Communities of Practice

Example of the use of a community of practice for k-12 educators

The idea of communities of practice (CoP) is that learning occurs in social contexts that emerge and evolve when people who have common goals interact as they strive towards those goals. The concept of communities of practice is commonly credited to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger who originated the construct legitimate peripheral participation in their studies of apprenticeship situations. From their development of legitimate peripheral participation, they created the term "community of practice" to refer to the communities of practitioners into which newcomers would enter and attempt to learn the sociocultural practices of the community.

In 1998, Wenger developed and extended the concept in his enthographic study of insurance claims processors. Community of Practice has become associated with knowledge management as people have begun to see them as ways of developing social capital, nurturing new knowledge, stimulating innovation, or sharing existing tacit knowledge within an organization. It is now an accepted part of organizational development (OD).

The earlier work of Lave and Wenger (1991) had the notion of legitimate peripheral participation as the central process in Communities of Practice. In his later work, Wenger abandoned the concept of legitimate peripheral participation and used the idea the inherent tension in a duality instead (Wenger, 1998).

Further information on the evolution of the concept of Communities of Practice can be found in the introduction to Hildreth and Kimble's book (Hildreth and Kimble 2004). Communities of practice are also known as Communities of Interest or Communities of Action.

Communities of Practice and Learning

For Etienne Wenger, learning is central to human identity. A primary focus of Wenger’s work is on learning as social participation – the individual as an active participant in the practices of social communities, and in the construction of his/her identity through these communities. From this understanding develops the concept of the community of practice: a group of individuals participating in communal activity, and experiencing/continuously creating their shared identity through engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities.

For Wenger, organizational learning of the deep conceptual type is best facilitated if the realities of communities of practice are recognised when the change process is designed.

“For organizations, … learning is an issue of sustaining the interconnected communities of practice through which an organization knows what it knows and thus becomes effective and valuable as an organisation” (Wenger, 1998, p. 8)

Wenger (1998) describes the “negotiation of meaning” as how we experience the world and our engagement in it as meaningful. If all change involves a process of learning, then effective change processes consciously facilitate negotiation of meaning. In his model, that negotiation consists of two interrelated components:

* Reification: He describes this process as central to every practice. It involves taking that which is abstract and turning it into a “congealed” form, represented for example in documents and symbols. Reification is essential for preventing fluid and informal group activity from getting in the way of co-ordination and mutual understanding. Reification on its own, and insufficiently supported, is not able to support the learning process, however.

“But the power of reification – its succinctness, its portability, its potential physical presence, its focusing effect – is also its danger … Procedures can hide broader meanings in blind sequences of operations. And the knowledge of a formula can lead to the illusion that one fully understands the processes it describes.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 61)

* Participation: Participation, the second element in the negotiation of meaning, requires active involvement in social processes. It involves participants not just in translating the reified description/prescription into embodied experience, but in recontextualising its meaning. Wenger describes participation as essential for getting around the potential stiffness (or, alternatively, the ambiguity) of reification.

“… If we believe that people in organisations contribute to organisational goals by participating inventively in practices that can never be fully captured by institutionalised processes …. we will have to value the work of community building and make sure that participants have access to the resources necessary to learn what they need to learn in order to take actions and make decisions that fully engage their own knowledgeability.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 10)

Crucially, Wenger describes the relationship between reification and participation as a dialectical one: neither element can be considered in isolation if the learning/change process is to be helpfully understood.

“Explicit knowledge is … not freed from the tacit. Formal processes are not freed from the informal. In fact, in terms of meaningfulness, the opposite is more likely … In general, viewed as reification, a more abstract formulation will require more intense and specific participation to remain meaningful, not less.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 67)

Wenger calls the successful interaction of reification and participation the “alignment” of individuals with the communal learning task. Alignment requires the ability to co-ordinate perspectives and actions in order to direct energies to a common purpose. The challenge of alignment, Wenger suggests, is to connect local efforts to broader styles and discourses in ways that allow learners to invest their energy in them.

