A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a craft and/or a profession. The concept was first proposed by cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991. A CoP can evolve naturally because of the members’ common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created deliberately with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger 1991). Wenger (2002) further developed this stating
“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” .
CoPs can exist in physical settings, for example, a lunch room at work, a field setting, a factory floor, or elsewhere in the environment, but members of CoPs do not have to be co-located. They form a “virtual community of practice” (VCoP) (Dubé et al. 2005) when they collaborate online, such as within discussion boards and newsgroups, or a “mobile community of practice” (MCoP) (Kietzmann et al. 2013) when members communicate with one another via mobile phones they participate in community on the go.
Communities of practice are not new phenomena: this type of learning practice has existed for as long as people have been learning and sharing their experiences through storytelling. The idea is rooted in American pragmatism, especially C.S. Pierce’s concept of “the community of inquiry” (Shields 2003), but also John Dewey’s principle of learning through occupation (Wallace 2007). Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger coined the phrase in their 1991 book, ‘Situated learning’ (Lave & Wenger 1991), and Wenger then significantly expanded on the concept in his 1998 book, ‘Communities of Practice’ (Wenger 1998; Wenger 2002).
Since the publication of “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation” (Lave & Wenger 1991), communities of practice have been the focus of attention, first as a theory of learning and later as part of the field of knowledge management. See Hildreth & Kimble (2004) for a review of how the concept has changed over the years. Cox (2005) offers a more critical view of the different ways in which the term communities of practice can be interpreted.
To understand how learning occurs outside the classroom while at the Institute for Research on Learning, Lave and Wenger studied how newcomers or novices to informal groups become established members of those groups (Lave & Wenger 1991). Lave and Wenger first used the term communities of practice to describe learning through practice and participation, which they named situated learning.
The structure of the community was created over time through a process of legitimate peripheral participation. Legitimation and participation together define the characteristic ways of belonging to a community whereas peripherality and participation are concerned with location and identity in the social world (Lave & Wenger 1991, p. 29).
Lave and Wenger’s research looked at how apprenticeships help people learn. They found that when newcomers join an established group or community, they spend some time initially observing and perhaps performing simple tasks in basic roles as they learn how the group works and how they can participate, an apprentice electrician, for example would watch and learn before actually doing any electrical work; initially taking on small simple jobs and eventually more complicated ones. Lave and Wenger (1991) described this socialization process as legitimate peripheral participation. The term “community of practice” is that group that Lave and Wenger referred to, who share a common interest and a desire to learn from and contribute to the community with their variety of experiences (Lave & Wenger 1991).
In his later work, Wenger (1998; 2002) abandoned the concept of legitimate peripheral participation and used the idea of an inherent tension in a duality instead. He identifies four dualities that exist in communities of practice, participation-reification, designed-emergent, identification-negotiability and local-global, although the participation-reification duality has been the focus of particular interest because of its links to knowledge management.
He describes the structure of a CoP as consisting of three interrelated terms: ‘mutual engagement’, ‘joint enterprise’ and ‘shared repertoire’ (Wenger 1998, pp. 72–73).
Firstly, through participation in the community, members establish norms and build collaborative relationships; this is termed mutual engagement. These relationships are the ties that bind the members of the community together as a social entity.
Secondly, through their interactions, they create a shared understanding of what binds them together; this is termed the joint enterprise. The joint enterprise is (re)negotiated by its members and is sometimes referred to as the ‘domain’ of the community.
Finally, as part of its practice, the community produces a set of communal resources, which is termed their shared repertoire; this is used in the pursuit of their joint enterprise and can include both literal and symbolic meanings.
In many organisations, communities of practice have become an integral part of the organisation structure (McDermott & Archibald 2010). These communities take on knowledge stewarding tasks that were formerly covered by more formal organisational structures. In some organisations there are both formal and informal communities of practice. There is a great deal of interest within organisations to encourage, support, and sponsor communities of practice in order to benefit from shared knowledge that may lead to higher productivity (Wenger 2004). Communities of practice are now viewed by many in the business setting as a means to capturing the tacit knowledge, or the know-how that is not so easily articulated.
An important aspect and function of communities of practice is increasing organisation performance. Lesser & Storck (2001, p. 836) identify four areas of organisational performance that can be affected by communities of practice:
- Decreasing the learning curve of new employees
- Responding more rapidly to customer needs and inquiries
- Reducing rework and preventing “reinvention of the wheel”
- Spawning new ideas for products and services
The communities Lave and Wenger studied were naturally forming as practitioners of craft and skill-based activities met to share experiences and insights (Lave & Wenger 1991).
