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What are Communities of Practice?

Communities of Practice (CoPs) can be defined as a group of people sharing a common concern, passion or interest in a topic and who decide to come together in order to fulfil individual and collective goals. The particular purpose of CoP lies in knowledge; and community activities focus on developing this knowledge on the addressed topic, the exchange of it among all the members and beyond, implement capacity building processes as well as advocacy programs. They stand out from other forms of networks by intensifying the personal relationships between professionals working on a specific domain, with different background, countries of origin or types of organisations, which allows the connection of actors for projects and initiatives on a very efficient way. What also makes them unique is a sense of community, a feeling of belonging to a privileged circle of collaboration, in which trust relationships are ensured, as well as a common use of information sharing and expertise. 

As such, CoPs propose a new model of connecting people, with knowledge at the core. They bring together people who might not have met in a different context, and make dialogue possible by exploring new opportunities and ideas. This creates a virtuous circle where collaborative processes are initiated, learning is stimulated, new knowledge is generated and members are helped to organise themselves better (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Conceptual diagram of integrated local environmental knowledge (ILEK) (Source: Adapted from Sato and al.)

Their presence in the water industry is essential since water resources management sector is characterised by a great diversity of areas of expertise, types of actors, etc.. Some of the largest and most active communities of water professionals include the International Water Association the International Association of Hydrogeologists, the American Water Works Association, the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, and GWP’s IWRM Action Hub Communities. 

Organisational Characteristics of CoPs

The organisational characteristics of CoPs can be schematised as a bulb according to the level of investment and participation of the members (Fig. 1). The coordinator/facilitator(s) along with the most engaged actors are at the core of the community. They are responsible for defining the topic(s) around which the collaboration between all the actors is based and the objectives of the CoP. They are also responsible for ensuring satisfactory relations and for settling disputes between members. Around them, as a support is the 'active' circle of experts and leaders which have a high-level position and are specialised in the given domain (or working in the field, for instance). Occasional members participate in this CoP on the occasion of a specific project or on a specific issue in the field. They are experts whose expertise is interesting but not in all activities or on all subjects. Then there is the peripheral circle with participants who have lasting relationships to build with the community, or newcomers in the domain. Their participation is rarer but valuable because they will also participate in transmitting the knowledge developed to other types of actors. The transactional space brings together outsider professionals with very occasional links to the CoP. They are not members, but benefit from the information and data produced by the CoP in the course of their activities, through publications, newsletters etc.