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The concept of a community of practice (often abbreviated as CoP) refers to the process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions, and build innovations.
The term was first used in 1991 by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger who used it in relation to situated learning as part of an attempt to "rethink learning" at the Institute for Research on Learning. In 1998, the theorist Etienne Wenger extended the concept and applied it to other contexts, including organizational settings. More recently, Communities of Practice have 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) described CoPs in terms of the interplay of four fundamental dualities: participation vs reification, designed vs emergent, identification vs negotiability and local vs global although, possibly because of the possible link to Knowledge management, the participation vs reification duality has been the focus of most interest.
A brief history of the concept of Communities of Practice can be found here.
Communities of Practice
The term Communities of Practice — though because of the words chosen for it, the term seems as though it stands just for shared practice — was created to refer to a larger whole. It is a common misconception that other types of communities are needed to refer to a different philosophical foundation. The theoretical foundation for the below-mentioned 'community types' all root in what has been described for Communities of Practice (see discussion of this article). However, it might serve a specific practical purpose to refer to a specific type of Community of Practice using more illustrative expressions such as:
- Communities of Action
- Communities of Circumstance
- Communities of Interest
- Communities of Position
- Communities of Purpose
Communities of Practice and Organizational 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 constructing 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 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 and Knowledge Management
The benefits that Communities of Practice claimed as part of a Knowledge Management programme 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.
Multidisciplinary Communities of Practice
CoPs are usually formed within a single discipline in order to focus efforts in sharing knowledge, solving problems, or innovative ventures. Given the complex nature of the technological and global age in which organizations function, multidisciplinary participation provides an advantage in these efforts because of the expanded focus and even holistic goal that can be achieved.
These communities are much less common that single disciplinary communities of practice, but are growing in importance in developing scientific fields in which knowledge from one branch is unable to advance without contributions from other branches.
- Knowledge management
- Organizational learning
- Social network
- Virtual Community of Practice
- Network of practice
- Knowledge transfer
- Thought Leaders: A list of experts, consultants, authors in the area of CoPs and KM
- Open directory references to Communities of Practice
- Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice
- links to CoPs with the general theme of Nurturing Knowledge from slashdemocracy.org
- Review of Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger
- Community of Practice Resources
- Special Interest Group on Communities Of Practice
- How to make a CoP fly
- Etienne Wenger's "Community start up guide"
- CPsquare is a community of practice on communities of practice
- Com-Prac is a global forum on communities of practice
- Lave, J & Wenger E, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Wenger E, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- 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. ISBN 1-59140-200-X.
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