Communities of Practice

The notion of Communities of Practice (CoPs) is one which has attracted a good deal of attention over the past few years. Eckert (2006, p1), defines CoPs as consisting of groups of people who are “engaged on an ongoing basis in some common endeavour”. They come about as a result of people having a common interest or goal. These “play an important role in forming their members’ participation in, and orientation to, the world around them” (Eckert, 2006, p1).  Furthermore, there is a clear level of accountability between individual members and the group and their place “in the broader social order” (Eckert, 2006, p1). There are also important shared aspects in terms of ‘language’, extending beyond national tongues to the language of the common interest or ‘practice’ which binds it.The social view of learning, developed by theorists like Vygotsky, suggests that a large proportion of our learning develops from our experiences as co-participants in the learning process. Smith (2009) cites Lave and Wenger (1991) as seeing this as an occurrence in communities of common practice. A example of such a community would be on-the-job learning such as an apprenticeship (blacksmithing, for example), where apprentices are ‘situated with’ and ‘scaffolded’ by a master blacksmith and the blacksmithing community, who share theory, practice and expertise to guide learning. For Lave and Wenger (1991), this social relationship, a situation of co-participation, is more relevant than the view of learning as the acquisition of knowledge – a model which still tends to dominate in formal education settings.

While there are clear links between the work of Wenger and Vygotsky,  the idea of specific communities of practice go further. Wenger (2007), highlights three elements as crucial in distinguishing communities of practice from informal groups like clubs.  These are the domain, the community and the practice.

  • The Domain – Communities of practice have a clearly defined domains of interest to which members are committed and a shared competence which distinguish them from others
  • The Community – In developing their understanding of this domain, members build communal relationships, discussing issues and sharing information, which enable them to learn from one another
  • The Practice – Members are practitioners who develop and share a wide range of resources – tools,  stories, solutions to recurring problems. This ‘shared practice’ required sustained interaction and time.  (Smith, 2009).

More recently, Wenger (2004) has looked at the business world and explored the idea of communities of practice as knowledge management bodies. This is based on the idea that knowledge requires careful management in order to make best use of it. It is important to clarify Wenger’s definition of ‘knowledge’ and ‘management’ for the purposes of this discussion. Firstly, knowledge is distinct  from ‘information’ and other organisational assets and management refers to caring for, growing and making more useful. In terms of knowledge management, a proper organisational context, with processes to coordinate the management and integration of knowledge into business processes need to be in place. The tools required include technology gathering, storing and collating information, “interpersonal connections… document repositories, as well as institutional and cultural norms of paying attention to knowledge”. (Wenger, 2004, p 1).

cop1However, ‘practitioners’, involved actively in the management process, are the most important tool for knowledge management, without whom the organisation’s ability to manage knowledge would be seriously limited.  These ‘practitioners’, who have developed and are therefore thoroughly conversant with the knowledge, are seen as communities of practice –  “the social fabric of knowledge”  (Wenger, 2004, p1).

Wenger’s management of knowledge model is circular, involving the performance of domains, communities and practices being used to develop strategies for learning, sharing and stewarding. These inform future performance. (Source: Wenger, E. (2004) Knowledge management as a doughnut: Shaping your knowledge strategy through communities of practice.)

donutCommunities of practice have been around for a long while. Medieval guilds operated as communities of practice, developing skills and strategies which enabled them to maintain control over their domains of expertise. Professional communities today are much the same, be they cutting edge scientific research groups or members of secret hacking communities, where knowledge is developed, tested and shared in a common cause. However, this does not mean that communities of practice are limited to highly focused interests and those with dubious intentions. They are open to all and operate in a number of guises over a range of platforms – academic, scientific, political and business. It is worthwhile looking at the way in which technology can support communities of practice in education.

