Evidence Brief: Building engagement in virtual communities of practice

What you need to know

What does it take to build a virtual community of practice (VCoP) where members are actively engaged? We explored the academic literature to identify the barriers to and facilitators of participation in VCoPs.

Our analysis revealed eight factors to think about when creating a new VCoP or building member engagement in an existing one:

What’s the problem?

More and more organizations and initiatives are investing time and resources in developing virtual communities of practice (VCoPs) to enhance communication and collaboration among relevant stakeholders. Yet, few people know how to make VCoPs function actively and effectively.

Brown and Duguid (1998) defined a community of practice as “peers in the execution of real work held together by a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows” (as quoted in Hafeez & Alghatas, 2007, p. 29). Others have described communities of practice as groups of people informally bound by shared expertise or passion, knowledge sharing and learning, or shared investment in the solving of common problems (Hafeez & Alghatas, 2007).

Chiu, Hsu and Wang (2006) first defined the concept of a virtual community as “an online social network in which people with common interests, goals, or practices interact to share information and knowledge, and engage in social interactions” (as quoted in Ardichvili, 2008, p. 542).

VCoPs have been demonstrated to facilitate organizational learning, promote organizational memory, increase the efficiency of knowledge utilization and contribute to innovation (Correia et al., 2010). However, the successful functioning of a VCoP requires active participation by a substantial part of community members, including contributions of lengthy knowledge entries as well as questions, answers and feedback (Ardichvili, 2008).

Research by Preece et al. (2004) revealed that most VCoPs do not achieve this, and that in many cases, over 90% of community members could be considered “lurkers”—people who consume information without contributing any of their own. Preece et al. claimed that most of the reasons for such apparent inactivity could be corrected or improved.

For this reason, we set out to identify the factors that both constrain and encourage the active participation of VCoP members. These are factors that organizations should consider when creating new VCoPs or improving existing ones.

What did we do? 

In June 2021, we conducted a review of academic literature on VCoPs with the assistance of a CAMH librarian. An initial search of the MEDLINE, PsycINFO and CINAHL databases retrieved 100 records published between 2004 and 2021, including peer-reviewed journal articles, study protocols, dissertations and book chapters. The search strategy combined terms related to communities of practice, online platforms (e.g., virtual, online, web, post, forum) and engagement (e.g., engagement, participation, motivation, activity, attitude, adoption).

Each of us reviewed the abstract for every record based on predetermined inclusion and exclusion criteria. We selected 19 records for full-text review and determined 14 to be relevant. We identified three additional sources as relevant from the reference lists of selected records.

In January 2022, we conducted a second search using the same criteria from the first search. It resulted in the identification of an additional 26 records, though none of these were selected for inclusion.

Sources were included if they focused on platforms enabling asynchronous, multi-directional knowledge exchange and if they highlighted barriers to, facilitators of or motivators of engagement in VCoPs. We also included sources if they provided recommendations for promoting and supporting vibrant and productive VCoPs.

Sources were excluded if they focused on:

Ultimately, 17 sources were selected to be included in this evidence brief.  

What did we find?

The challenge in enabling virtual communities of practice is not so much that of creating them by administrative decree, but that of removing barriers for individuals’ participation, supporting and enriching the development of each individual’s uniqueness within the context of the community, and linking that uniqueness with the community purpose. (Ardichvili, 2008, p. 549).

We have listed eight factors below to consider when creating a new VCoP or building member engagement in an existing one. These factors are based on evidence of barriers to and facilitators of building participation and engagement in VCoPs.

The personal benefits of VCoP participation

People are most likely to participate in a community if they have a reason to be part of it. Several authors have identified criteria that make a VCoP valuable to join and actively contribute to. These include:

In a study of the online communities of three global organizations in the oil, gas and engineering industries, compared to individual and organizational factors, perceived usefulness of the VCoP was found to be the most relevant factor influencing participation (Hendrix, 2008). Other researchers have found that VCoP participation can be limited if not required or if the creation of the community was not requested by the participants for whom it is intended (McLoughlin et al., 2018).

