University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Early Innovators Behind the HR CoP for Academic Units


The concept of “communities of practice” was first coined in 1991 by a cognitive anthropologist and an educational theorist—but in fact, “CoPs” (as we refer to them informally) have been around for as long as human beings have learned together.

CoPs share three common elements:

  1. A shared interest or need (a “domain”): At UW–Madison, people with interests such as information technology, human resources, research lab processes, or management and supervision skills have come together to form CoPs.
  2. Community: In pursuing an interest in a specific domain, CoP members: engage in joint activities and discussions; share information; provide support to one another; build relationships that enable them to learn from each other; and care about their standing with one other. CoP members share a sense of belonging; when there are conflicts, resolution is supported by the community’s sense of trust and respect.
  3. Practice: CoP members are practitioners who share experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing recurring problems to do things such as: seeking experience (“Has anyone dealt with this before?”); re-using assets to avoid having to recreate the wheel; sharing resources and information; discussing developments; documenting projects and mapping knowledge; identifying gaps (“What are we missing?”); performing quality improvement; guaranteeing outcomes; and even visiting each other’s workspaces to see how things are done in an immersive way.

Early Innovators: Carol Hillmer and Julie Karpelenia

Carol Hillmer, Associate Dean of HR for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), and Julie Karpelenia, Assistant Vice Chancellor for HR in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (OVCRGE),  formed the HR CoP for Academic Units in August 2015—although at the time, they didn’t know they were forming a CoP. This concept wasn’t well known at the time.
Carol Hillmer and Julie Karpelenia

When the Office of Human Resources formed the HR Communities of Practice Office in late 2015 as an outgrowth of HR Design, the notion of CoPs began to be socialized  among HR professionals on UW–Madison’s campus.

What were some of the issues at the time you formed what is now known as the HR CoP for Academic Units?

In 2015, each school/college/division (S/C/D) had to develop its Recruitment, Assessment and Selection (RAS) Plan. This was a big initiative—with many pain points. We were all stumbling around trying to figure out what a RAS Plan should look like, what they should include, and how our respective plans should be consistent across academic units.

Why did you form a CoP?

We’d been spending a lot of time outside of any formal group talking to each other about the questions we had. Creating a formal group seemed like a much better approach – a way to handle similar problems, share ideas, and reduce duplication of efforts.

Forming the group in August of 2015 stemmed from a phone call!  Julie called Carol to ask how we should approach the RAS Plan.  Our meeting wasn’t a concept we’d thought of as a CoP at the time. It was just a group of individuals who needed to help each other navigate the issues we all had, share best practices, and form working groups as needed.

What purpose does the CoP serve?

The CoP has helped us as a group to share information, create opportunities to build a case for certain approaches—with more information and people behind an idea, for example, we can convince leaders possibly to make changes.

Growing confidence among members who test ideas with the CoP before executing things has also been a great benefit. The group is very dynamic and honest with one another.

In the end, it gets back to the notion that we’re partners!  We’re all in this together, figuring out how we’re going to get a job done that is too large for any one unit alone.

How has this CoP evolved?

In 2015, we had maybe 10 members. In 2017, we had 45. Today, we’re approaching 70.

Our members are a diverse group, from senior leaders to HR assistants, from centralized and decentralized academic divisions. We focus on academic units because of the unique challenges that our units encounter in HR.

How can HR professionals get involved in a CoP on campus?

See the “Communities” tab of the UW–Madison Professional Development website. There’s a special section for currently existing Human Resources CoPs.

Some CoPs are explicitly designed for divisional HR professionals, others are open to departmental and divisional HR. You can email the contact people listed for a given CoP to learn more.

Want more information about the concept of CoPs?

See Introduction to communities of practice, a 2015 article (available in English and Spanish), and Thinking Together: Making Communities of Practice Work (2017).

There are additional article and video resources at the bottom of the HR Communities of Practice Office website.

For more about the history of the OHR HR CoP Office, see the CUPA-HR Higher Education Workplace Blog and magazine article.

There will also be a communities of practice poster at 2021 Showcase.