Communities of Practice – Going Virtual

By | 7th December 2017

The word ‘community’ gets used quite frequently. Now, so much to the point that any individual working for a business with social media expertise, if there is such a thing, can often be referred to as a ‘community manager’. Sometimes, this can take away from the importance of the word community, but also in learning and education terms.

The word does have varied meanings ranging from people of a district or country considered collectively to the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common and its an amalgamation of these two meanings that lean more toward the definition of a community of practice. A clear definition of a community of practice is as follows:

Where a group of individuals with common interests come together to collaborate, can facilitate information sharing and knowledge translation as well as sharing best practices and building professional and interprofessional capacity.”


Taking this definition and placing it in the context of our current failure to educate and train adequate numbers of health workers for the achievement of Universal Health Coverage plus the absolute need for increased collaboration and Interprofessional Education (IPE), forms the basis of a recent paper in our journal. Mcloughlin et al conducted a review and thematic analysis of the use and delivery of Virtual communities of practice (VCoPs). A search from the years 2000 to 2016 and screening based on quality and focus revealed a total of 19 articles. Using a thematic approach the authors analysed each abstracted text to generate key issues and themes. With the growth of technology, the transition of communities of practice in the virtual space is increasing, however, this timely review highlights some important learning points.

Due to the ability of social media, forums and more online able to facilitate two-way communication, VCoPs can be considered as a useful vehicle for IPE and Interprofessional Collaboration (IPC), especially for those working in remote or rural areas. Social network sites such as facebook, twitter and linkedin can provide some technical infrastructure, however, custom learning environments can also provide an efficient virtual space. Understandably, very useful for any health worker.

Issues such as as technological infrastructure, participation, trust and privacy and technical ability are key to any VCoP, but if utilized correctly can provide a safe environment for learning and afford the opportunity for professionals to engage in IPE and IPC activities on a virtual basis. This allows for the overcoming of geographic barriers and/or time limitations and improving isolation. It was interesting to find that VCoPs can provide a ‘risk-free environment’ for members encouraging active participation and breaking down traditional professional barriers to the development of IPE and  (IPC) activities. However more regulation of the learning environment and increased participation needs to be encouraged.

Ultimately, by identifying a core set of papers, it is clear more research must be done in this emerging, yet very important aspect of learning, collaboration and IPE.




McLoughlin C, Patel KD, O’Callaghan T, Reeves S. The use of virtual
communities of practice to improve interprofessional collaboration and education:
findings from an integrated review. J Interprof Care. 2017 Nov 21:1-7. doi:
10.1080/13561820.2017.1377692. PubMed PMID: 29161155.