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Virtual Communities of Practice

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What sort of health practitioner do you want to be? Nobody wants to be average, as Simon Carley tells us, so how do we go about growing?

In 2016, over forty medical practitioners from many different craft groups and professions gathered in Melbourne to learn to be better educators. We were there to benefit from the collective wisdom of the faculty and each other, but why did we need to? We had all identified deficiencies in our practices and areas where we could improve but still needed to find means to rectify them in our places of work. Perhaps we needed someone to guide or mentor us. And so we have looked outside ourselves for improvement.

Medics have been going on courses since time began to improve themselves. But what can you do if you cannot afford to attend a course or conference? How do you get better? That is what it is all about for me. It’s about being better – not better than anyone else, but better than I was yesterday, last week or last year. So, I want to share a way you could do that.

Salim Rezaie introduced me to the concept of the personalised learning network. It was a set of resources, whether websites, podcasts or people, that you trust and refer to. Like me, you can start your network or hive mind quietly, introvertedly, just by listening and looking.  Sign up for Twitter, follow a few people and lurk, listening to what they say.

If you ascribe to Siemens and Downes’s concept of connectivism, you’ll understand that the learner creates a network of connections that contribute to their professional and personal development. You may not be able to go up to someone and ask a question but social media platforms (such as Twitter) allow us all to make global connections. And through Twitter, I got involved with three people I had never met.

In 2013, I received an e-mail from Tessa Davis asking me if I wanted to join her, Henry Goldstein and Ben Lawton in creating a new thing – a project called Don’t Forget The Bubbles. The four of us were building our very own community of practice.

What is a community of practice?

Lave and Wenger (1991) defined a community of practice as a group of people who share a common interest and come together to learn and solve problems through regular interaction. They’re not a formal organisation that holds meetings with a set agenda, nor do they require membership fees or cards.

Instead, a community of practice is a flexible and informal group where members participate voluntarily and share their knowledge and expertise. This knowledge is not held by the upper echelons of scholarship but owned by the masses. They learn from each other, offer support and encouragement, and collaborate to deepen their understanding and improve their skills in their shared interest.

That’s what we were doing. We were building a website, post by post. We were all interested in paediatrics and wanted to help each other and the broader community answer some of the gnarly questions that you couldn’t find answers to in a textbook. Questions like – “How dangerous is a bris?” or “What happens if you swallow a piece of Lego?” Lave and Wenger viewed CoPs as a fundamental aspect of social learning, and we do too.

Communities of practice have three key elements:

1. Domain: This is the shared interest or area of expertise that defines the community. A common domain of knowledge or practice binds together members of the CoP. For the DFTB crew, this is paediatrics.

2. Community: This refers to the social aspect of the CoP. Members engage in ongoing interactions and relationships, building a shared identity and sense of belonging. We were not just three wannabe paediatricians (I’m still unsure what to classify myself as); we were Don’t Forget The Bubbles.

3. Practice: These are the activities and processes through which the CoP develops and shares knowledge. These practices may be explicit and tacit – the things that are said and the things that are unsaid. Wenger (2009) suggests nine activities that communities of practice might engage in:-

  • Meetings
  • Open-ended conversations
  • Projects
  • Access to expertise
  • Relationships
  • Content
  • Individual participation
  • Community cultivation
  • Servicing a context

In 2013, DFTB was a website. We wrote and published a couple of posts a week and set up a Twitter account to promote them. Over time, we expanded. We created videos, ran a conference or two, created online learning modules, and several online courses. All of these practices served our aim to help clinicians better look after the child in front of them. Explicit knowledge transfer occurs by pushing out information from the website, but how do you transfer tacit knowledge?

By sharing stories of how, why, what, and when, we become legitimate peripheral participants in transferring explicit and, more importantly, tacit knowledge – we co-create the knowledge that is hard to find in textbooks.

What is a virtual community of practice?

A virtual community of practice (CoP) is a group of individuals who share a common interest and engage through virtual interaction. This might, for example, occur in online forums, social media platforms, or video conferencing. In a virtual CoP, members connect and collaborate, share best practices, and work on projects together, despite being spread all over the globe.

We founded DFTB back in 2013. But it wasn’t until we hosted the first conference in 2017, in Brisbane, that the four of us met. Everything we had achieved up to that point, we had attained through our virtual community of practice

What is the difference between virtual and in-person CoPs?

Howard Rheingold – creator of the term virtual community – characterised them as “social aggregations that emerge from the Internet when enough people carry on public discussions long enough and with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace“.