Lave and Wenger observed situated learning within a community of practice among Yucatán midwives, Liberian tailors, navy quartermasters and meat cutters (Lave & Wenger 1991) as well as insurance claims processors. (Wenger 1998). Other fields have made use of the concept of CoPs. Examples include education (Grossman 2001), sociolinguistics, material anthropology, second language acquisition (Kimble, Hildreth & Bourdon 2008), Parliamentary Budget Offices (Chohan 2013), and child mental health practice (AMBIT).
A famous example of a community of practice within an organisation is that which developed around the Xerox customer service representatives who repaired the machines in the field (Brown & Duguid 2000). The Xerox reps began exchanging tips and tricks over informal meetings over breakfast or lunch and eventually Xerox saw the value of these interactions and created the Eureka project to allow these interactions to be shared across the global network of representatives. The Eureka database has been estimated to have saved the corporation $100 million.
Communities of practice and knowledge management
Wasko and Faraj (2000) describe three kinds of knowledge: “knowledge as object”, “knowledge embedded within individuals”, and “knowledge embedded in a community”. Communities of Practice have become associated with finding, sharing, transferring, and archiving knowledge, as well as making explicit “expertise”, or tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is considered to be those valuable context-based experiences that cannot easily be captured, codified and stored (Davenport & Prusak 2000), also (Hildreth & Kimble 2002).
Because knowledge management is seen “primarily as a problem of capturing, organizing, and retrieving information, evoking notions of databases, documents, query languages, and data mining” (Thomas, Kellogg & Erickson 2001), the community of practice, collectively and individually, is considered a rich potential source of helpful information in the form of actual experiences; in other words, best practices.
Thus, for knowledge management, a community of practice is one source of content and context that if codified, documented and archived can be accessed for later use.
Individuals in communities of practice
Members of communities of practice are thought to be more efficient and effective conduits of information and experiences. While organisations tend to provide manuals to meet the training needs of their employees, CoPs help foster the process of storytelling among colleagues which, in turn, helps them strengthen their skills on the job. (Seely Brown & Duguid 1991)
Studies have shown that workers spend a third of their time looking for information and are five times more likely to turn to a co-worker rather than an explicit source of information (book, manual, or database) (Davenport & Prusak 2000). Time is saved by conferring with members of a CoP. Members of the community have tacit knowledge, which can be difficult to store and retrieve outside. For example, one person can share the best way to handle a situation based on his experiences, which may enable the other person to avoid mistakes and shorten the learning curve. In a CoP, members can openly discuss and brainstorm about a project, which can lead to new capabilities. The type of information that is shared and learned in a CoP is boundless (Dalkir 2005). Duguid (2005) clarifies the difference between tacit knowledge, or knowing how, and explicit knowledge, or knowing what. Performing optimally in a job requires being able to convert theory into practice. Communities of practice help the individual bridge the gap between knowing what and knowing how. (Duguid 2005)
As members of communities of practice, individuals report increased communication with people (professionals, interested parties, hobbyists), less dependence on geographic proximity, and the generation of new knowledge. (Ardichvilli, Page & Wentling 2003)
Collaboration is essential to ensuring that communities of practice thrive. Research has found that certain factors can indicate a higher level of collaboration in knowledge exchange in a business network (Sveiby & Simon 2002). Sveiby and Simons found that more seasoned colleagues tend to foster a more collaborative culture. Additionally they noted that a higher educational level also predicts a tendency to favour collaboration.
What makes a community of practice succeed depends on the purpose and objective of the community as well as the interests and resources of the members of that community. Wenger identified seven actions that could be taken in order to cultivate communities of practice:
Design the community to evolve naturally – Because the nature of a Community of Practice is dynamic, in that the interests, goals, and members are subject to change, CoP forums should be designed to support shifts in focus.
Create opportunities for open dialog within and with outside perspectives – While the members and their knowledge are the CoP’s most valuable resource, it is also beneficial to look outside of the CoP to understand the different possibilities for achieving their learning goals.
Wenger identifies 3 main levels of participation.
- The core group who participate intensely in the community through discussions and projects. This group typically takes on leadership roles in guiding the group
- The active group who attend and participate regularly, but not to the level of the leaders.
- The peripheral group who, while they are passive participants in the community, still learn from their level of involvement.
Wenger notes the third group typically represents the majority of the community.
CoPs develop both public and private community spaces – While CoPs typically operate in public spaces where all members share, discuss and explore ideas, they should also offer private exchanges. Different members of the CoP could coordinate relationships among members and resources in an individualized approach based on specific needs.
Find and nurture a regular rhythm for the community – CoPs should coordinate a thriving cycle of activities and events that allow for the members to regularly meet, reflect, and evolve. The rhythm, or pace, should maintain an anticipated level of engagement to sustain the vibrancy of the community, yet not be so fast-paced that it becomes unwieldy and overwhelming in its intensity. (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002)
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