The Role of the Facilitator in Building and Sustaining Communities of Practice

I have the honour of being invited to present at the XIII Seminari Compartim L’e-moderador i altres nous agents de coneixement a les organitzacions on 21st September 2011. The event is sponsored by Generaliti de Cataluña, centre d’Estudis Juridics, I Formacio Especialitzada.

This post is a brief preamble to my presentation.


My experience of knowledge sharing in organizations stems mainly from my involvement in setting up Communities of Practice (CoPs) for UK local government. This was part of a broader Knowledge Management strategy that I was commissioned to deliver for the Improvement and Development Agency (now part of Local Government Group -LGG). An online collaboration platform was launched in 2006 to support self-organizing, virtual communities of local government and other public sector staff. The purpose was to improve public sector services by sharing knowledge and good practice.

Over the past 5 years, the community platform has grown to support over 1.500 CoPs, with more than 100,000 registered users.  This has lead to many service improvement initiatives, from more efficient procurement and project planning to more effective inter-agency collaboration in delivering front-line services, such as health and social care. It has also provided some useful information on the dynamics of social collaboration and community management, e.g. the factors that influence the success of a community.

What does a successful CoP look like?

Success will of course depend on the purpose of the community. Some CoPs have been set up as networks for learning and sharing; others have a defined output, e.g. developing new practice for adult social care.  It is clearly more difficult to establish success criteria for a CoP dedicated to knowledge sharing than it is for – say – a CoP that has a tangible output. Success for the former will rely on more subjective analysis than for the latter, where there will probably be more tangible evidence of an output, e.g. a policy document or case study.

However, rather than argue and debate the criteria for assessing the “success” of a CoP (or other organizational learning system), I’d prefer to consider how we monitor and assess the “health” of a CoP. For this approach I think we have to consider the analogy of a CoP to a living and breathing organism.

A healthy CoP will show clear signs of life; this can be assessed using various quantitative indicators, such as:

  • Number of members
  • Rate of growth of the community
  • Number and frequency of documents uploaded.
  • Number and frequency of documents read or downloaded.
  • Number and frequency of new blog posts
  • Number and frequency of forum posts
  • Number and frequency of comments
  • Number of page views per session
  • Time spent on the CoP per browser session


Not that any one of these indicators in isolation will indicate the good health of a CoP, but taken together they can give a general perspective of how vibrant and active the community is.

Continuing with the analogy of a living, breathing organism, different CoPs will have different metabolisms, some may be highly active; others may be fairly sedate. Understanding the community ‘rhythm’ is a key aspect of knowing when any intervention is required in order to maintain this rhythm.  Not all CoPs are going to be vibrant and active all of the time; there may be periods of relative inactivity as a natural part of the CoP lifecycle. But it’s important to know the difference between a CoP that is going through a regular period of inactivity and a CoP that is moribund.

A point to note: inactive CoPs may not necessarily be a cause for concern. One reason for inactivity could be that the CoP has served its purpose and its members have moved on. In which case the knowledge assets of the CoP need to be published and celebrated and the CoP either closed, or (with the agreement of the members) re-purposed to a new topic or outcome.

So, understanding the vital life-signs and metabolism of a CoP is a fundamental part of ensuring the continued good health of the CoP, and therefore more likely to achieve its goals.  And the key to the continued good health of a CoP is knowing how and when to intervene when one or more of the life-signs begins to falter.  Without wishing to labour my analogy of the living, breathing organism too much, it’s the equivalent of knowing when someone is not feeling too well and administering the appropriate medicine. [See concluding section for symptoms and potential cures for an ailing CoP.]

The Online Facilitator/e-Moderator

Where does the CoP facilitator or e-moderator come into all of this? Well, I mentioned earlier that over the 5 years since its inception, the Local Government CoP strategy has provided some useful information on the dynamics of social collaboration and community management. For example, there is clear evidence that the CoPs that have full or part-time facilitation/e-moderation are much more likely to succeed than those that rely entirely on self-organization, and/or where there are no clearly defined roles or responsibilities.

The most successful CoPs (and I should clarify here that I’m using “success’ to mean “in good health”) are those where there is more than one facilitator/e-moderator and where interventions by the facilitator/e-moderator are frequent and predictable.  This may take various forms, such as regular polls of the CoP members; regular e-bulletins or newsletters; a schedule of events (face to face or virtual); regular input to Forum posts and threads, seeding new conversations; back-channeling to make connections between members of the CoP; etc.

In other words, show me a good and effective CoP facilitator/e-moderator and I can show you – in all probability – a healthy and successful CoP (or similar organizational knowledge sharing community).

The Role and Responsibilities

I’ve often been asked “what makes a good community facilitator/e-moderator?” This is a difficult one, and I’m of the opinion that it is more of an art than a science. The technical administration functions of the role can be taught, but the good facilitators/e-moderators that I have met bring another dimension to the role, i.e. empathy with, and understanding of, human behaviours and personalities. Something that I suspect comes with experience rather than a pedagogical approach. What I do think is important is having some knowledge (not necessarily ‘expert’ status) and enthusiasm for the topic or theme of the CoP (also referred to as the ‘domain of knowledge’).  This will help where interventions are necessary, and the community members are more likely to appreciate the facilitator/e-moderator as one of their own.

