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What is a community of practice?

Parts of this article originally appeared on

The term ‘community of practice’ wasn’t coined until the 1990s, but it describes a phenomenon as old as society itself. A community of practice is any group of people with a shared interest who, by interacting, learn from one another and hone their abilities to further their individual development and, ideally, the development of the field.

According to the academics who defined it, Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, a community of practice has three ingredients:

Domain: A shared interest, topic, or skill that defines the group beyond mere friendship or network. A coalition of neighbors is probably not a community of practice; a coalition of neighbors with a shared interest in local bird watching might be. 

Community: A network of connected individuals who regularly engage in dialogue about their domain. This could be in person in a particular place, or virtually and asynchronously, or a combination.

Practice: The members of the community are practitioners who put their knowledge, learning, and ideas into action, then bring their discoveries back to the group to help improve the knowledge of the collective.

How Communities of Practice Function in the Workplace

In a big organization, it’s possible to find communities of practices in all kinds of configurations: maybe there’s an informal group of new managers who meet to trade notes over lunch, or a more formal learning cohort designed to help early career employees share and explore new skills. Employee resource groups often function as communities of practice dedicated to dismantling systemic inequities and improving inclusion.

A community of practice might also form organically around a shared interest and then grow as more people who share that interest contribute their ideas to help develop a new idea or skill. At Microsoft in 2012, long before the company was known for their close partnership with OpenAI, a single researcher started a small email newsletter focused on machine learning and its applications, just as a matter of personal interest. Over the next eight years, it would grow to an internal community of 7,000 Microsoft employees — and Microsoft would emerge as a leader in ML and other artificial intelligence technologies.

How A Community Of Practice Is Different From A Team Or Working Group

Teams and working groups within an organization absolutely learn and grow together, but they are oriented around goals and outputs beyond learning. A community of practice doesn’t exist to launch a new product or implement a new campaign, it only exists to further the group’s knowledge around a specific area.

As a result, communities of practice exist somewhat outside of day-to-day work, but still act indirectly on business outputs and deliverables, both by enhancing the knowledge and skill of its members and by encouraging practitioners to develop intellectual curiosity as a habit, which provides a powerful intrinsic motivation for excellence and innovation in daily work.

The Benefits Of Having Communities Of Practice

Communities of practice offer many benefits to participants and to broader institutions. Not only do individuals hone their professional skills as practitioners, they also grow their networks and build a wider range of weak and strong ties across functions and teams. This is particularly important in remote workplaces, which can develop insular team dynamics with fewer cross-functional connections and friendships.

Communities of practice also serve the important function of breaking down knowledge silos by helping people collectivize and synthesize shared knowledge. That’s a huge benefit to the broader organization — silos are extremely costly for businesses, consuming about 2.5 hours of employee time per day in duplicative processes and causing an estimated 24% drop in productivity.

How To Make A Community Of Practice Remote Or Hybrid

In a workplace, communities of practice are likely to be virtual or hybrid. That's especially true now that many more people work remotely all or part of the time, but was already true before the rise of remote work in large organizations with many distributed offices. To bring people together in a virtual space, it's important to have one (or more likely, several) structured digital spaces where people can come together, including one space for live conversation, and one for asynchronous updates. 

Gatheround is a video meeting platform designed to bring people together to collaborate and share knowledge in a live, virtual setting. Hundreds of teams and companies — like Gusto's frontline managers — already use Gatheround to bring practitioners together and give them a venue to share new learnings, ideas, and resources through prompted peer learning.

With dozens of easy-to-use templates, Gatheround makes it simple to set up a community of practice for success. Check out some of our off-the-shelf options for structuring a community of practice:

  • Manager Training Program: Designed for managers, this purpose-built community of practice helps leaders at every level navigate the unique challenges of people management while sharing insights and learning with peers.
  • Early Leadership Training Program: For new leaders and aspiring leaders, this series introduces some of the foundational skills and concepts that shape great leaders, and invites participants to expand their knowledge and put it into practice.
  • Year 1 Connections: For recent hires in their first year on a team, this series helps new additions navigate onboarding, new responsibilities, and the process of finding their role in the broader organization, alongside a supportive community of colleagues. 

For more ideas to kickstart your community of practice, check out our entire library of hundreds of templatized and fully customizable agendas. 

How To Design A Community Of Practice

Communities of practice are more of an art than a science. According to Etienne Wenger, “Successful managers bring the right people together, provide an infrastructure in which communities can thrive, and measure the communities’ value in nontraditional ways. These tasks of cultivation aren’t easy, but the harvest they yield makes them well worth the effort.”

Gatheround is designed to further improve the odds that a community of practice will flourish. With dozens of ways to participate, along with interactive activities that spark connections, get people talking, and reinforce new ideas while strengthening relationships — Gatheround guarantees that practitioners have all the structure and support they need to learn together and build on their skills.  

Ready to get started on your own community of practice?

Join a demo today! Or email us at to learn more.