Virtual communities of practice (CoPs) and in-person CoPs have some key differences in terms of their structure, communication channels, and ability to build a community.

Structure: In-person CoPs typically have a physical location or meeting place where members can gather and interact face-to-face. Virtual CoPs, on the other hand, do not have a physical location, and members interact primarily through digital channels. For example, imagine all of the attendees at one of our conferences as an in-person community of practice. The team that set it up, though, that was a virtual community.

Bourhis and Duba (2005) tried to create a typology, or blueprint, for the structure of a virtual community of practice. They considered the demographics of those involved, the organisational context, the membership and the technological requirements. These are not (other than the technical requirements) specific to virtual communities.

Most communities are not permanent but nomadic. Members come and go, platforms change, and the collective swells and then shrinks. They have no fixed lifespan, but self-sustaining ones tend to last longer (the Lindy Effect).

Communication channels: In-person CoPs rely on in-person communication, while virtual CoPs rely on digital communication channels, such as chat, email, and video conferencing. As anyone that has had a simple text message misinterpreted, this is fraught with risk. We started with simple e-mail before moving on to Basecamp, then Slack, Trello and now Discord. There will always be resistance to change, but as Jean-Luc Picard learnt in The Best of Both Worlds, resistance is futile.

Flexibility: Virtual CoPs are, perhaps, more accommodating. Participation can occur at any time and anywhere, as long as you have an internet connection. In-person CoPs, on the other hand, require members to be in a specific location at a specific time. This limits participation, making joining harder for those with other obligations. For example, joining an in-person meeting is much harder if you have to pick up the kids from school or care for a parent. One member from the Project ECHO End of Life Care group said…

“I think for my personal situation and being tied with the kids it was a lot easier knowing I could do it from home, without having to commit to days out of the house and arranging childcare, so it definitely made it easier

Hodge et al., 2022

Community building: Individuals in the localised community of practices are often well-known to each other. Establishing a sense of connectedness in person is easier. Creating the same level of cohesion in a virtual CoP requires more intentional effort though virtual communities provide an excellent opportunity to strengthen the ties made at in-person events.

Where traditional networks maintain their strength through the strong ties of their members, who might communicate regularly, the power of a virtual community relies on weak ties. According to social network theory, strong ties involve frequent interaction, emotional support, and shared interests or values. In addition, these relationships are often characterised by a high level of trust and reciprocity.

On the other hand, a weak tie refers to a more distant or casual relationship between individuals, such as an acquaintance or a colleague. Weak ties tend to involve less frequent interaction and may not involve emotional support, shared interests, or values. However, weak ties can be valuable in connecting individuals to a broader network of people and opportunities. They provide access to new information and resources that may not be available through strong ties.

As Ardichvili et al. suggest, virtual communities of practice have the potential to bridge “structural holes” by bringing together individuals from diverse professional groups who may not have previously participated in face-to-face assemblies.

How do virtual CoPs benefit members?

Transitioning a community of practice from the physical to the virtual offers a range of benefits:

Increased flexibility: We didn’t have to work and live in the same town or time zone. Meet-ups didn’t rely on the roster gods as most of our communication was, and still is, asynchronous. So we could still meet up if we worked in regional Australia, were on holiday in Canada or moving back to the UK.

As our community has expanded beyond the four of us, it doesn’t matter that the core team work in different hemispheres or that our authors span the time zones.

Access to diverse perspectives: Virtual CoPs often bring together members from diverse locations and backgrounds, allowing members to learn from each other and gain new perspectives.

In 2019, DFTB were set to run our first face-to-face course, DFTB Essentials. However, as news spread about an emerging pandemic, we decided to switch to a digital format rather than flush all of our hard work. This meant that instead of 150 people rocking up to the Studios in Birmingham, 1500 could press a button and join our online community to learn some of the fundamentals of illness and injury. In addition, by providing free access to LMICs, we interacted with many clinicians worldwide, from Costa Rica to Uganda. And although the practice of medicine may be very different, we all share the same domain of practice – paediatrics,

Expanded network: Virtual CoPs can provide members access to a broader network of professionals and experts than possible through in-person CoPs. Who knows what access to this broader network might accomplish?

As the world navigated the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual communities of practice became a vital source of knowledge-sharing and collaboration for professionals in various fields. The DFTB team recognised the value of such communities and leveraged ours to tackle the daunting task of collating a massive volume of COVID-19 papers.

