4.1 Communities of practice

This concept has been an important part of the very influential work of Etienne Wenger (1999 & 2000). Wenger (2000) is not just concerned with internal relations between a group or network of people. He argues “that the success of organizations depends on their ability to design themselves as social learning systems and also to participate in broader learning systems such as an industry, a region, or a consortium.” Wenger describes ‘communities of practice’ as “communities that share cultural practices reflecting collective learning”, for example a medieval guild, a group of nurses in a ward, a street gang, a community of engineers interested in a specific design area. In his recent book (Wenger, 2000), Wenger uses a case study of an insurance claims department, and examines how people in the department interact as a community trying to work with a formal computer based system to interpret, classify and process claims. He documents the informal (and formal) interactions which help them make sense of the system, develop their expertise and operate effectively.

He regards these communities as the ‘building units’ of a social learning system or social containers of knowledge. The work and its competencies may be formally defined, but it is the community that determines what this means in practice, and communicates this to its members.

Communities of practice share the following characteristics:

  • they are bound together by and contribute to a joint enterprise
  • they are mutually engaged in the enterprise, with established norms and relationships of mutuality;
  • they are competent in a shared repertoire of language, routines, tools, stories, etc.

The interplay of competence and experience within a mutually engaged community provides the basis for social learning, but within a context where communities of practice operate within larger systems of interrelated communities of practice.

Wenger outlines a theory of the internal operation of these communities of practice, such as how they create a sense of group identity; and he regards it as just as important to balance core activities with important features of interactions across their boundaries, for example brokering, making connections, exchanging knowledge and information. He also argues that these learning systems for the knowledge economy are based on such characteristics as: collegiality, reciprocity, expertise, informal processes, etc, and so challenge traditional organisational characteristics like authority structures. This means that in order to manage social learning systems or communities of practice, organisations need to privilege informal learning processes, facilitate the development of community identities, and design interactive relationships between different communities of practices. Wenger’s well developed theoretical framework for these networks and groups is based on cohesive knowledge-producing communities engaged in similar activities, but this framework also seems to have some parallels with the ways in which clusters and regional networks learn and innovate.

Another important perspective on this area of knowledge production and organisational learning is that of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995). They examine innovation processes in a number of firms, and develop a framework which links quite strongly with that of Wenger.

They note the significance of tacit and explicit knowledge in helping us think about the difficulties of social and organizational learning. In most situations tacit knowledge (intuitions, personal skills and mental models that are specific to a particular context), complements explicit knowledge (codified/articulated in clear language or written down), which is also easier to communicate and transfer to other contexts. Thus organisational learning is not easy because bringing out the tacit side of knowledge in a particular context is difficult – one technique is to get people to tell stories about how they have acquired and developed their knowledge e.g. by solving problems in the past.

Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) regard tacit and explicit knowledge as mutually complementary. They develop a dynamic theory of knowledge creation, involving 4 different modes of knowledge conversion – see Figure 3, where the outer circuit shows the knowledge processes taking place in each quadrant of the inner circuit.

Figure 3 Nonaka and Takeuchi’s four modes of knowledge conversion
Figure 3 Nonaka and Takeuchi’s four modes of knowledge conversion

Socialisation: involves creating common knowledge through shared experiences, for example technical skills will typically be transferred in the master/apprentice model; while cognitive skills and knowledge might be transferred through informal discussion between trusting colleagues.

Externalisation: involves finding ways of expressing or articulating or codifying tacit knowledge, for example through dialogue often involving metaphors, and models.

Combination: involves developing and combining explicit knowledge in some way; for example specifying a prototype for a new product.

Internalisation: involves converting formal codified knowledge into ‘know-how’ that guides action.

This framework has been derived from studies of highly innovative companies, where the development and transfer of technical know-how has been an important theme; but these ideas are relevant to all forms of knowledge development and transfer. This model helps to show why the transfer of organisational knowledge, and in particular why significant organisational learning needs to be a collaborative enquiry.

Organisational knowledge (e.g. an innovative product or process) is created by moving through a cycle of socialisation, externalisation, combination, and internalisation. So for example, knowledge about consumers’ tacit ‘wants’ may be communicated by socialisation processes, then externalised through an articulated specification, then developed through combination into a product specification, prototype and production process, which then becomes internalised so that effective factory production can take place.

Activity 24

Read the following extract from a reading by Brown and Duguid, ‘Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a unified view of working, learning and innovation,’ concentrating on the text from pages 43 to 45 (starting at “b) Noncanonical practice” and ending at “… their very own traditional skills.”

The reading is an important contribution to the communities of practice and knowledge production and management literature (within the Mode 2 tradition). A major theme in their study is the difference between the necessarily formal codified knowledge (canonical) – prescriptions about what is supposed to happen in a workplace- and the much richer and diverse informal (non-canonical) practices and their knowledge base.

Question 14

What are the key features of the diagnostic approach adopted by the service technicians?

Question 15

The narration of stories performs at least 2 functions for the reps, what are these? And how do these relate to the Nonaka and Takeuchi framework?

Question 16

In the extract, which form of knowledge had greatest utility in solving the problem?


Question 14

Testing the appliance and story telling.

Question 15

Helping with diagnosis, and a repository for accumulated wisdom. There appears to be a cycle of creation and internalisation of new knowledge, though the explicit stages seem limited to story telling and test results.

Question 16

The limits of canonical knowledge are very quickly reached, and non-canonical knowledge is relied upon to solve the problem.

In Brown and Duguid’s paper (quoting the work of Orr), stories played an important role – in guiding diagnosis, communicating and producing knowledge (they may also have played a role in reproducing group culture and identities of key figures in the stories). Stories were important in making sense of complex and uncertain problems, and providing heuristics for testing (and eventually repair) strategies. Stories were also compared and contrasted. The value of stories in communicating a lot of information efficiently is seen.

4 Organisations and communities of practice