Community of practice

A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a craft or a profession. The concept was first proposed by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning (Lave & Wenger 1991). Wenger then significantly expanded on the concept in his 1998 book Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998).

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 members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger 1991).

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, Bourhis & Jacob 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 and participate in community work on the go.

Communities of practice are not new phenomena: this type of learning 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. Peirce's concept of the "community of inquiry" (Shields 2003), but also John Dewey's principle of learning through occupation (Wallace 2007).

Overview

Origin and development

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.

Early years

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 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).

Later years

In his later work, Wenger (1998) 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).

  • Mutual Engagement: 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.
  • Joint Enterprise: 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.
  • Shared Repertoire: 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.

Present work

For Etienne Wenger, learning is central to human identity. A primary focus of Wenger’s more recent work is on learning as social participation – the individual as an active participant in the practices of social communities, and in the construction of his/her identity through these communities (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002). In this context, a community of practice is 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.

The structural characteristics of a community of practice are again redefined to a domain of knowledge, a notion of community and a practice.

Domain
A domain of knowledge creates common ground, inspires members to participate, guides their learning and gives meaning to their actions.
Community
The notion of a community creates the social fabric for that learning. A strong community fosters interactions and encourages a willingness to share ideas.
Practice
While the domain provides the general area of interest for the community, the practice is the specific focus around which the community develops, shares and maintains its core of knowledge.

In many organizations, communities of practice have become an integral part of the organization structure (McDermott & Archibald 2010). These communities take on knowledge stewarding tasks that were formerly covered by more formal organizational structures. In some organizations there are both formal and informal communities of practice. There is a great deal of interest within organizations 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 organization performance. Lesser & Storck (2001, p. 836) identify four areas of organizational 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