Recognising that the task was too vast for us, we contacted our personal networks and formed a collaborative effort between colleagues in the UK and Australia. By pooling resources, expertise, and perspectives, we created a comprehensive resource that served as a model for similar initiatives across many institutions. The success of this collaborative endeavour highlights the power of virtual communities of practice to facilitate collective learning, problem-solving, and innovation, even in the face of complex and rapidly evolving challenges.

Time and cost savings: One of the primary benefits of virtual communities of practice is their potential to save professionals both time and money. Traditional in-person CoPs often require significant time and resources in travel and venue costs, which can deter many individuals. However, vCOPs eliminate these barriers by providing a virtual platform to connect and collaborate with peers from anywhere. This saves time and money associated with travel and venue expenses and allows for more flexible scheduling and participation. As a result, individuals can participate in valuable learning opportunities without disrupting their busy schedules or breaking the bank. However, it’s essential to remember that virtual events still incur costs, and it’s important not to assume that what’s affordable for one person is affordable for everyone.

Better knowledge sharing: Virtual CoPs can facilitate more efficient knowledge sharing, as members can easily share information and resources through digital channels, such as email or chat.

Even passive community members remain legitimate peripheral participants, benefiting from watching and listening to the ‘experts’ from the sidelines. Lurking in the shadows is just the first step along the path. They learn by orbiting in Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development,

Virtual communities also face challenges. Establishing trust and rapport with someone you may never have met in real life can be tricky. In addition, asynchronous contact can lead to potential communication breakdowns with limited opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

How do virtual CoPs benefit organisations?

Virtual communities of practice (CoPs) can offer a range of benefits to the organisation too:-

Increased adaptability: Virtual CoPs can help organisations to stay agile and adapt to change, as members learn from each other and share best practices. The Don’t Forget The Bubbles (DFTB) virtual community hosted a series of webinars that allowed clinicians worldwide to share their experiences, insights and knowledge on managing children with COVID-19 and, perhaps more importantly, how to look after themselves.

For healthcare workers in Australia, this was an opportunity to learn what was working and what was not from their overseas colleagues. This collaboration helped healthcare professionals to develop new ways of working, implement new protocols, and adapt to the rapidly evolving situation.

Increased collaboration: When members from diverse departments or locations participate in virtual communities of practice, they can collaborate on joint projects, fostering cross-functional cooperation and teamwork. These boundary-spanning groups offer the opportunity to share local and expert knowledge that may not be available in a single location.

By joining a virtual community, Johnson (2001) suggested, “the collaborative knowledge of the community is greater than any individual knowledge.” Learning progresses from the apprentice-master model to form what Mavri et al. (2020) would term a living curriculum.

An excellent example of how virtual communities of practice can foster collaboration and democratise knowledge is Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes). Project ECHO is a not-for-profit initiative using telehealth to create virtual communities of practice across six continents. Using videoconferencing, they link local, regional, and international experts to share ideas and discuss thorny issues. Gone is the notion that knowledge should be hoarded and secreted away by a select few. It is finally free.

Time and cost savings: Virtual CoPs can be less expensive than in-person CoPs. You no longer have to battle the rush hour to get to a meeting with coffee that is the consistency of brown dish water and stale sandwiches. It’s a win-win for all involved.

Improved employee engagement: By participating in a virtual CoP, healthcare workers can access a wealth of knowledge and expertise from their peers. This can help them to stay up-to-date with the latest research, trends and best practices in their field. In addition, these opportunities to learn and grow professionally can lead to greater job satisfaction.

Better staff retention: Virtual CoPs can help to retain employees by providing opportunities for career growth and development within the organisation. They can also offer opportunities to network with others in their field, including potential mentors and sponsors.

Barnett et al. describe the role that virtual communities of practice can have in countering the social isolation of remote and rural placements and the professional isolation of being away from the learning opportunities of one’s home base. When members are geographically diverse, such communities may increase moral resilience (according to Delgardo et al., 2021). Shared suffering and understanding can lead to what is termed collective resilience, as members of the community draw support from each other. We tried to provide this at the beginning of the COVID pandemic with a series of webinars and live discussions from around the world.

How can virtual CoPs facilitate knowledge sharing, learning, and innovation?

Virtual communities of practice (CoPs) can facilitate knowledge sharing, learning, and innovation in several ways:

Sharing best practices: Members can share best practices, tips, and tricks related to their work. This can help to improve their work and the work of others. Nearly every clinician has one particular thing they can do or talk about that would benefit many people if shared more widely. Rather than keep these ideas within the bunker of just one department, vCoPs, foster sharing of ideas. Perhaps you hadn’t considered the impact of metered dose inhalers on the environment, but once you read the blog post and shared it with your colleagues, you could set up a recycling bin in your emergency department.

