The Difference Between Communities of Practice (CoP), Special Interest Groups (SIG), Employee Resource Groups (ERG), and Centers of Excellence (CoE)

Communities of Practice (CoPs) have been a long-standing tool in the knowledge manager’s toolbox as a way to foster learning, drive innovation, and capture institutional knowledge. But how do CoPs differ from other organizational community programs? Within any given organization, you can also find Special Interest Groups (SIGs), Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and Centers of Excellence (CoEs). All of these groups help connect your people to resources, they can help surface and create new knowledge, disseminate best practices, and break down organizational silos. If you are tasked with managing a community program, it is important to know the purpose of each so that you can make better-informed decisions to successfully steward the program.

This blog will provide knowledge managers with key points to help them define and differentiate between various types of communities that may or may not be under their purview. Keep in mind that some organizations may use these terms interchangeably, as they share the common goal to go beyond traditional organizational silos and connect people.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

The general purpose of an Employee Resource Group is to bring together staff that identify themselves through similar attributes, often as part of a minority group within the organization. From the enterprise’s perspective, ERGs help improve the employee experience and can activate engagement from groups that may be traditionally underrepresented. 

These groups commonly receive a fair amount of support from their organizations, often working closely with HR functions to provide resources, guidance, and support to their members; this is especially true for teams focused on diversity and inclusion. In some cases, they are even “institutionalized,” meaning the organization has formally assigned resources in the form of budget and headcount to the community. 

Membership: Dependent on Identity

Organizational Support: Medium to institutionalized

Common Examples: ERGs for Black employees, staff with Hispanic heritage, Asian heritage, people with disabilities, and veterans

Knowledge Management Considerations: Although ERGs usually fall underneath the purview of HR, there are opportunities to collaborate. A knowledge manager can help inform collaboration spaces, establish best practices for capturing and sharing information, and structuring information and documents to increase the visibility and findability of resources produced by the ERGs. 

Special Interest Groups  (SIGs)

A Special Interest Group is a community of individuals who are interested in or want to learn more about a particular topic. There may not be a defined end goal or product that is expected out of a SIG besides sharing information about the topic or helping their members coordinate events and activities.

Membership: Thematic interests

Organizational support: Variable; very rarely institutionalized

Common examples: Pet parents, green living, autism awareness, networking, and gaming

Knowledge Management Considerations: Similar to ERGs, SIGs often fall outside of the purview of KM, and a knowledge manager can similarly help establish information- and knowledge-sharing best practices, structure collaboration spaces, and tag information that is relevant to the rest of the organization so that it is easier to access. 

Communities of Practice (CoPs)

A Community of Practice is a group of people who share a common interest in an area of knowledge, problem, or discipline. They gather on a volunteer basis in order to share information, improve processes, and work to achieve their group and individual goals. These goals are generally aligned to learning and honing particular skills or practices.

CoPs can self-organize, decide on their leaders, and enable members to take on roles to facilitate and moderate discussions, curate the community’s information, onboard new members, promote the community to other stakeholders, and more.

Membership: Skilled disciplines and professional areas of knowledge

Organizational support: Variable

Common examples: Data analysis and visualization, Agile methodologies (SCRUM, Kanban, etc), exploring new technologies (such as generative AI)

Knowledge Management Considerations: Knowledge managers generally take a more active role in supporting CoPs throughout their lifecycle. They can help structure their charters, to ensure alignment with broader organizational objectives, provide guidance on how to identify and tag relevant content, they can encourage engagement and conversations to occur within communities, establish recognition and incentives, and create accountability in ensuring community governance. 

Centers of Excellence (CoEs)

Centers of Excellence share a lot of common traits with Communities of Practice. The main differentiator is that COEs will generally be fully institutionalized; they are established by the organization to steward and grow a particular domain of knowledge. They are officially assigned roles and budgets for the purpose of sharing knowledge, disseminating best practices, and helping others learn.

Membership: Skilled disciplines and professional areas of knowledge

Organizational support: Institutionalized

Common examples: Project management, content management, and technical writing 

Knowledge Management Considerations: CoEs are generally organizational units onto their own. However, given their alignment with KM in disseminating best practices across the organization, knowledge managers should work closely with CoE leaders in providing best practices around knowledge capture and sharing, structuring CoE content for easy comprehension, and organizing their repositories to make their resources easy to find and browse. 

In Summary

Different types of communities and networks can arise within organizations – often, outside of the traditional boundaries dictated by an org chart. The nature of work requires us to reach out across functional areas to exchange information, share stories, request advice, and find like-minded individuals. Enabling these connections through communities can be powerful engines of knowledge for the organization. Knowing how to steward them towards success is a  key part of your knowledge management program.

If you need support in implementing a new model or guiding communities toward success, we would love to help. Contact us today!

Guillermo Galdamez Guillermo Galdamez Guillermo Galdamez is an information professional specializing in knowledge management, taxonomies, and enterprise search. He enjoys collaborating across organizational boundaries to deliver solutions that help clients meet their strategic objectives. More from Guillermo Galdamez »