Communities of Practice

coloured cut out people

The phrase Communities of Practice (CoP) is commonly used to define groups of people with shared interests. The concept of a CoP is not new; people instinctively group together either in support or in opposition to specific knowledge and expertise.  The roots of the current interest in CoP can be found in the work of Wenger, 1998; Lave, 1991; Bourdieu, 1977*; Giddens, 1984; Foucault, 1980* and Vygotsky, 1978).

Anthropologist Jean Lave studied a range of apprenticeship models of learning in different cultures (including midwives, tailors, meat cutters, naval quartermasters) in Lave (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.  

Ettienne Wenger used expanded Lave’s concept of apprenticeship to explore socially situated learning, in particular through practices in large organisations. Wenger concludes the learning process is not situated in either individuals or institutions, or between the student and recognised expertise of the lecturer. Instead, it emerges from the communal sharing, in particular where practice, meaning and identity come together.  Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, And Identity

The apprenticeship model can be applied to learning and teaching in higher education. The student, like the apprentice, arrives with limited knowledge in their chosen discipline and become part of a group or community sharing the same subject. The apprentice joins the group and takes up a position of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (LPP).  They belong through their apprenticeship or enrollment on a university programme where its acknowledged they’re at the beginning of their learning journey. LPP  is similar to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. This is a designated position for students/apprentices where they’re working at the starting-edge of their knowledge with the purpose of developing confidence and expertise.

Learning which derives from a CoP situation is often not intentional but incidental and of the moment. As such it can’t be designed or predicted, other the provision of places and opportunities for people with shared practice to come together. Often known as the water-cooler of printer moment, it’s the time (social and as well work orientated) when practitioners meet and for any number of reasons (e.g. in repose to a direct question, telling an anecdote, sharing a recent project development) a discussion takes place.

An example often quoted in the literature is the photocopy engineers working for Xerox. Between them, they had vast amounts of tacit, practical knowledge which is often shared in informal situations not designed or planned to be learning environments. Brown J.S., Collins A., Duguid S., 1998, Situated cognition and the culture of learning, Educational Researcher, 1, 32-42 

diagram showing community of practice elements

The three component parts of a CoP are, unsurprisingly, Domain, Community and Practice. The three of these together constitutes a CoP.

  • Domain – shared commitment and competence
  • Community – communal activities and discussion, shared interaction and learning
  • Practice – members are practitioners with a shared repertoire of experiences to draw on, resources to share, stories to tell and tried and tested methods of problem solving

An effective  CoP supports a variety of activities e.g. problem solving, answering questions, coordination, repurposing, practicing and testing out ideas and presentations, gap analysis, sharing and documenting process and experiences, arranging visits to share and extend knowledge.

CoP may be called other names such as networks and teams.  They might exist face-to-face or online or be a blend of both. Some CoP exist within organisations while others function across and beyond organisational boundaries.  Learning within a CoP might be formal with reporting structures, funding budgets, newsletters and other visible outputs or informal with less visibility. Some might be open to all while others have strict rules about entry. There are no set frameworks and structures, instead the community emerges from the social and cultural environment. As such it provides a model of socially situated learning where practice is the key driver of engagement.

*Pages on Bourdieu and Foucault can be found under the Theories tab of this blog.