Access to diverse perspectives: Virtual CoPs can bring together members from diverse locations and backgrounds, allowing members to learn from each other and gain new perspectives. They can help break the old school board of white, middle-aged cis men making decisions about things they have no lived experience.

Improved communication: Virtual CoPs can improve communication and information sharing within an organisation by providing a platform for members to share news and updates. You no longer have to suffer through the REPLY ALL email or sit through long in-person meetings. Instead, you get to choose when and how you communicate.

A vibrant virtual community provides a learning environment that supports knowledge sharing and innovation. By providing a platform for members to learn from each other, they can help foster a culture of growth and improvement. This, in turn, benefits the organisation as a whole.

How to create a virtual community of practice?

Delgardo et al.’s five-stage model proposes that all communities of practice (CoPs) undergo a predictable pattern of growth and evolution:

In the potential stage, individuals with shared interests or concerns come together to form a nascent CoP. However, the community is not yet fully formed, and its future direction is uncertain.

The fusion stage follows. The CoP begins to coalesce around a common purpose or objective. Members start to identify with the group and develop a shared language and culture. This stage is characterised by a sense of excitement and possibility as members explore the potential of the community.

The community then enters the maturation stage; the CoP becomes more established and structured. Members begin to share best practices and engage in more formalised learning activities. The community becomes more stable and self-sustaining.

It then morphs into the administration stage. Here, the CoP develops more formalised systems and processes to manage its activities. Roles and responsibilities are defined, and the community may create formal leadership positions.

Finally, it enters the transformation stage. The CoP has evolved beyond its original purpose. It may expand its scope or take on new challenges. The community continues to grow and adapt to changing circumstances.

There is no one size fits all approach to creating a virtual community of practice, but here are some things to consider along the way.

Choosing your platform

Choosing the right platform ensures that members can effectively engage and collaborate with each other. Consider the following:-

Purpose and goals: What is the actual point of your CoP? If it is all about networking, choose something that fosters chatting, such as Discord, Slack or WhatsApp. These platforms are designed for real-time chatting, facilitating quick conversations and exchanging ideas in a more casual setting. Additionally, they often have features such as group chats, direct messaging, and file sharing, making it easy for members to connect and collaborate.

If you are more focused on sharing papers and knowledge, consider a platform with a more robust search function and organisation system. Unfortunately, platforms like email or WhatsApp are not great, as messages can quickly become buried and shunted into the Black Hole. Instead, consider using Google Drive, Dropbox, or a shared folder on a cloud-based service. This lets members easily upload and access documents and resources.

User experience: Consider the user experience and choose one that is easy to use. The platform should be accessible to all members, regardless of their technical skills. It should be simple to use with clear instructions and guides on the features and functions. It helps if you can access the platform from a variety of devices. It seems that every healthcare network is using a different platform. I’ve had to learn Microsoft Teams, Moodle, Signal, Slack, WebEx, WhatsApp, and Zoom. I need it to be easy.

Security and privacy: Do you want an open or closed group? We debated this a lot as we moved from Slack to Discord. Our Slack group was closed, allowing us to talk about anything. We knew who was a group member as we had invited them, and we trusted that anything said in the group would be kept confidential.

We started our Discord server in a similar fashion, but as we expanded in size, we wanted to open it up to everybody that looked after children. This meant some compromises. We needed to ensure everyone was identifiable – no anonymity – so we clearly stated this ground rule. Anyone that breaks it is given a gentle reminder and then removed from the server if they fail to comply. We also wanted the community to feel safe discussing clinical cases, so we created private, closed spaces (#community-clinical) within the larger platform where this could occur. Only those members that had been identified as registered healthcare workers can gain entry.

Still, some platforms, such as Facebook, still cause concerns, even when all security measures are engaged (Lofters et al., 2016). They no longer become safe spaces for frank discussion.

Scalability: Consider the scalability of your chosen platform, and ensure that it can accommodate the growth of your CoP over time. The platform should be able to support many members and interactions without compromising performance. Platforms like WhatsApp work well for small groups but become unwieldy for more than five or six people.