There have been various papers and blogs published about the role and responsibilities of an online CoP facilitator or e-Moderator, but maybe the following diagram captures the essence of the role.

Facilitator Role

(click to enlarge)

(Diagram re-worked from an original by Dion Hinchcliffe)

Community Health Checks

As mentioned earlier, the life cycle of a community will be subject to a particular rhythm, which can vary from CoP to CoP. Understanding this rhythm will help inform if and when specific interventions are necessary.

Participation can wane; the number of posts slow down; fewer people show up; only a few people are generating plans for the next activity. But not all lapses in content and contribution mean a community’s life is over. In many cases, some specific diagnosis and actions can reinvigorate a community.

Identifying the Symptoms

The “actions” in the table below are suggested primarily for community facilitators/e-moderators but in fact any CoP member can take the initiative to rejuvenate the community.

Symptom Actions
No participation or activity.

No new documents or links posted

No new discussion threads, announcements or news

Post new content, requesting feedback and comments to elicit new conversation.Remind people to set alerts for the site.

Talk to members to find out what people are working on and ask people what they would like to see on it.

Activity only by a few people Call or email members who haven’t participated for a while; find out why they haven’t been participating. Use those conversations to elicit new content and encourage contribution.Also be sure that the people who are not contributing understand how to use the tools. Never assume that tools are “intuitive” to everyone, or that everyone understands how to use them.


People use email instead of posting questions and discussions on the CoP The email habit is a hard one to break. If the goal of the community is to capture all the relevant discussions for future use, then the community facilitator needs to take a strong stand with members.One way to do this is to make a public statement that no questions sent by individual email will be answered, but that questions posted to the community will always be answered in set time. Another approach is to respond to all email questions by asking the requestor to post the question in the forum.


Sudden drop in discussions where there was previous activity. If there was a lot of active discussion and then it quickly dies out. Review the postings for potential “flaming”.  Edit the discussion threads to remove inappropriate comments (and state that you have done so). Speak with the people who have posted and clarify the norms for participation of the community.


Another community is focused on the same topic. If the members of the other community are current or previous members of your community, talk to them about why the community isn’t meeting their needs. If they do want to take a specific focus, then be sure that you have set up cross-linkages to the other community sites, and are referring people back and forth as needed.If the new community consists of people who are not participating in the current community, ask some of the same questions. See if there is sufficient overlap that the new community might be better managed as a Sub – CoP of the current site or a merger between the communities.



Community facilitation/e-moderation is about creating and sustaining relationships, not just the facilitators’/e-moderator’s relationships with the individual members, but the members’ relationships among themselves. Reinvigorating the community involves restoring “social capital” to the community in a way that motivates and encourages people to re-engage and commit. The table below lists some practical interventions – things you can do to alter the current dynamics – that can have a positive impact on the community.

Reinvigoration of Communities

Intervention Potential Impact on Community
Request sponsor support Talk to the sponsors of the community.If the sponsor expects the community to be collaborating and operating as a community, ask them to show some visible support to the community, invite them to participate, or to spend time with the community reviewing the community site and making suggestions and providing resources to support it.


Informal get-togethers (face-to-face or virtual) Face to face (or online or phone) meetings can range from very informal to highly formal and structured. It’s important to give people a reason to show up – but once people are together they have the opportunity to make or renew acquaintance, find topics of common interest, and share recent experiences.


Communicate more frequently Create a “newsletter” that consists of items describing what may (or may not) be happening in the community, but also what different community members may be doing. You may need to call or get in touch directly with a number of individuals to elicit their “news.”


Back channelling A personal phone call (or a meeting) is a good way to connect one-on-one to find out people’s concerns or to hear what might be in the way of participation. For example, a community member may not be getting support from his/her manager to participate.


Invite new members Often the way to move a community from a “stuck” to a state of activity is to introduce new members who are more outgoing, or who will ask a lot of questions of existing members.New members introduce new ideas, alter some of the behaviour patterns and bring new connections and knowledge into the group


Have a guest speaker (Hotseat) Bringing new ideas from outside speakers often helps a community to shift its thinking and generate new ideas.  This idea can be adapted into an online event in which people from multiple disciplines are invited to contribute to a topic over a period of time.


Change the community purpose If a community has “run out of steam,” it may be time to retire the community (with celebration!), and move on to something new.Often if a community has built a lot of social capital and wants to stay together, they can decide on a new topical area to focus on, and create a new community or repurpose the existing community.


Develop facilitation/e-moderation skills If a goal of the community is to engage in discussions and there is little activity, it might be good to find out how others facilitators/e-moderators go about this.  Join one of the growing number of groups and communities of facilitators/e-moderators, or do a bit of ‘crowd sourcing’ on Twitter, Facebook or other social networks for answers to specific questions. If you can’t find a suitable community of facilitators/e-moderators, consider starting one for your organization!



In conclusion, and continuing with my theme of ‘health’ in relation to organizational knowledge systems, such as CoPs, the following is a summary of the symptoms and suggested interventions for an ailing CoP . This has been adapted from some original work by Patti Anklam, and informed by Michael Norton at Local Government Group (see Acknowledgements).


Steve Dale
Collabor8now Ltd

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