The Difference between Online Communities and Online Communities of Practice

“Online communities are really everywhere,” pointed out Todd Nilson of FeverBee during the recent HC3 Innovation Webinar on Online Communities of Practice. The Innovation Webinar Series highlights and examines cutting-edge applications of digital technology to advance global health. As the Head of Consultancy for FeverBee, Todd specializes in the planning and implementation of online communities and moderated the webinar.

Online communities, Todd explained, consist of a group of people who have developed relationships around a strong common interest, while communities of practice (CoPs) revolve around an important cause or very specific professional goal. CoPs are designed for practitioners by satisfying a particular unique need and providing a collaborative and safe space to ask questions and share insight.

Online CoPs are built upon an initial spark of interaction, through which people recognize and discuss a common situation. Over time, a sense of belonging begins to develop through self-disclosure, shared experiences and an emotional connection. “The most successful communities of practice,” Todd shared, “are well aware of what members already know, and tend to build conversations around the edges of that knowledge to expand it and bring in more members and further the profession.”

This webinar focused on three successful examples of online global health CoPs supported by a strong, active and responsive community.

Heidi Good Boncana co-leads the Global Digital Health Network, an online and in-person community of practice consisting of public health practitioners who use technology for health – “as one tool in their toolbox” to “connect people to people, and people to resources.” The Global Digital Health Network has more than 2,600 members from 84 countries. Digital health encompasses a wide range of information and communication technology (ICTs) that is used to support improved health and contribute to better quality, accessibility and sustainability of health services and health outcomes.

Neil Pakenham-Walsh shared the Healthcare Information For All (HIFA) network, a “community of purpose” that brings people together around a common goal to help create a world where people are no longer dying for lack of knowledge. HIFA has more than 15,000 members in 175 countries. Through the five HIFA forums, HIFA offers parallel multi-lingual platforms with moderators maximizing the value of each message and making linkages between forums.

Babafunke Fagbemi described Springboard for Health Communication Professionals, a network of 4,500 health communication professionals from 107 countries. Set up to connect “like minds around the world, irrespective of which continent you are on,” Springboard offers “access to state-of-the-art technology and information.” Springboard is an online and face-to-face network, supported through a country and regional structure.

Each panelist offered insight into what is required to ensure a successful online CoP, such as a range of participant types (from knowledge champions to new practitioners with questions); a responsive, safe and collaborative environment; and engaged and trusted moderators. Most importantly though, all panelists agreed, are the community members themselves. Good Boncana described the need for “a critical amount of engaged individuals who are hungry for more information, interested in sharing what they know and connecting with others.”

Fagbemi agreed and also noted the benefit of being a member of an online CoP. “When resources are dwindling and creativity is the tool to jump start innovation,” she explained,” “by being a member on Springboard and other similar platforms, you spark new ideas, advocate what you know and you can make a difference in your community.”

Panelists continued answering questions after the webinar on Springboard, concluding with one final question posed by Pakenham-Walsh. “How can we collectively increase our impact?” he asked. “I’m thinking about ways in which different CoPs in global health, working in different but often overlapping and related areas, can collaborate more effectively.” As online CoPs continue to grow, this next level of cooperation and collaboration is a challenge to be undertaken by all.

A recording of this webinar, as well as PDFs of each presentation, can be found here.

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