Cost: How much does it cost? Consider the cost of your chosen platform and ensure that it fits your budget. Be sure to factor in ongoing expenses, such as maintenance and support fees. We started using BaseCamp and migrated to Slack, but as membership grew, we could not afford the USD5 per person fee. Some team members had experience using Discord for gaming, so we switched.

Whether your community runs on chat, discussion boards or webmail, you must carefully consider your needs when choosing a platform. Then, by selecting one that aligns with your objectives and provides a positive user experience, you can create a vibrant and engaging virtual community that supports knowledge sharing, learning, and collaboration.

Defining your purpose and scope

What is the reason for creating your CoP, and what do you hope to achieve? For example, you may want to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing or focus on a particular issue.

Identify the target audience: Who is your target audience? Who are the members that you want to engage? Understanding your audience will help you to tailor your CoP content and activities to their specific needs and interests.

Define your scope: What are the critical areas of expertise you want to focus on, and what specific topics do you want to cover? You may start focusing on one particular area and slowly expand. For example, we started our BaseCamp vCoP with the express scope of creating content and running this website. However, it has grown to deal with creating an MSc, writing papers and a book club! The more focus the group has then the more engaged the members are likely to be (Mairs et al., 2013) .

Probst suggests that successful CoPs need a sponsor to drive the formation of the network and set some clear objectives. These objectives can then provide a framework for community engagement.

Establish the rules and guidelines: What are the expectations for member behaviour and participation, and what are the consequences for non-compliance? Setting clear guidelines helps ensure that your CoP is a safe and supportive environment for all members. Are anonymous members allowed? Is swearing allowed?

Recruiting members

Leverage existing networks: Leverage your existing networks to recruit members. Reach out to colleagues, collaborators, and friends who may be interested in joining your CoP and encourage them to spread the word to their own networks.

Daniel, Schwier and McCalla suggest using the high social capital you have built up through in-person ties to recruit active members to the community. In addition, those frequent personal interactions cultivate reciprocity through which members want to help each other, extending into the online space.

Promote your CoP: If you want to create an open CoP, spread the word broadly via social media. Highlight the benefits of joining, such as access to valuable resources, opportunities for learning and collaboration, and the chance to connect with like-minded professionals.

Foster a sense of community: Foster a sense of community among CoP members by creating opportunities to connect and collaborate. Encourage them to share their stories and insights. They develop a social relationship that generates a sense of trust as they share and connect. That trust, Dubé et al. suggest, can take longer to build up with computer-mediated connections

Follow up with interested members: Follow up with members who express interest in joining your CoP and help them get started. Make new members feel welcome when they join in. Just like in many social networks, positive reinforcement can go a long way to making someone feel comfortable. Engagement increases the social capital of members. The pool of resources (in terms of knowledge and connections becomes more available. As ties strengthen, there is increased access to knowledge (and content experts). Members then get activated – they use – and share – those new resources, both in and outside the community. In addition, they are much more likely to join if they find something that fills their learning needs.

Offer incentives: Offer incentives for joining your CoP, such as exclusive access to content or resources, recognition for participation and contributions, or the chance to participate in special events or activities. Perhaps you can offer early access to online courses or priority tickets for a conference? You may provide exclusive content before it becomes available to a broader audience.

Dong et al.(2020) describe how simple rewards like virtual badges can drive prosocial behaviour and engagement. According to the status theory of collective action, the higher the status of an individual (because of recognition for prior works, for example), the more likely they are to feel positively disposed towards the group and contribute further. Those driven by self-interest benefit more from virtual rewards and peer recognition. In contrast, those more prosocially motivated are driven by social learning and becoming an opinion leader.

5 top tips for running a successful virtual CoP

Foster active participation: Virtual communities live and die based on the degree of participation of their members. If they are not engaged and active, the community may struggle to maintain momentum and ultimately wither away. To encourage participation, community leaders should actively seek to create opportunities for involvement and foster a sense of community.

This could include welcoming new members, recognising contributions, and promoting collaboration and networking. Members can deepen their understanding and improve their skills by creating an active and supportive virtual community while building strong connections with like-minded individuals. There needs to be ample opportunity for members to engage with one another and share their knowledge and expertise. This can take many forms, including live Q&As, webinars, discussion forums, and collaborative writing projects.

Membership in a virtual community of practice does not necessarily require active posting and responding. Typically, a core user group actively participates, while most members prefer to remain passive. Nevertheless, even passive members are considered legitimate peripheral participants and can still learn and benefit from their peripheral position within the community. According to Abos Mendizabal et al. (2012) 80% of respondents to a survey of their primary care community felt they were learning something despite 96% of them being lurkers.

