Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice

What are Communities of Practice?

Communities of practice is a term originally developed by Lave and Wenger (1991). It describes a learning theory with a strong relationship to the social construction of knowledge. The community of practice (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "communities of practices") consists of members who interact with each other for their pursuit of a common practice. It is therefore this collective social practice that links individuals together across official organizational boundaries and departments, and makes up the community.

It is important to note that these are not teams. A community of practice can be defined as "a group of professionals informally bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, common pursuit of solutions, and thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge" (Stewart 2001 in Botha et al 2008).

For further reading and a very detailed overview on the workings and composition of communities of practice, see this article by Etienne Wenger (one of the founders of the term).

Learning Within Communities of Practice

Learning is seen as deriving from the social process of becoming a practitioner, as it gives the individual a social context of being an integrated part of a community. The social construction of identity shapes each person's view and interpretation of the world. Learning and the creation of new knowledge can then take place within the context dependent forum of the community, and can be shared through social practice.

Lave and Wenger (1991) introduce the concept of legitimate peripheral learning (LPP). LPP links learning to participation within a community of practice. The objective is not to acquire any specific knowledge, but instead to be granted access to the community and its culture and language. As a newcomer learns the formal and informal culture and values of the community, he becomes a legitimate member. Essentially he moves form peripheral to full participation.

Brown and Duguid (1991) further investigate organizational learning from a community perspective. They refer to canonical and non canonical practice- which are concepts similar to espoused theory and theory-in-use described in the previous section. Canonical practice refers to adherence to formal rules and procedures, while non-canonical refers to the informal routines that dominate day to day procedures. Brown and Duguid warn against strict canonical focus as it inhibits the problem solving capabilities of the organization. They stress that it is unstructured dialogue, particularly through storytelling, that leads to innovation and problem solving.

Storytelling functions as a wisdom repository and is instrumental in the creation of new knowledge. This is closely linked to Levitt and March's concept of history dependent learningwhere the interpretations of events (rather than the actual events) are remembered and passed on. It is also somewhat reminiscent of Nonaka's externalization process, when tacit knowledge is made explicit often through the use of metaphor.

Garfield (2018) presents a number of principles concerning communities in organizations, including:

  • They must be independent of organizational structure.
  • They are not teams, sites, blogs, etc; they are people who interact and they are based on topics.
  • Community membership cannot be forced; it must be voluntary.
  • Communities should span organizational, functional and geographic boundaries.
  • Communities require a "critical mass" of members.
  • Communities must be nurtured.

The Implications to KM

Botha et al (2008) summarize the key factors regarding communities of practice as follows:

  • Learning is a social phenomenon
  • Knowledge is integrated into the culture, values, and language of the community
  • Learning and community membership are inseparable
  • We learn by doing and therefore knowledge and practice are inseparable.
  • Empowerment is key to learning: The best learning environments are created when there are real consequences to the individual and his community of practice.

Management must understand the advantages, disadvantages, and limitations of communities of practice. For example, because they are so loosely defined it may be very hard to identify them when a problem needs to be solved- to resolve this some companies today are mapping their communities of practice (Botha 2008). Another issue could be the problem of transferring and combining knowledge across the firm. Due to the close ties to "doing" as well as the cultural elements, this may require innovative solutions- e.g. using temporary cross functional project teams that can leverage knowledge from different areas, apply it, learn, and the redistribute the new knowledge back into the individual members' communities.

All this should underline the importance of recognizing and supporting communities of practice. Knowledge management (KM) initiatives and systems must therefore be supportive, non-disruptive, and must not enforce canonical practice.

Written by Emil Hajric Emil Hajric

Published August 4th, 2023

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