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Communities of Practice

Shared needs bring together our Web Community of Practice. How can this help us when considering similar groups?

Our community meets monthly for presentations, workshops and discussions that are (hopefully) of interest to those involved in website publishing at The University of Edinburgh. It’s not perfect: I’d love to extend the range of presenters and  topics, and widen the reach. But I certainly derive value from having a route for feedback, and learning from shared expertise.

Community Shared Needs

There are (perhaps unconscious) underlying commonalities that bring together communities.

Learning opportunities

  • Personal development that is affordable (free!)
  • Sharing and learning from others’ experiences, successes and failures
  • Communication about changes and challenges

Peer support

  • Relationship building and networking
  • Idea sharing in a safe, welcoming and communal environment
  • Mentorship


  • Discover work structures and job opportunities
  • Recruitment for UX/studies

Establishing a new community of practice

Communities can grow organically from individual networking; but to establish a new community, I’d start by interviewing some of my target audience to determine shared needs – then specifically address them. If you don’t have this evidence – why do you think it’s a good idea?

Only content that serves a purpose will build the momentum of regular attendance.

You also need to let people know about your community: do you have an existing mailing list; will you spread the word through presentatons at other groups; or can you rely on word of mouth?


I’d expect some trial and error, but if possible, attend a similar session. You don’t need to be an expert in the subject (it might help if you are not, so that you can concentrate on the format).

Note what works for you, and what doesn’t.

  • Presentation style: slide lectures, workshops, practical demonstrations
  • Formal/informal style
  • Understanding of audience needs and prior understanding
  • Interaction/participation level
  • Organiser intent – are they helping, selling, communicating?


This has been simplified by ‘lockdown’ working, dictating use of tools such as Collaborate, Teams or Zoom.

The University has an excellent Online & Digital Events Service to help you choose the best tool for running your event.

Online & Digital Events Service

Consider how your format will translate to layout: will your room be lecture style, cabaret, small groups – will you need breakout rooms? Do you expect a passive or active audience?

Lessons from customer service

Good people skills are a skill: these come more naturally to some, but can be learned (or, faked).

You will generate goodwill by being polite, personable and remembering people’s names and faces. You can generate further positivity by providing drinks/treats (but this means costs). Strongly recommended:

  • Be there first – say hello, and provide updates on session start and duration. This makes people feel welcome, and helps them participate fully.
  • Introduce yourself in each session, along with the aims and expectations. Not everyone can attend every time, and some people will be new. Let your attendees know they’re in the right place, and what to expect.
  • Plan breaks – attention in a long session wanes, so break things up. This time is an ideal opportunity for networking.

Measuring success

How will you know if your community is effective? Group surveys and headcounts can get you so far; metrics based on your original shared needs that references wider strategy is ideal.

If you are a University of Edinburgh web publisher and want to see for yourself – we run the Web Publishers community in the last week of each month.

Web Publishers’ Community

1 reply to “Communities of Practice”

  1. Neil Allison says:

    Great advice Duncan, thanks for pulling it together. You’ve got tons of experience in this area (admittedly partly because I dropped it on you at first so I could step back!) but there’s undoubtably a skill or talent in this. Either you’re a natural, or you work very hard to make it look easy 🙂

    One aspect you’ve not touched on, and I’d love to hear your thoughts – what about turning the focus onto the community attendees to self organise through techniques like unconference formats and lean coffee discussions? I’ve never been brave enough to try an unconference, but love lean coffee.

    Unconference blog post from a few years back

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