A team in discussion

Are you using Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) in your organisation? How are you using them and, should you be using them for communities of practice? That’s something I’ll look at in this post. Please let me know your thoughts below.

What are MS Teams?

In 2017 Microsoft announced MS Teams to support groups of people working together. MS Teams allow messaging, calling, meetings and, for educators, also the ability to grade students. As more and more organisations roll out MS Teams to their employees the question is, what are teams effective for and what are their limitations? Given the functionality, it is easy to think MS Teams can be used for a variety of group and internal community related activities, but how true is this?

Microsoft define MS teams as:

“A collection of people, content, and tools around different projects. High velocity and need to get things done. Allow for conversations through channels which also provide access to documents and tools. Can also be extended via integrations to other tools or elements of the microsoft ecosystem. “ Microsoft teams, best practice and organising

However, MS Teams are only part of the wider Microsoft ecosystem and should be seen in this context. O365, Sharepoint and Yammer also offering ways for people to connect, communicate and collaborate. As always an understanding of the needs of your organisation, your people and careful planning are key to ensure you are helping colleagues to do their work.

It seems at their core MS Teams offer many of the tools teams need to connect, communicatie and collaborate. So could MS Teams be an effective platform for communities of practice? To answer this we need to understand what we mean when we talk about Communities of Practice (CoP).

Knowledge and learning communities of practice:

Communities of practice are the most common form of communities. Examples being professional associations and trade associations. They are more spontaneous and organic in nature than teams or departments.  As my colleague Peter Staal explains:

“Communities of practice can be divided into two different categories. In the “classic” variant, the participants in the community act as each other’s source of knowledge. The participants bring their own knowledge about the profession for which the community is intended. Newcomers actively ask questions of veterans. The demand for knowledge and the supply of knowledge are in balance with each other. The student-mentor construction ensures the securing of knowledge and the teaching of new competences of junior members. This type is also known as a knowledge community ….. These communities do not necessarily have to use an online platform. There are examples of informal groups of employees who come together once every two months for knowledge exchange without there being an online platform. And then there are also the groups that only meet each other through regular conference calls.” – Peter Staal

A second type of community of practice is the learning community.

“In the other type of community, the knowledge is not yet present in the group. Groups come together in these communities to learn together. The purpose of the community is to facilitate a joint learning process. None of the participants has the knowledge.”- Peter Staal

These both offer opportunities for organisations, especially during times of change, when knowledge needs to be transferred across the organisation or when the knowledge required is not yet available in house and learning and expanding knowledge is a priority. More organisations see the power of multi-disciplinary teams, which can bring the need for knowledge experts to connect and share across departments and geographies.

It’s important to note here that knowledge and learning are not usually “High velocity” activities. They requiring deep thinking, reflection and time, something that MS Teams is not primarily set up for.

Can you use  MS Teams for communities of practices?:

Within MS Teams you can create channels which can be open or closed. All members have a personal profile, there is a central news feed. Documents can be shared and even co-created. Members can share updates with other members. However, MS Teams are aimed at teams, team where regular activity takes place.

Much of the basic functionality for a platform to help people connect and share are there. But a Community of Practice is so much more than a platform, it’s about the members, a core group of ambassadors and the community manager who helps facilitates interactions across the community.

Perhaps the better question is not can, but should you be using MS Teams for communities of practice? MS Teams certainly has some of the core functionality required, but given the core role of MS Teams is for action focused work, do MS Teams give communities of practice, as Harold Jarche states:

“a safe place to test alternatives and create knowledge that informs emergent work practices.” Harold Jarche.

Or are MS Teams just more for ephemeral work activities where the focus is task oriented rather than sharing, exploeration and discovery? Do they provide for the deeper conversation and cooperative elements communities of practice need? If MS Teams are too focused on the ‘chat’ side of things, then deeper conversations needed may miss out.

How have MS Teams been sold to the organisation? If the focus is on work and small connected team activities, then expecting people to shift to behaviours required for community participation might be problematic.

“In a busy working life, people expecting one pattern of interaction will not sit happily through another.  There are also other options that might work better, particularly if you are unsure of your purpose, looking to work out loud and you aren’t exactly sure who would value and add value being in the room. In these cases, there is probably more value working out loud in an enterprise social network, even if only to shape the work to be done in a later meeting..” – Simon Terry

Communities as part of the wider organisational ecosystem

Ultimately the challenge is, how MS Teams sit in the wider ecosystem within your organisation. If MS Teams are being used for  communities of practice, are there people taking care to facilitate discussions, keep things focused and engage across the whole community, not just the usual suspects? Can people easily find and access the teams they need within the ecosystem. Are stories and knowledge shared beyond the original discussion thread? Have you addressed the challenge of how knowledge is captured, created or remixed in a way which is easy for recall when needed. Here MS Teams might offer some value:

“Integration with Office 365 means your identity moves seamlessly across the Office cloud, pulling Outlook and Office functionality directly into Teams (and vice versa).  Schedule a Teams conference call directly from an email? Not a problem. “ CMS Wire

Is this the reality how MS Teams are being used? All too often such tools within organisations, when not actively managed are allowed to grow wild and become problematic for users to discover the best discussions for their profession / area of interest. Communities of practice become small directionless groups or cliches, others being either unaware of their existence or don’t feel induced to join.

What the data tells us

Research from Swoop analytics, https://www.swoopanalytics.com/meet-our-swoop-for-microsoft-teams-personas/ highlights different types of teams. This is based on decades of research into both physical and digital teams. The  ‘persona’s’ they use highlight the different ways teams connect. They highlight the community of practice as one type of usage they are seeing with Teams, but warn against the appropriateness of this. Focused on only a core group of individuals helping others learn, they lack the maturity of true communities where contributions can come from all sides.

So whilst MS teams might be used for communities of practice, they could struggle to become truly effective communities if they rely heavily on a core group and are not supported by effective community management. This might be due to the nature of teams being very flow like and so harder for new members to find or join relevant conversations and discussions, thus finding less value in the community. Leading, ultimately, to the community’s failure.


Communities need champions/ambassadors and community managers. They need a solid structure, process and planning to be effective. it’s likely that some organisations will see MS Teams used by many groups to kick off graas roots knowledge sharing. Perhaps at the starting point for a community of practice, but be aware to look at how you help the community grow and whether the platform is capturing and making the knowledge and learning easily and effectively shareable across the organisation. Here perhaps too, Yammer and the wider MS ecosystem have a role to play.

As the SWOOP team point out, many ‘teams’ are in fact too large to really be seen as teams. With the so called, future of work now upon us, perhaps we are still adapting the terminology for these new groups of working beyond the simple ‘team’. So perhaps a step back and looking at how people come together to work in your organisation will help map out the communities and needs. They look at which tools suit your needs.

How to select the right Community or Social Intranet platform:

Here at Bind, we understand the need to have the right tool to support your community activities. Want to know what kind of community platform does your organisation needs? Well, we’ve produced a white paper on Community and Social Intranet platforms to help [Dutch only – but we can always chat about the findings in English if you want].

The standard functionality for a social intranet or online community consists of:

  • creating open or closed groups,
  • creating personal profiles,
  • a central newsfeed,
  • sharing and saving files,
  • creating events,
  • and the ability to share status updates.

But in addition, you probably need even more specific things. Through this white paper, we provide you with tools for determining which community or social intranet platform is best suited for your organisation.

Download your own copy of the white paper here [dutch].


Dan Leonard