One of the main strengths of digital technologies is their ability to facilitate access to, and the interrogation, sharing, storing and updating of information. Using effective search strategies means that most information is only a few clicks away. Easy-to-use software provides the capacity to analyse information, to develop visual representations which make it easier to understand, to edit, mash reinterpret and re-present information. These process, highlighted in the literature on digital literacies,  add to our understanding and our overall store of knowledge, which is easy to share using computer mediated communication systems. These include e-mail, messages, video conferencing and multimedia applications such as blogs, wikis, Twitter and You Tube. The strength of these tools is that they make sharing easy using tags, provide two way communication via comments and also in terms of their openness, as in the case of wikis. Wikis are particularly good as collaborative tools for communities of practice, given that they allow practitioners to work collaboratively on a single platform, sharing ideas and honing understanding.

The power of Web 2.0 technologies is well recognised. As early as 2004, Siemens (cited in Gunawardena et al. 2005) raised the need to consider new theoretical frameworks which would provide a better understanding of the impact of Web 2.0 tools. Gunawardena et al. (2009, p5) have commented on the radical changes in learning that Web 2.0 applications are driving. A reason for this is that participatory technologies are “challenging existing learning theories, primarily because the theories were developed when wide-ranging online communication between people of different races, locations, and viewpoints was not possible.” Kukulska-Hulme and Traxler (2013) are calling for us to consider a new theory of learning which will enable us to better understand the impact of new mobile technologies on learning.

What is clear is that modern technologies provide the potential to extend learning well beyond traditional boundaries. Social software like blogs, Delicious, Twitter, Flickr and Pintrest make sharing information and ideas much easier. Working collaboratively across borders and continents is now a reality and the potential to connect with others with similar interests has never been greater. However, wikis are especially suited to supporting CoPs, given their nature as collaborative tools.

Recent moves towards MOOCs enable free access to academic course material, as social and technological developments change our understanding of community and the way in which we build and share knowledge. Traditional notions of copyright are being challenged, as owners of data find easier ways to control the use of their artefacts. Services like Spotify and Google Play are simplifying the process of listening to music while ensuring that artists are paid for their work. In essence, the potential for setting up communities of practice has never been greater, as our world becomes increasingly connected.

The links below are a few of many available on this topic.

Situated Learning and Communities of Practice – Alkydale.

What is a Community of Practice?  Brantlee Underhill talks to Etienne Wenger.

The Situated Learning Theory. Heidi Digby on Jean Lave’s theory of Situated Learning.

Cultivating Communities of Practice: Making Them Grow – Bruce Knox.

Communities of Practice Using Wiki – Dr. Brand Niemann. 

Communities of Practice – A Brief Introduction. Wengner, E. & Traynor, B. Beat Workshops, 2014.

Rio Tinto – using CoPs to solve problems.


Cox, A. (2005) Communities of Practice, A critical review of four seminal works. Published in Journal of Information Science.

Eckert, P. (2006) Communities of Practice. Accessed December 21, 2013.

Gunawardena, C., Hermans. M., Sanches, D., Bohley, M. & Tuttle, R. (2009) A theoretical framework for building online communities of practice with social networking tools. Educational Media International, 46(1), pages 3-16. Accessed December 22, 2013.

Kukulska-Hulme, A. and Traxler, J. (2013) Design Principles for Mobile Learning. In Beetham, H. and Sharpe R. (2013) (Eds). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age. Designing for 21st century learning. (2nd ed.)

Lave, J, & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation – Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.

Smith, M. (1999)  The social/situational orientation to learning. Infed. Accessed December 21, 2013

Smith, M. (2009) Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice. Infed. Accessed December 21, 2013

Wenger, E. (1996) Communiites of Practice – the social fabric of a learning organisation. The Healthcare Forum Journal; Jul/Aug 1996; 39,(4). 20-26. Accessed 21 December 2013.

Wenger, E. (2004)  Knowledge management as a doughnut. Shaping your knowledge strategy through communities of practice. Ivey Business Journal. Improving the Practice of Management. Accessed 22 December, 2013.


The Networked Student – Drexler  :: Connectivism – Burke  :: Connectivism – Siemens  ::  Wikipedia  ::  New South Wales Health


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