Provide valuable resources: Provide resources that support learning and knowledge sharing. This may include articles, videos, or webinar recordings. The benefits of being a member need to be greater than the costs. Neus suggests that if the resources are not easy to access then …

The lively discussion that is the essence of a Community of Practice is squelched by a tool that was designed for information storage and retrieval, not for discourse and collaboration.

Neus, 2001

Maintain regular communication: Contact your CoP members through email updates, newsletters, and other channels. Keep them informed about upcoming events, new resources, and new events but be wary of the impact of hours spent online. We all know the dangers of Zoom fatigue.

Encourage collaboration and networking: Encourage collaboration and networking among members by providing opportunities to connect and work together. This can include virtual meetups and peer mentoring programs. In addition, we have specific channels on the DFTB Discord server for the authors and would-be authors. This is a place for them to share their works-in-progress, ask for help and share ideas for future blog posts.

As Daniel, Schwier and McCalla (2005) suggest, trust and connection formed from sharing strengthen the community.

Monitor and evaluate performance: What gets measured matters. Is your CoP doing what you set out to do, or has it morphed into something else? How do you measure success? This can be a tricky one to answer. Carley et al. (2017) rightly stress how user engagement data can show the penetration of web-based learning communities.

You cannot measure the success of a community by its size or by its output. I cannot say that Community X is more successful than community Y because they have 1000 more members (a problem evidenced by the debate around the Social Media Index). So how can you measure your success?

Researchers have used Social Network Analysis to look at the strength of relationships within a network. By examining both the ties between actors within the network, and the direction of knowledge flow, they are able to graphically place any one individual in the context of the whole. The more ties an individual has, the closer they are to the centre. They have more influence (because they have more ties) and access to greater resources. But is that success?

We like to measure success by the stories we are told.

Best practices for virtual communities of practice

Communication

Effective communication is essential. Here are some best practices for communication in virtual CoPs:

Establish clear guidelines: Establish clear guidelines for communication within your CoP. You need to make clear your expectations around tone and language. For example, what are the penalties for bigoted speech? Unlike face-to-face communities, picking up nuance and subtlety is much more challenging. Though emojis help (sometimes), it is easy to miss the para-communication accompanying a statement. How should you apologise if you say the wrong thing? Ensure all members know about these guidelines and understand their role in maintaining effective communication.

Use a variety of communication channels: Use a variety of communication channels to reach your community members. These may include email, video conferencing, instant messaging, and social media. Members can choose what works for them, and it provides multiple touchpoints for communication.

Foster open communication: You need to create a safe and inclusive environment. Encourage members to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences and create opportunities for feedback and discussion. It is important for everyone to feel safe to be vulnerable and to share.

Things have gone wrong when members of a closed Facebook group have had comments screenshotted and shared with a broader audience. A good rule of thumb is never to say anything you would not say out loud. Maintain patient confidentiality always.

Be responsive: Ensure that all questions are addressed in a timely manner. This helps to build trust and engagement within the CoP. The supply of knowledge needs to meet the demand for it.

Provide regular updates: Let everyone know what is going on regularly. If the community languishes from one week to the next, it can be hard to drum up engagement and interest.

Trust

Trust is critical, and it can be more challenging to establish and maintain in a virtual setting than in tight-knit face-to-face communities where nobody is a stranger. People participate not because they trust the other person often but because they trust the organisation (Usoro, 2007). This institution-based trust is based on the idea that there is a clear code of conduct that promotes trustworthy behaviour and protects members from untrustworthy behaviour

Here are some best practices for creating and maintaining trust in virtual communities of practice:

Be transparent: Communicate with members and share as much information as possible about goals, objectives, and activities. Demonstrate that you are open and honest.

Set clear expectations and a code of conduct: Set clear expectations for members around participation, communication, and behaviour. This ensures that all members understand what is expected of them and can contribute to the CoP constructively and positively. A code of conduct outlines acceptable behaviour and consequences for violating the code. Whilst most communities of practice will self-moderate, guidelines help maintain a safe and respectful environment.

In a study by Babajani-Vafsi et al., nurses were concerned that information might be shared with current or future employers, threatening their position in the workplace. In addition, anonymity and pseudonymity may be linked with unprofessionalism (Brynolf et al., 2013; Dimitri et al., 2016;), so we have banned anonymous accounts on our Discord server. We mitigate the online disinhibition effect by creating a degree of accountability. We want everyone to feel that our community is a safe space.

