Communities of practice usually involve multiple levels of participation, as do most social learning spaces. Because involvement can produce learning in multiple ways and the domain has different levels of relevance to different people, the boundaries of a community of practice are more flexible than those of organizational units or teams.
Typical categories of membership and participation include:
Active participants: members who are recognized as practitioners and define the community (though they may not be of one mind as to what the community is about)
Occasional participants: members who only participate when the topic is of special interest, when they have some specific to contribute, or when they are involved in a project related to the domain of the community
Peripheral participants: people who have a sustained connection to the community, but with less engagement and authority, either because they are still newcomers or because they do not have as much personal commitment to the practice. These people may be active elsewhere and carry the learning to these places. They may experience the community as a network
Transactional participants: outsiders who interact with the community occasionally without being members themselves, to receive or provide a service or to gain access to artifacts produced by the community, such as its publications, its website, or its tools
Note that people will move in and out of these categories over the life of a community. Interactions and knowledge flows between these constituencies create many opportunities for learning and are a sign of community health. Different types of participants in a community of practice have different perspectives, needs, and ambitions.
When are different levels a problem?
Usually, a layered structure with various levels of participation is not a problem. It is a natural and healthy state for a community. Still there are cases where this situation can be a red flag and require active intervention.
It is often a problem when the distinction between levels of participation reflects a distinction that comes from outside the community. For instance, if the core group is entirely from headquarters and people in the field are peripheral participants, this is usually a situation that is going to require some corrective action, such as giving people in the field some active role in running the community.
Another red flag is when there is no movement across levels, no one from the periphery moving in, the same old core group, or no new blood among active members. Again it may be useful to be proactive in inviting people in.
Each community is unique, however, and needs to find its own balance among constituencies. On the one hand, peripheral members should not be marginalized; on the other, core members can be distracted and even overwhelmed by the demands of a wider periphery. Serving the dynamic mixture of these voices is a key part of the art of cultivating communities and networks.