities of Practice – These communities are formed to create and build together.  They can be focused on a specific project or missioned with identifying and solving a problem.  Others may be formed to advance the practice of a field or a segment of an organization.

Examples Activities: Sharing of best practices, areas to share and co-create content, project management tools, process and procedure documentation, meeting scheduling and documentation, curated resource list, roster of participant profiles.

Communities of Purpose – These communities are formed to advocate for a position or cause.  They are focused on evangelizing an idea by joining members together to plan and create resources to advance a common cause.  A community created to drive enterprise-wide culture change or promoting a new product or service would be examples.

Example Activities: Testimonials and reviews, creation of position statements and white papers, creation and presentation of webinars, defining and evangelizing mission, vision, and principles, training of newcomers and customers/audience, community-based FAQ, curation of lessons learned.

Communities of Interest – These communities are formed to share ideas, best practices, and experiences.  They are focused on advancing concepts and connecting people who share common interests.  Professional communities, customer support communities, and advocacy communities are examples of communities of interest.

Example Activities:  Rating and ranking tools, sharing of expertise/techniques/knowledge, new feeds, media reviews, summaries and photos from in-person activities (meetups, presentations, etc.), polls/surveys, curation of appropriate content, directory of members, games and quizzes to test members and potential members about their knowledge of topic of the community.

Learning Communities – While all communities are in some way about learning, these communities are usually formed for a specific learning experience and are usually closed to invited attendees only.  They can be used especially in situations where the learning experience is focused on soft skills like building trust, negotiating mean, understanding the power of diversity, and dealing with ambiguity.

They can be organized as one of the types listed above or be a combination of all three.

Learning communities are created to provide a safe place for participants to learn, challenge, and fail with each other in order to further their knowledge and skills in a specified area of content.  Participation is limited in order to create a safe environment for experimentation, discovery of new ways of thinking and behaving, practice of new skills, and sharing of opinions and new, incomplete ideas.

Example Activities: sharing of expertise via webinars, links, team challenges, newsfeeds, coaching and mentoring by facilitators and experts, networking, co-creation of content, participant lead teach-back sessions, scenario-based learning, project-based learning, and event-based, experiential learning,

All four types of online communities can serve learning and development outcomes.  Choosing the type of community and establishing where they fit in the characteristic spectrums I’ve discussed varies depending upon the purpose the community is created to fulfill.

In the next four posts, I’ll explore the 4L roles in online communities starting with Linking.

YOUR TURN: What do you think about online communities?  Must they be focused on a purpose?  Are there any other scales of characteristics of communities I should add?  What are your thoughts on my categorization of types of online communities?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Previous posts in the series:

Coming posts in the series:


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