Build relationships: Building relationships with CoP members is essential for establishing trust. When members connect, networking opportunities are created. Personal connections help to humanize interactions between members. No longer as you talking to a disembodied avatar of Andrew Tagg, but to Andrew Tagg himself.

One week of @andrewjtagg

Virtual communities of practice break down the barriers between craft groups, doing away with the hierarchy between doctors and nurses and improving interprofessional education. According to Wenger (2002) the core members of the community – those that engage the most – only make up about 10-15%. Another 15-20% may occasionally join in, but the majority are less active, lurking around the edges but still learning. As these lurkers build more links to community members they develop a stronger community identity and bond.

5 pitfalls to avoid when running a virtual community of practice

Running a virtual community of practice can be challenging, and there are many pitfalls to avoid. Here are five to watch out for:

Lack of engagement: Communicate regularly, foster a sense of community, and create opportunities to participate and provide feedback. According to Archdichvili et al., employees may not engage in workplace-based vCoPs if they fear criticism or their contribution is not worthwhile. Recognising that everyone has their own experiences to bring to the table can alleviate some of this fear. Still, it takes active involvement of the wider community to welcome new voices.

People may join a community of practice for a variety of reasons, ranging from purely altruistic (wanting to help others) to more self-interested (wanting others to help them). Communities are more likely to thrive when members are motivated by their own internal drive and passion rather than the need for external validation or recognition.

Unclear objectives and goals: Unclear objectives and goals can lead to a lack of direction for the CoP. Establish clear goals from the start and communicate them clearly to all members.

Poor communication: Poor communication can lead to misunderstandings, lack of engagement, and disengagement. Use a variety of communication channels and provide regular updates and feedback to members.

Inadequate leadership: Lack of leadership can lead to a lack of direction, engagement, and participation. Establish a strong leadership group with clear roles and responsibilities.

Although, by definition, there is no Grand High Poobah of the community, there can often be a core group of moderators or facilitators that might, as Neus suggests, perform a quality control role. If the information that is distributed through the community is of poor quality, then members will disengage. The community facilitators then act as a spam filter, reducing the noise.

Failure to adapt: Virtual communities of practice must be adaptable to changing circumstances – changes in membership, needs, and objectives.

Summary

We’ve discussed virtual communities of practice and their benefits, differences from in-person communities of practice, and how to create and maintain engagement, trust, and communication. We also covered best practices for choosing a platform, defining the scope, and recruiting members for virtual communities of practice, as well as potential pitfalls to avoid when running them. As in-person communities evolve into virtual ones there are unique opportunities for knowledge sharing, learning, and innovation. They can benefit both members and organisations, but require careful planning, communication, and leadership to succeed.

If you want to join the DFTb virtual Community of Practice, it is free to join. Just click this link.

This post is based on a talk that I was asked to give at MMMEC Malaysia

Selected references

Ardichvili, A., Page, V. and Wentling, T., 2003. Motivation and barriers to participation in virtual knowledge‐sharing communities of practice. Journal of knowledge management7(1), pp.64-77.

Babajani-Vafsi, S., Mokhtari Nouri, J., Ebadi, A. and Zolfaghari, M., 2019. Factors influencing the participation of nurses in knowledge-sharing within mobile instant messaging based virtual communities of practice: a qualitative content analysis. Advances in Medical Education and Practice, pp.897-905.

Barnett, S., Jones, S.C., Bennett, S., Iverson, D. and Bonney, A., 2012. General practice training and virtual communities of practice-a review of the literature. BMC family practice13, pp.1-12.

Barry, J. and Corcoran, N., 2022, April. Virtual Communities of Practice for Research Postgraduate Students: Determining Needs and Reducing Isolation. In European Conference on Social Media (Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 229-236).

Bourhis, A. and Duba, L., 2005. The success of virtual communities of practice: The leadership factor. Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management3(1), pp.pp23-34.

Brynolf A, Johansson S, Appelgren E, Lynoe N, Edstedt Bonamy AK: Virtual colleagues, virtually colleagues–physicians’ use of Twitter: a population-based observational study. BMJ Open. 2013, 3:pii: e002988. 

Cadogan M, Thoma B, Chan TM, Lin M. Free Open Access Meducation (FOAM): the rise of emergency medicine and critical care blogs and podcasts (2002–2013) Emerg Med J. 2014;31(e1):e76–e77. doi: 10.1136/emermed-2013-203502.

