1.4 Communities of practice
Communities of practice are not a new phenomenon, but they have become much more popular in recent years as a means of supporting people in improving their performance. A community of practice can be formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning through their shared experiences and practices. For example, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, or a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope could all be examples of a community of practice. The concept has been popularised, particularly in the educational context, by Etienne Wenger, who provides the following definition.
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.
Wenger identifies three characteristics of a group that are crucial to it being a community of practice. These are:
The domain: A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people. The domain is not necessarily something recognised as ‘expertise’ outside the community.
The community: In pursuing their interest in their 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. A website in itself is not a community of practice. Having the same job or the same title does not make for a community of practice unless members interact and learn together. The claims processors in a large insurance company or students in American high schools may have much in common, yet unless they interact and learn together, they do not form a community of practice. But members of a community of practice do not necessarily work together on a daily basis. The Impressionists, for instance, used to meet in cafés and studios to discuss the style of painting they were inventing together. These interactions were essential to making them a community of practice even though they often painted alone.
The practice: A community of practice is not merely a community of interest – people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. 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. A good conversation with a stranger on an airplane may give you all sorts of interesting insights, but it does not in itself make for a community of practice. The development of a shared practice may be more or less self-conscious. The ‘windshield wipers’ engineers at an auto manufacturer make a concerted effort to collect and document the tricks and lessons they have learnt into a knowledge base. By contrast, nurses who meet regularly for lunch in a hospital cafeteria may not realise that their lunch discussions are one of their main sources of knowledge about how to care for patients. Still, in the course of all these conversations, they have developed a set of stories and cases that have become a shared repertoire for their practice.
Every community of practice must have all three elements: a domain, a community and a practice. But they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from small to very large, from local to global, from meeting face-to-face to meeting only online. Some exist only within one organisation, whereas others span several organisations. Some, such as professional societies, are formally constituted, whereas others are very informal.
Activity 1 Communities of practice
Given the above description of communities of practice, identify those communities of practice to which you belong.
Depending on your background and experience, you might be part of, or have had contact with, a variety of communities of practice – at home, at work, or socially. Here we discuss a number of examples, based on the discussion in Wenger (2009).
Business organisations have been quick to adopt the communities of practice concept because they recognise that organisational knowledge is a critical asset that needs to be managed strategically. Prior attempts to manage knowledge in organisations have often focused on technical solutions based on information systems. Communities of practice provide an approach to capturing, disseminating and developing organisational knowledge which is people-focused rather than technology-focused. However, communities of practice can be perceived as a threat to traditional, hierarchically structured organisations because they are not constrained by formal structures: people within a community of practice can create links between people that span organisational and geographic boundaries.
In the same way that businesses face knowledge management challenges, so do local and national governments. Communities of practice provide a mechanism for enabling connections between people across formal structures and facilitating more open knowledge sharing.
Professional societies and similar associations are making increasing use of the concepts of reflection and reflective practice as a way of developing more professional and responsible practitioners. In addition to more traditional courses and publications for Continuing Professional Development (CPD), communities of practice offer less formal opportunities for peer-to-peer learning.
Many people are involved in communities of practice through their hobbies and interests; allotment holders, for example. The domain is gardening; the community is made up of those people who rent an allotment at each site, and the practice involves becoming better gardeners or allotment holders. Through meetings, shows and other events, seeds, plants and information are exchanged.
There is a community of practice within The Open University for ‘e-learning’, which is a voluntary grouping of staff interested in developing their understanding and use of e-learning for pedagogical uses. It provides opportunities for interaction through seminars and other gatherings, and produces a regular update of activities and objects related to e-learning. So there’s a domain, a community and practice.
Arguably, the internet, and particularly Web 2.0, have allowed communities of practice to flourish. As this course demonstrates, electronic communication technologies have extended our reach beyond the limitations imposed by geography, making it possible to interact and form communities with people across the world.
The concept of community of practice is influencing theory and practice in many domains. From humble beginnings in apprenticeship studies, the concept was seized by businesses interested in knowledge management and has progressively found its way into other sectors. It has now become the foundation of a perspective on knowledge and learning that informs efforts to create learning systems in various sectors and at various levels of geographical scale, from local communities to single organisations, partnerships, cities, regions and the entire world.
- a.What are the main advantages for team members of belonging to a self-managed team?
- b.What are the three conditions for a group to be designated a community of practice?
- a.Team members can have increased discretion over their work, which can lead to greater motivation and improved performance. Team members may also have greater freedom to complement each others’ skills.
- b.A community of practice is (1) a group of practitioners in (2) a domain who (3) build relationships that enable them to learn from each other.