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2.1 Communities of practice

Communities come in many forms. When we introduced the concept of ‘communities of practice’ in Week 2, it was noted that communities can develop wherever a common interest exists between individuals, such as a shared profession. Wenger’s (now Wenger-Trayner) most recent definition is this:

‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Note that this definition allows for, but does not assume, intentionality: learning can be the reason the community comes together or an incidental outcome of member’s interactions.’ (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015)

What is a community of practice and what does one look like? The Wenger-Trayners identify three characteristics of a community of practice:

  • A shared domain of interest (a community of practice is not just a club of friends, membership implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people).
  • An active community, sharing and exploring the domain (members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other; they care about their standing with each other. But members of a community of practice do not necessarily work together on a daily basis).
  • An impact on the practice of those involved (members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems – in short, a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction).

They go on to say that ‘it is the combination of these three elements that constitutes a community of practice. And it is by developing these three elements in parallel that one cultivates such a community’. So this is what you need to achieve if you want to turn your networking into the establishment of a community of practice.

You may find that this theory very accurately matches your experiences of professional communities, or you may find you would prefer to modify it in some way. Whichever of these views you take, the theory provides a framework through which you will be able to compare and evaluate the communities that you become aware of.

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