Carley S, Beardsell I, May N, Crowe L, Baombe J, Grayson A, et al. Social-media-enabled learning in emergency medicine: a case study of the growth, engagement and impact of a free open access medical education blog. Postgrad Med J. 2018;94(1108):92–96. doi: 10.1136/postgradmedj-2017-135104. 

Daniel, B., Schwier, R. and McCalla, G., 2003. Social capital in virtual learning communities and distributed communities of practice. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie29(3).

Delgado, J., Siow, S., de Groot, J., McLane, B. and Hedlin, M., 2021. Towards collective moral resilience: the potential of communities of practice during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Journal of Medical Ethics47(6), pp.374-382.

Dong, L., Huang, L., Hou, J.J. and Liu, Y., 2020. Continuous content contribution in virtual community: The role of status-standing on motivational mechanisms. Decision Support Systems132, p.113283.

Dubé, L., Bourhis, A. and Jacob, R., 2005. The impact of structuring characteristics on the launching of virtual communities of practice. Journal of Organizational Change Management18(2), pp.145-166.

Egwuonwu, C., Miller, I.M., Jensen, K.J. and Martin, J.P., 2022. Virtual Communities of Practice: Social Capital’s Influence on Faculty Development. American Society of Engineering Education, 2022.

Gannon-Leary, P. and Fontainha, E., 2007. Communities of Practice and virtual learning communities: benefits, barriers and success factors. Barriers and Success Factors. eLearning Papers, (5).

Hodge, A., Manson, J., McTague, L., Kyeremateng, S. and Taylor, P., 2022. Creating virtual communities of practice for ambulance paramedics: a qualitative evaluation of the use of Project ECHO in end-of-life care. British Paramedic Journal7(3), pp.51-58.

Johnson, C.M., 2001. A survey of current research on online communities of practice. The internet and higher education4(1), pp.45-60.

Lofters, A. K., Slater, M. B., Nicholas Angl, E., & Leung, F.-H. (2016). Facebook as a tool for communication, collaboration, and informal knowledge exchange among members of a multisite family health team. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, 9, 29–34

Mairs, K., McNeil, H., McLeod, J., Prorok, J. C., & Stolee, P. (2013). Online strategies to facilitate health-related knowledge transfer: A systematic search and review. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 30(4), 261–277.

Maisonneuve, H., Chambe, J., Lorenzo, M., & Pelaccia, T. (2015). How do general practice residents use social networking sites in asynchronous distance learning? BMC Medical Education, 15, 154

Marben J, Taylor C, Dawson J. A realist informed mixed methods evaluation of Schwartz center Rounds® in England. Health Serv Deliv Res 2018;6(37)

Mavri, A., Ioannou, A. and Loizides, F., 2020. A cross-organizational ecology for virtual communities of practice in higher education. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction36(6), pp.553-567.

McLoughlin, C., Patel, K.D., O’Callaghan, T. and Reeves, S., 2018. The use of virtual communities of practice to improve interprofessional collaboration and education: findings from an integrated review. Journal of interprofessional care32(2), pp.136-142.

Melvin L, Chan T. Using Twitter in clinical education and practice. J Grad Med Educ. 2014;6(3):581–582. doi: 10.4300/JGME-D-14-00342.1.

Miño-Puigcercós, R., Rivera-Vargas, P. and Cobo Romaní, C., 2019. Virtual communities as safe spaces created by young feminists: Identity, mobility and sense of belonging. Identities, Youth and Belonging: International Perspectives, pp.123-140

Neus, A., 2001, November. Managing Information Quality in Virtual Communities of Practice. In IQ (pp. 119-131)

Novakovich, J., Miah, S. and Shaw, S., 2017. Designing curriculum to shape professional social media skills and identity in virtual communities of practice. Computers & Education104, pp.65-90.

Peeters, W. and Pretorius, M., 2020. Facebook or fail-book: Exploring “community” in a virtual community of practice. ReCALL32(3), pp.291-306.

Purdy E, Thoma B, Bednarczyk J, Migneault D, Sherbino J: The use of free online educational resources by Canadian emergency medicine residents and program directors. CJEM. 2015, 17:101-106.

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Riddell J, Patocka C, Lin M, Sherbino J. JGME-ALiEM hot topics in medical education: analysis of a multimodal online discussion about team-based learning. J Grad Med Educ. 2017;9(1):102–108.

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Sekkal, H., Amrous, N. and Bennani, S., 2019. Knowledge management and reuse in virtual learning communities. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (Online)14(16), p.23.

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