For this reason, a VCoP “needs a name and statement of purpose that clearly articulates the community’s goal and is prominently located” (Preece et al., 2004, p. 220). Explaining and highlighting the value of a community to its members and potential members can increase their willingness to join and to help the community thrive through active contributions (Tarmizi, 2008).

The role of the VCoP facilitator, moderator or lead

The facilitator, moderator or lead of a VCoP “assumes a fundamental role in guiding a virtual community of practice to accomplish work-related informal learning activities in a climate of trust and collaboration” (Tarsiero, 2007, p. 87). Essentially, this person’s role exists to enable and foster member participation. Depending on the VCoP’s size and member engagement, the role of a VCoP facilitator may include:

According to the available literature, the role of the facilitator appears to be a critical factor to a VCoP’s success, yet the field of VCoP facilitation is just at its beginning (Tarsiero, 2007). The challenge is to fulfill all the functions required to lead a VCoP without overriding or micromanaging its members (Tarsiero, 2007).

Organizational and leadership support for participation

Management support for VCoP participation is another critical factor that enables and motivates VCoP engagement (Correia et al., 2010; Francis-Coad et al., 2017; Hendrix, 2008). Support may appear in many forms, including:

One of the most common barriers  to participating in VCoPs is a lack of time to participate (Ardichvili, 2008; Cook-Craig & Sabah, 2009; Correia et al., 2010; Curran et al., 2009; Francis-Coad et al., 2017; McLoughlin et al., 2018; Shaw et al., 2021). Engagement in VCoPs can therefore be encouraged by organizations and leaders creating conditions that enable time for virtual knowledge exchange.

One study found that perceived leadership support is even more influential on VCoP participation than organizational culture (Hendrix, 2008). In fact, one of the factors constraining VCoP participation identified in a study by Correia et al. (2010) was leadership aversion to new ways of doing things.

The visibility of experts

Along with active facilitation, many studies highlight the importance of VCoPs including subject matter experts who are visible participants (Ford et al., 2015; Hafeez & Alghatas, 2007; Leonard, 2013; McLoughlin et al., 2018). Their expertise can generate activity and interactions (Ford et al., 2015). They can also provide stimulus when discussion cools and can intervene to re-focus discussion threads (Hafeez & Alghatas, 2007). Furthermore, they are individuals that other members tend to seek out and often require access to (McLoughlin et al., 2018).

Domain experts are less likely to choose to participate in VCoPs than those with less experience or those who are in earlier stages of their careers (Hurtubise et al., 2019). However, because their participation is so critical to engaging others, several authors recommend that subject matter experts be identified and engaged early in the VCoP development process, to commit to active posting and to encourage the participation of others (Ford et al., 2015; Leonard, 2013).

Opportunities to build trust through face-to-face, synchronous interaction

For VCoPs to be successful, one major issue that needs to be addressed is members’ sense of trust (Ardichvili et al., 2003; Ardichvili, 2008; Francis-Coad et al., 2017; McLoughlin et al., 2018). Francis-Coad et al. (2017) found that when VCoP members didn’t know the other people engaged in discussion forums, it was challenging to build trust and rapport.

Trust in other people, in the knowledge they convey and in the institutions with which they are associated have all been found to be enablers of knowledge sharing (Ardichvili, 2008). Trusting what others have to say is based on recurring social interactions wherein the others sharing their knowledge have demonstrated their integrity and competence, which is why people are more likely to share information themselves if asked by members of earlier established social networks (Ardichvili et al., 2003).

VCoPs have been found to reduce professional isolation and aid employee retention and engagement, especially in rural areas (McLoughlin et al., 2018). However, as Hendrix (2008) points out, “these technologies do not replace the more effective use of one-to-one communication in sharing tacit knowledge” (p. 64). They merely support face-to-face interaction (Ardichvili et al., 2003; Hendrix, 2008; McLoughlin et al., 2018).

Some authors suggest having photo identification attached to posts as a way of providing a web-based environment where members recognize each other and feel safe to share their opinions (Francis-Coad et al., 2017). However, participation is most likely to grow when members of a VCoP have had a chance to establish a common purpose, build trust and get to know one another through face-to-face discussion and interaction that is synchronous or experienced in real time (McLoughlin et al., 2018). For this reason, several authors suggest having opportunities for VCoP members to meet, build relationships and become comfortable interacting with one another offline (Ardichvili, 2008; Ford et al., 2015; Hendrix, 2008; McLoughlin et al., 2018).

