Communities of practice

Download our learning paper 'Enabling change through communities of practice'

What is a community of practice?

Communities of practice facilitate peer-based, collaborative learning between people with shared interests. Communities often form around entrenched, complex problem-areas for which there are likely to be multiple solutions or approaches. The ‘social learning’ nature of communities of practice ensures that competency is defined and developed collaboratively, offering valuable opportunities for new ways of working to be tested and honed, and what is understood as ‘good practice’ to be continually pushed to new limits.

There are three key elements of a community of practice:

  1. Domain - the shared focus of the community
  2. Community - through regular interaction, the community develops strong working relationships based on trust, reciprocal learning, and shared accountability
  3. Practice - community of practice members use what they have learned to develop their practice in meaningful and experience-based ways

National communities of practice

Wellbeing Our Way’s communities of practice brought together people from charities and community organisations, alongside those with direct experience of using health and care services, to share learning and challenge around a range of person- and community-centred approaches.

Each community aimed to:

  1. Enable people within the community to increase their knowledge, skills, confidence and motivation, in order to develop their own practice
  2. Make a contribution to the wider voluntary sector by sharing knowledge and expertise

The national communities of practice focused on:

  • Care and support planning
  • Supporting self-management
  • Peer support
  • Engaging people in shaping health and care support
  • Person-centred information and helplines

Place-based communities of practice

From October 2016, we also facilitated two place-based communities of practice across Greater Manchester, focusing on peer support and supported self-management. This approach was based in our experience of facilitating national communities of practice, with some important distinctions:

  • The communities were ‘place-based’ – meaning that their focus was on developing practice and relationships across Greater Manchester, identifying and building on regional strengths and opportunities.
  • The communities were voluntary and community sector-led while including colleagues from statutory health and care services, alongside people living with long-term health conditions or caring responsibilities.This extended membership reflected the partnership opportunities offered by health and social care devolution, alongside a genuine commitment to developing partnership working as a basis for developing coordinated, preventative approaches to health and wellbeing across the region.

What we learned

  • Co-design is time well spent
  • The most successful communties pushed the boundaries of existing knowledge and expertise
  • Having a clearly defined goal in mind, and having team- or organisation-wide commitment to trialling new approaches, makes it more likely that a community of practice member will be able to create change in their organisations
  • Great facilitation enables creative thinking and increased confidence
  • A careful balance between ‘solving the problem’ and ‘capturing the opportunity’ is needed to generate energy within a community
  • Identifying specific expertise within communities of practice leads to inspirational learning around diverse aspects of practice
  • Defining the scope of the ‘domain’ is essential (and challenging!)
  • Involving senior leaders ‘makes space’ for change
  • Communities of practice may have a natural time limit
  • The success of place-based communities depended on them being locally owned and led
  • Partnerships which span national and regional interests bring unique value


Download our learning paper 'Enabling change through communities of practice'