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Communities of practice

The community of practice (CoP) concept has been largely attributed to Etienne Wenger, but it is not a new idea. In fact, Wenger argues that it has been around since human beings chose to group together and form societies. Wenger’s definition of a CoP is ‘a model of situational learning, based on collaboration among peers, where individuals work to a common purpose, defined by knowledge rather than task’ (Wenger, 2002). Wenger’s work on the development of the CoP illustrates how learning occurs through a social network and the importance of this.

A community of practice has specific criteria which makes it so. There are differences between a CoP and, say, an informal network or committee. Communities of practice share three specific domains.

  1. Knowledge – a common body of knowledge within the community
  2. Community – commitment to forming a group for networking
  3. Shared practice – sharing of ideas, resources and strategies


In simpler terms, a community of practice can be described as a group of people who work together to achieve a common goal (but more than a team). The process of working together and sharing knowledge and resources can lead to an enriched learning experience as people are exposed to new ways of thinking and problem solving.

In the clinical workplace, a CoP could comprise health workers assigned to a particular department, clinic or practice. That team has been charged with the task of providing appropriate healthcare and could include in its membership: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists, administrative staff and learners from different professions and stages. Each brings to the CoP their own set of skills and knowledge, and through consultation, discussion and general interaction with one another provide a substantial body of knowledge and skills on which they can all draw.

Learners become part of the CoP and move along the novice to expert trajectory through the process of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (LPP). As proto-health professionals, they are legitimately allowed to be in the environment (on placement), they have a special, defined status (they might wear uniform, lanyards or other identifying apparel), and they have a particular role with rules around what they can and can’t do. They therefore participate on the periphery until they become a full member of the CoP through displaying certain behaviours, gaining experience, passing examinations, etc. 

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