One study by Hurtubise et al. (2019) found that holding face-to-face workshops prior to setting up a VCoP led to an increase in participants’ sense of trust, altruism, collectivism and reciprocity. For this reason, Ardichvili et al. (2003) suggest that “instead of trying to supplant face-to-face communities with online ones, organizations should capitalize on existing communities and assist them in using online communities” (p. 20). 

Functional, intuitive and engaging technology design

One of the factors identified by Correia et al. (2010) that frequently constrains participation across many VCoPs is technology that is inefficient and difficult to use. Therefore, “designers need to make sure that their designs are as intuitive as humanly possible” (Preece et al., 2004, p. 219).

Hurtubise et al. (2019) found that low participation rates and visits to discussion forums could be attributed to the design of the forum interface.  In their case, the design of the forum interface made it difficult for users to locate information. The insufficient amount of information in the forums they studied also led people to seek resources in other places that better met their needs (Hurtubise et al., 2019). This confirms the theory that people won’t share knowledge in VCoPs if they don’t think the mechanisms for sharing are effective (Ardichvili, 2008).

There are many ways that VCoP technology can be set up to encourage user participation, including:

Procedural clarity and the technical knowledge of participants

Even if the technology used for a VCoP is high quality, engaging and user friendly, it is important to acknowledge that different people have different levels of familiarity and comfort with virtual technology. Curran et al. (2009) found that lack of technical knowledge was the greatest barrier to VCoP participation after lack of time.

Therefore, it is important to put effort into building technical competence, clearly and continuously communicating with VCoP members about how to use a platform (Tarmizi, 2008). This includes:

Expectations and procedures for contributing must be transparent (Ardichvili et al., 2003). People won’t share their knowledge in VCoPs if they don’t know the best way of sharing it (Ardichvili, 2008). Therefore, significant mentoring and support can be required even for those who are “computer literate” (McLoughlin et al., 2018). This can be achieved through training sessions, but authors also recommend the development of electronic “how-to” documents that can be accessed as needed (Francis-Coad et al., 2017).  

Cultural values around collaboration and sharing

Another factor to consider is cultural preferences, norms and values around collaboration and knowledge sharing (Ardichvili, 2008; Correia et al., 2010). Individual participation within VCoPs exists within broader social and organizational systems, and openness to contributing content differs across cultures and countries (Ardichvili, 2008).

For instance, the choice to participate in a VCoP may be influenced by cultural assumptions about what constitutes modest behaviour, appropriate interaction between leaders and their subordinates, or appropriate interaction between in-group and out-group members (Ardichvili, 2008). Members may be more likely to share knowledge in cultural contexts where knowledge is considered a public good, where there is a sense of moral obligation and commitment to community, or a shared notion that knowledge sharing is a way to start “giving back” (Ardichvili, 2008).

Members may hesitate to post—or “hoard knowledge”—due to fear of criticism, fear of threats to their personal gains or job security, fear of losing face because what they have to share is unimportant or inaccurate, or fear of misleading the community (Ardichvili, 2008; Correia et al., 2010). Of course, people are also less likely to share knowledge if they see no personal benefits to sharing, if they see negative consequences to sharing or if they don’t understand why it is important (Ardichvili, 2008).

What are the limitations of this review?

The extended period between the literature search and the publication of this evidence brief may have resulted in new evidence being published that was not captured in this review. Many of the studies reviewed were case studies of single VCoPs or a small number of VCoPs, making the findings difficult to generalize. The review also did not include material from blogs, tech company websites or tech magazines, where a significant amount of information on VCoP best practices can be found.

What are the conclusions?

Creating an online space where individuals can exchange knowledge and information is not sufficient for making it a useful or active community. A continuously growing body of evidence shows that without careful consideration of the factors identified in this evidence brief that inhibit, enable and motivate engagement of VCoP participants, a VCoP can easily become a space where participants would prefer to remain silent or not visit at all. Building a successful VCoP requires time, commitment, thoughtfulness and the support and involvement of the right people, both at initiation and as the community grows.


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