“Alignment requires specific forms of participation and reification to support the required co-ordination … With insufficient participation, our relations to broader enterprises tend to remain literal and procedural: our co-ordination tends to be based on compliance rather than participation in meaning … With insufficient reification, co-ordination across time and space may depend too much on the partiality of specific participants, or it may simply be too vague, illusory or contentious to create alignment.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 187)

To the extent that a deep conceptual change involves importing practices and perspectives from one community of practice into another, such change involves what Wenger calls “boundary encounters.” Such encounters change the way each community defines its own identity and practice. Crucial to the success of the boundary encounter is the role of highly skilled “brokers”, who straddle different communities of practice and facilitate the exchange process.

“The job of brokering is complex. It involves processes of translation, co-ordination and alignment between perspectives. It requires enough legitimacy to influence the development of a practice, mobilise attention and address conflicting interests. It also requires the ability to link practices by facilitating transactions between them, and to cause learning by introducing into a practice elements of another. Toward this end, brokering provides a participative connection – not because reification is not involved, but because what brokers press into service to connect practices is their experience of multi-membership and the possibilities for negotiation inherent in participation.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 109)

Communities of Practice vs. Teams

Communities of practice are commonly confused with other types of teams and focus groups. Heather Smith and James McKeen from the School of Business at Queen's University include a great chart outlining the difference between communities of practice and other functional teams in their article "Creating and Facilitating Communities of Practice" (May 2003).

  Communities of Practice Teams
Objective To share knowledge and
promote learning in a
particular area

To complete specific
projects
Membership Self-selected; includes part-
time and marginal members
Selected on the basis
of the ability to
contribute to the
team’s goals; ideally
full-time
Organization Informal, self-organizing,
leadership varies according to
the issues;

Hierarchical with a
project
leader/manager
Termination Evolves; disbands only when
there is no interest
When the project is
completed (in some
cases, a team may
evolve into a
community)
Value Proposition Group discovers value in
exchanges of knowledge and
information
Group delivers value
in the result it
produces.
Management Making connections between
members; ensuring topics are
fresh and valuable.
Coordination of many
interdependent tasks.

 

Communities of Practice and Knowledge Management

The benefits that Communities of Practice claimed as part of a Knowledge Management program have led them to become the focus of much attention. Earlier approaches to KM treated knowledge as object (Explicit knowledge); however Communities of Practice offer a way to theorise tacit knowledge which can not easily be captured, codified and stored.

* The relationship between CoPs and Knowledge Management is discussed in the article: The Duality of Knowledge.

* The relationship between CoPs and organizational knowledge strategy is discussed in the article: Knowledge management as a doughnut: Shaping your knowledge strategy through communities of practice.

 

References

1. ^ Shin and Bickel (2008) - in Chris Kimble and Paul Hildreth (2008). Communities of Practice: Creating Learning Environments for Educators. Information Age Publishing. ISBN 1593118635.

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* Lave, J. & Wenger E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
* Wenger, Etienne (1998), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 318, ISBN 978-0-521-66363-2
* Lesser, E.L., Fontaine, M.A. & Slusher J.A., Knowledge and Communities, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000
* Wenger, E, McDermott, R & Snyder, W.M., Cultivating Communities of Practice, HBS press 2002.
* Saint-Onge, H & Wallace, D, Leveraging Communities of Practice, Butterworth Heinemann, 2003.
* Paul Hildreth and Chris Kimble (2004). Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice. London / Hershey: Idea Group Inc. Hidreth2004. ISBN 1-59140-200-X.
* Smith, M.K. (2003). "Communities of practice". The Encyclopedia of Informal Education.
* Chua, Alton (October 2002). Book Review: Cultivating Communities of Practice. Journal of Knowledge Management Practice.
* Winkelen, Christine van. Inter-Organizational Communities of Practice.
* Defense Acquisition Universitiy Community of Practice Implementation Guide, v3.0, October 2007, Published by the Defense Acquisition University Press, Fort Belvior, Virginia 22060-5565

 

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