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What is the lifecycle of a Community of Practice?
Communities are not static: over time, from the germination of an idea, they will grow, develop and eventually decline. Progress and decline will not be even: it might be fast or even meteoric at the start, followed by a period of slow and steady growth, and finally a quick failure or a long-lasting and steady decline. In the literature, you will see many distribution curves and many different names for different stages of the community lifecycle, but they will all be essentially similar in that they all start with an idea and they all end with an idea whose time has passed.
The lifecycle consists of five stages:
Why is the Community Lifecycle important?
You need to be aware of the lifecycle of a community because it is important to set expectations for people who are new to building a community. No two communities are the same. No two communities go at the same pace. Although these are typical stages you'd see in a community, how each community goes through them can differ significantly. Also, your community activities will differ at different stages in the lifecycle so it is important to know about the life cycle and where your community is in the cycle.
How do you use the Community Lifecycle?
Communities are not static but are dynamic, they grow and decline, and require different activities at different stages of their cycle: your activities at the beginning of the life cycle, when you are trying to find and attract new members, are different to those of a more mature community when you will be ensuring that you are on the right track, that your community leadership is not getting stale or burnt out, and that you are getting enough of the right content to continue to interest, excite and sustain the community. The framework helps you gauge the most appropriate set of activities for any given stage in the cycle.
It all starts with an idea. It could be an idea from your manager: It might be something like "We need to better connect with X, Y, Z clients" or "we need to figure out how to exchange knowledge with our counterparts in other regions". It could be your own idea: “I think that this issue could really be helped using a community of practice.” It could be a joint idea from a group of your friends or fellow professionals: “This conference has been amazing, and it’s been great meeting all of you; let’s keep the conversations going.”
You as the Community Leader or Community Manager (see Community Roles) will have a vague idea of what the community is about and for what reason, who should be in it, and how you’re going to meet, and record and distribute conversations and content. See Purpose, People, and Practice. Test the waters and validate the concept before going further, but it will all start with an idea.
Next, start to seek out like-minded professionals who are equally committed to the vision. These individuals might form the basis of the Core Team who will drive vision and strategy from hereon. Start small with maybe a few regular meetings and then choose in-person and online spaces in which to meet. Start to search for a few more individuals committed to the goals and objectives. These individuals will be amongst the most committed contributors and may form the basis of the Core Group.
During the growth stage you will be recruiting more members, generating more content, establishing deeper relationships, creating greater trust between members, and really establishing a Sense of Community. You will be building on confidence and optimism and will start to establish a certain cadence of activities (monthly newsletters, events (see Member Engagement Event Planning), knowledge-sharing activities, Friday fun days, and so on).
At the maturity stage, the community will have a well-established personality. You will be building relationships with other related communities. You will be focused on developing the practice and expertise of your members. You will be able to clearly demonstrate impact to your sponsor and stakeholders and to the organization in general. You will have a library of content and resources that can be drawn on and adapted to a variety of circumstances. You will have regular and recognized convening venues and be able to take advantage of and convene at other meeting spaces such as related industry and development conferences. To explorer maturity models in greater depth, see The Community Roundtable Maturity Model.
This stage is interesting because a community can go in different directions.
It might be that a community is so successful that it really needs to specialize more. Its original goals might have been exceeded but it is not satisfying its membership who might have grown fairly large and that there is a greater desire from some members to specialize. And so the original community will divide – these divisions might secede from the original organization or may stay within an umbrella organization while concentrating on its own specialties. You might find these subdivisions based on region, or language, or domain disciplines, for example within architecture, with subgroups concentrating on commercial, residential, industrial or institutional developments.
It might also be that the community goes into decline and eventually is abandoned. There might be several reasons for this, for example, the community might have remained too dependent on its founders who have now moved on without leaving behind any viable succession plan. The focus of the members might have moved to other areas and the community no longer provides the value it used to. The focus and funding of the sponsors might have changed. The community might have been too closely tied to a project, and now that the project is over, the community is no longer of value.
In both cases, the content provided by the community will still of course be of value, but now only as a library, not a community. Also, the memories will live on and might even be the spark for a revived or completely new community with a new generation of founders and members.
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.