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Why Do Communities of Practice Fail? Understanding CoPs and Its Limitations

Why do communities of practice fail?CoPs are goldmines for companies that often get neglected because leaders don’t know how to leverage it in effective way

Why Do Communities of Practice Fail?

Communities of practice (CoP) have become an integral part of the organisational landscape. Companies use it to share best practices, improve employee performance, develop new strategies, and create innovative approaches to resolving problems.

As someone with a leadership position, if you’re not aware that your company have CoPs, you’re part of the problem. We’re here to guide you how to leverage these communities to your advantage.


One of the reasons why CoPs have become very successful is that it makes knowledge transfer spontaneous. Through constant interaction, members of the community continue to learn from each other, benefiting themselves and their organisation.


But just like any other organisational framework, communities of practice are no ‘magic bullet’. On this article, we look at the potential challenges of CoPs and how organisations can effectively implement it and increase the likelihood of successful outcomes.

Limitations of Communities of Practice

In the report published in the Journal of Leadership & Organisational Studies entitled “A Consideration of Unresolved Issues and Difficulties in the Approach”, Steven J. Kerno Jr. of Ambrose University talked about the different limitations of communities of practice:

It is Organic and Informal by Nature

As you may have known in our past discussions of CoPs, these groups are formed through mutual relationships.


For example, a community of doctors who have the same interest in innovating medical procedures to make them more affordable and accessible to the public, engineers who are looking to expand their network and learn from each other, or CEOs who meet regularly to tackle policies that affect their respective businesses.


Unlike ‘teams’ or ‘business units’, membership in a community of practice is free-flowing. So long as the members share the same interest or domain, a CoP is born.


Thus, within an organisation, communities of practice (being informal in nature) are resistant to supervision and interference. But in order for the organisation to measure the impact of CoPs and its benefits, these communities need to be supervised.


What can be done?

Because managing CoPs is difficult, organisations may help CoPs thrive by supporting its knowledge-sharing capabilities. This can be done by providing members with tools that allow them to communicate, as well as access and share knowledge easily.


They should also be encouraged to participate in CoP activities and initiatives.


Aside from that, if you’re company has a scrum master, the scrum master should initiate the organisation of CoPs. We highly recommend putting this to action in the first six months of a scrum master in a company.

Time Constraints

Another challenge that communities of practice confront is time demands and constraints. Because of the fast-paced nature of the corporate world, organisations today are always in a “time crunch”.


Considering the spontaneous, informal nature of communities of practice, the availability of time for them to engage in activities and develop social interaction is necessary for them to be effective.


CoPs are less likely to produce great outcomes when they have time constraints. Not to mention the fact that members of the CoP are your employees who also have to dedicate time in their primary roles.


What can be done?

For members of the community to create a stream of knowledge, there has to be constant interaction, regular meetings, and engagements.


CoPs are often involved in time-consuming activities and without your support, it could take them ample time and resources to attain positive results. It’s a mind shift that leaders like you have to embrace.


As the old adage goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”  Let your employees have the time to tinker with their ideas about your industry and see their innovative mind bear new fruits that only your company can offer to the market.

Organisational Hierarchies

Even up to these days, most organisations are hierarchical in nature. This is particularly problematic for communities of practice which is supposed to be free-flowing and spontaneous.


For instance, a typical organisation has a vertical structure, starting with the CEO down to the managers, supervisors and team-member employees (is this your company?). This affects their lines of communication and relationship.


The downside is that communities of practice are more effective when they interact with individuals who are in the same level or background with them as to the role, function, or interest as the very nature of their interaction is to solve problems they all experience, exchange ideas and best practices, and share knowledge that is applicable to their work.


What can be done?

When forming communities of practice, organisations should deem it as a unique entity that does not have to adhere to the organisational hierarchy for them to be able to reach their full potential.


Communities of practice should be a safe haven for your employees to voice their ideas and communicate with each other without normal structural barriers.

Socio Cultural Environment

Lastly is the sociocultural environment. Being a social community, communities of practice reflect the wider social structures and the sociocultural environment in which they are situated.


Kerno notes that organisations operating in Western societies are less likely to be successful in capitalising on CoPs than those in the East due to the relatively weaker social ties among individuals.


What can be done?

This is something that is way beyond the control of an organisation but it pays to provide ample support to the communities of practice by giving them more tools and opportunities to socialise and interact with each other.


You as a leader of your company can also help in setting up a more sociable atmosphere by encouraging people to communicate with you and being a bit open-minded around people. That means not immediately censoring and dismissing views that you find different from yours.

Turning Challenges into Possibilities

In addition to the inherent limitations faced by organisations trying to implement CoPs today, there are some other challenges have to be dealt with.


One involves membership. It’s easy to force employees to join a CoP by telling them that it will boost their scorecard. However, they should be encouraged, not coerced.


To get their employees’ buy-in, organisations should capitalise on the benefits of continuous learning and personal development when promoting CoPs.


Assigning a facilitator is also a great way to track the progress of the CoP and ensure that members interact regularly. With a person in charge, it’s easy to start a discussion, assign tasks and projects, and involve everyone else in various activities and initiatives.


Lastly, investing in tools, facilities and resources that support CoPs is very much important. Communities of practice should be given a creative environment where members can freely exchange ideas, discuss, and gather information.


They may benefit from having their own communications platform, budget, and even a venue for their regular meetings. They must be allowed to make their own processes (e.g. means of communicating).


The main task of communities of practice is to contribute to an organisation so it becomes better in what it does and achieve its goals to thrive in the digital era. Thus, they should be empowered in every way.


We can do so by first determining what their inherent limitations are, and then providing them with the tools needed to turn these challenges into endless opportunities.

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Luis Gonçalves

About Luis Gonçalves

Luis Gonçalves is an Entrepreneur, Author, International Keynote Speaker, Blogger and Management Consultant. I spent most of my career helping organisations become more Agile with different roles in different organisations. Nowadays I work with Executive Leaders by improving their organisations leading them to become effective, efficient and highly rewarded leaders.


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