Virtual communities of practice: can they support the prevention agenda in public health?

Jennifer Rose Ford, Helena Korjonen, Asha Keswani, Emma Hughes


Background: Virtual Communities of Practice (CoPs) are flexible communication and knowledge management tools enabling collaboration, sharing of best practice and professional development. There have been few studies that have looked at the use and usefulness of virtual CoPs in public health.

Methods: This project sought to gather the evidence and develop recommendations for the value of virtual CoPs in public health through a literature review, and through piloting two CoPs in obesity. The research aimed to answer how useful CoPs are in obesity prevention, what makes a CoP successful and what evaluation methods are appropriate.

Results: CoPs  are composed of observers, passive and active contributors with a small group of ‘super-users’. All users learn through reading and listening, even if they do not post. The CoPs had higher levels of reading activity as opposed to low levels of posting activity. Longer existence of CoPs usually means more active membership. There are complex reasons why users fail to engage in knowledge sharing. Success of a CoP is creating an online environment where users feel comfortable. CoPs need administrative support and facilitation. Champions play a vital role.

Conclusions: Evidence shows some encouraging results about the value of CoPs in enabling collaboration and information sharing. Despite low membership numbers of the obesity CoPs piloted, members see value and suggest improvements. Findings suggest that success comes from leadership, champions, and larger networks with more posting activity.  Mixed methods of quantitative and qualitative research are appropriate in measuring the use and impact of, CoPs.

Keywords: Communities of practice, public health, obesity, online networks, knowledge translation

Abbreviations: Public Health England (PHE), Community of Practice (CoP), UK Health Forum (UKHF), Obesity Learning Centre (OLC), NCMP – National Child Measurement Programme

Full Text:



Online Journal of Public Health Informatics * ISSN 1947-2579 *