2.2 Representation, interpretation and communities of practice continued
The preceding discussion brings us to a critical concept introduced earlier: the community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998; Bowker and Star, 1999). Wenger emphasises that such communities are not the preserve of what are commonly conceived as knowledge workers. Wenger's central example is of a department of staff processing medical insurance claims, somewhat in contrast to the autonomous knowledge workers defined by Peter Drucker. In fact, as the term reflects, practice is the central concept. Consider the following introductory passage, which highlights for this unit some of the physical and digital technologies that contribute to the idea of practice:
The concept of practice connotes doing, but not just doing in and of itself. It is doing in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning to what we do. In this sense, practice is always social practice.
Such a concept of practice includes both the explicit and the tacit. It includes what is said and what is left unsaid; what is represented and what is assumed. It includes language, tools, documents, images, symbols, well-defined roles, specified criteria, codified procedures, regulations, and contracts that various practices make explicit for a variety of purposes. But it also includes all the implicit relations, tacit conventions, subtle cues, untold rules of thumb, recognisable intuitions, specific perceptions, well-tuned sensitivities, embodied understandings, underlying assumptions, and shared world views. Most of these may never be articulated, yet they are unmistakable signs of membership in communities of practice and are crucial to the success of their enterprise.
‘Practice’, then, is the stuff of the familiar workplace. Practice is what distinguishes the insider from the outsider. Members of a community of practice can be thought of as possessing a particular literacy: they know how to ‘read and write’ different kinds of artefacts, and how to engage in different ‘language games’ appropriately. Boland and Tenkasi (1995) talk of ‘interpretative strategies’ – ways of reading and writing, listening and speaking. When groups attempt to communicate without this common ground, we often witness breakdowns in interpretation. The importance of interpretation helps us understand a paradoxical implication of the community of practice perspective: a community of practice in one company (for example, biochemists) may find it easier to communicate with similar communities of practice in other organisations than with their own marketing department or electrical engineers.
A focus on communities of practice raises interesting questions when designing knowledge technologies (Blackler, 1995; Boland and Tenkasi, 1995). Communities of practice shape when, how and why knowledge is acquired, classified, shared, validated, transformed and stored. In the context of designing ‘knowledge technologies’, it should be clear that one ignores relevant communities of practice at one's peril. The challenge is to negotiate between different communities of practice, who will have different conceptions of ‘the problem’, and varying agendas and ways of thinking and talking about work. It follows from this view that the boundaries between communities of practice should not be conceived of simply as undesirable walls to be dismantled (perhaps using technology to span time, space and organisational hierarchies). It is these boundaries that communities of practice construct for themselves that enables them to evolve and sustain their shared practice. We return to the issue of boundaries later.
Finally, we need to attend to a concept which is implicit in the importance we are placing on knowledge arising from the interpretation of information within communities of practice: situatedness. This term is now being prefixed to a variety of concepts, for instance situated learning, situated knowledge, situated cognition and situated action. 'Situatedness’ refers to the view that the context in which knowledge is developed and deployed is fundamental. A growing body of research into cognition in everyday activity argues against the value of abstracting conceptual knowledge away from the situations in which it is learned and applied. Instead, it is argued that ‘knowledge is a product of the activity, context and culture in which it is developed and used’ (Brown et al., 1989, p. 32).
A useful overview of research into situated knowledge, and a proposal as to how it relates to different organisational structures, can be found in Blackler (1995). For those interested in exploring further the philosophical underpinnings to information technology design, a useful resource is the book by Coyne (1995).
The preceding discussion may have raised some questions in your mind about the credibility of ‘situated practice’ perspectives. After all, abstract representations are the bedrock of the scientific method and engineering. We learn about and model the world by making generalisations. Or, if you are sympathetic to the view that meaning derives from situated practice, what role does this leave for computer-mediated abstractions in knowledge technologies? If the most valuable knowledge is situated in the context of ongoing work and problem solving within a specific community of practice, to what extent is it meaningful to represent knowledge as hierarchies or networks of abstracted concepts for reuse across a large organisation, comprising multiple communities of practice?
Proponents of situated knowledge do not reject abstractions out of hand, but often question their status, focusing on the way in which they are constructed, the actual ways in which they are used (that is, the practices) and the limitations of abstractions as descriptions of a complex world. Analyses of abstractions as varied as scientific theories and paradigms, the ‘professionalisation’ of jobs for auditing, medical classifications, and software design methodologies, have documented the ways in which they reflect idealisations of reality, and the fact they are often ‘worked around’ by those who either claim, or are required, to follow them. They emphasise the importance of the culture in which the abstractions are devised, which often ignores other perspectives. In the context of managing knowledge, therefore, we must attend to the ways in which ICT is used in situated ways by communities of practice, and be alert to the potential clash between the world view embodied in a software system, and a community's world view and work practices. Further light is shed on this in Section 2.2, which looks more closely at the dynamics of abstraction and decontextualisation.