Blog » A Framework for Communities of Practice: Purpose-People-Practice

A Framework for Communities of Practice: Purpose-People-Practice

Created Mar 22 2021, 6:25 PM by Communities Reinvented
  • Fundamentals of CoPs


  • The three elements of the Community of Practice Framework are: purpose, people, and practice. These elements are not static; they change over time.
  • Every Community of Practice needs to know why its members wish to connect, what information they hope to find, how best to make those connections and provide that information.
  • To best use the Framework start with purpose, that is, the end in mind, setting initial strategic goals and objectives. Next,  identify and invite the people you want to join the community. Finally co-develop the practice that will motivate members to engage.


What is a Community of Practice Framework?

Communities of Practice (CoPs) can take many forms and consist of many elements. However, the three basic building blocks that this Community of Practice Framework focuses on are the: 

  • Purpose of the community (what it does and why it exists), 
  • People that form the community (the who of the community, including stakeholders), and 
  • Practice by which the community functions (how the community organizes itself, its operating principles, its governance mechanisms).


Why is a CoP Framework important?

Every Community of Practice needs to know why its members wish to connect and what information they hope to find in it. If a community provides content that is not of interest to its intended audience, or is set to achieve goals that are either irrelevant or in conflict with the interests of its members, it will not be successful. 

Every Community of Practice needs to have the right members in it - if you have uninterested or uncommitted members, or members whose needs are not being met by the content being provided, the community is not going to be successful.

Every Community of Practice needs to know how it is going to carry out its practices, processes, governance, convening venues (how, when, and where  it will meet), its documentation guidelines (where and how files will be stored and accessed) for a community to be sustainable and successful. 


How do you use the Framework?

The recommended flow is 1) Purpose, 2) People, and 3) Practice. Always start with purpose, that is, the end in mind, setting initial strategic purpose and goals. Next, identify the people that you want to invite to join your community" and convene to achieve your goals. (Note that "you" in this context is not one person but a group of people, generally the Core Team.) Then co-develop the practice that will motivate and continue to motivate members to engage. 

NOTE: When beginning to define the Purpose, People, and Practice, use the Community Charter to capture the responses to these questions as you define the components of each of these three elements.


Purpose includes domain (what the community is going to be talking about and collaborating on), as well as the reason for doing so, that is, the goals or outcomes the community wants to achieve.

  • Domain – With regard to domain, ask the following types of questions: What is your subject matter? What issues are we concerned with? Is it basic or advanced? What’s in it for the organization? What’s in it for members? Why should members care? Is there any group addressing these concerns or will this community be the only one? Is there a plethora of similar communities but no umbrella organization coordinating activities? Is there an umbrella organization but this particular niche of issues is not being addressed?

  • Goals – With regard to goals, ask the following types of questions: Why are you doing this and what are you trying to achieve? If you have goals, how will you know that you have achieved them? What in fact does success look like? What are the goals of members for themselves and for the organization in general and is there sufficient alignment to make this community sustainable in the long run?

If you do not have at least initial answers to these questions, it is unlikely that you are going to be able to attract members to your community, or if they do join, they might not stick around.


Community is all about people. Everything a community does is done by the members. A thriving community needs their full engagement and motivation. For this reason you need to clearly know who your members are and what they need to make sure that the community will provide a valuable experience to them.

  • Members - With regard to members, ask the following types of questions: Who will be in this community? Who will not be invited to this community? What kind of background and characteristics are you looking for – bigger or advanced? Junior or senior? 

Will there be a Core Team and a Core Group and who will the members be? The Core Team and Core Group are made up of your most active members. It is key to get the right members with especially the highest level of commitment into these groups.

Should the community be homogenous or heterogenous? Within an organization or across organizations? Within an agency or inter-agency? Professionals with formal titles aligned with the domain or anybody expressing an interest? Public vs private access? By invitation only vs open to all? Once the community gets going, what are the different roles in the community and who will occupy those roles? 

  • Stakeholders - With regard to stakeholders, ask the following types of questions: Who is going to be providing funding? Who is the community accountable to? Who outside the community is going to be interested in what you are interested in? How encouraging is the host department or organization? Are they genuinely interested in your success or merely checking the community box.

Answers to all these questions or more will provide a solid basis on which to build a community of practice and attract committed, enthusiastic, qualified members who are in It for the long haul.


Having a good idea of the reason for the community and who is going to be in it, then start asking questions about what kind of procedures, the kinds and regularity of meetings and so on.

  • What - With regard to what, ask the following types of questions: What will be the output of the convenings? What documentation is the community going to produce and what kind of accessibility are we going to grant (open or restricted)? What kinds of documents is the community going to produce - toolkits, blogs, templates, tools, and learning products? What kind of training is going to be provided where members can get better at their practice, more skilled in their jobs? 

  • How - With regard to how, ask the following types of questions: How will governance be set up and administered? How will information be communicated – by email, by newsletter, by blog? How will documentation be stored and who will have access to it? What standards will the community adhere to? How should members conduct themselves – will there be a formal netiquette created, and how will it be enforced? 

  • Where - With regard to where, ask the following types of questions: Where will you meet online, face-to-face, or both? If online, where will we collaborate – via social media sites like Facebook or LinkedIn or on a World Bank collaboration platform like Collaboration For Development (C4D), or private proprietary platform like Khoros/Lithium, Vanilla, or Higher Logic? 

  • When - With regard to when, you need to ask the following types of questions: When will we meet – weekly, biweekly, monthly, or only at the annual conference? When will we communicate with members, and how often will the newsletter go out? When will we communicate with stakeholders, for example, every 6 months or only once per year?


How do the three elements interact over time?

Each of these elements is not static. They are always in flux and always interacting with each other. A community might be “stuck” in that the content is not being read and there is very little interaction between members. However, it might not be that the content is a problem, it might be that the membership has moved on: maybe the community needs new “blood.” So always be aware of all the elements and their interaction over time.

As Wenger points out in his seminal work “Cultivating Communities of Practice,” it is “important to develop all three elements iteratively. Focusing on one while neglecting others can be counterproductive. “For example, designing a knowledge base without a clear idea of domain or carefully chosen set of members “can easily produce a useless tool” – witness all the unused databases that communities have created. “Conversely, a community that does not focus on building a shared practice will remain a diffuse friendship group that may be socially satisfying but ineffective.” You are not trying to build a social club, you are trying to build a community of professional practitioners.

Developing these three elements is “a balancing act.” Think of it visually like a suspended Calder mobile in a constant state of movement – you touch one element and all the others respond. Goals change and funding increases and decreases. Members come and go; community leaders come and go. Platforms change – new collaboration technologies emerge. This flux and interaction is not a bad thing – the interaction between these elements should be seen as a healthy interaction just the way a sailor trims the sail and adjusts the rudder to adapt to the waves and wind, tacking here and there but all the while being focused on the ultimate goal of the community.

This article is part of the WBG Communities of Practice Toolkit licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The toolkit features practical resources to help you develop impactful Communities of Practice. 📖 Learn more about the Toolkit.  ▶ Access the Toolkit