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Knowledge Management and Communities of Practice

Lave and Wenger first introduced the concept of a Community of Practice (CoP) in 1991. Lave and Wenger saw the acquisition of knowledge as a social process where people can participate in communal learning at different levels depending on their level of authority or seniority in the group, i.e. whether they are a newcomer or have been a member for a long time. Central to their notion of a CoP as a means of acquiring knowledge is the process by which a newcomer moves from peripheral to full participation in the community as they learn from others; they termed this process Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP). Since then, the notion of a CoP has now been expanded to encompass a far wider range of groups. The term Communities of Practice (CoPs) has now been applied to a range of different groups, from project teams to functional departments. There have also been several attempts to redefine CoPs in such a way that they are relevant to the needs of commercial organizations and attempts by some management consultancies to formalize methods to create them.

Lave and Wenger's (1991) originally described a CoP as "a set of relations among persons, activity and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping CoPs". For the discussion of CoPs in this section we will add (1) that members of CoPs have a shared set of interests and are motivated to do something about them and (2) that CoPs are self-generating, the membership is self selecting and CoPs are not necessarily co-located.

CoPs provide a particularly interesting example of the relationship between Knowledge Management and Distributed Collaborative work (see The Duality of Knowledge for a further discussion of this point). Based on our previous discussion of KM and DCW, we might expect CoPs to be concerned solely with soft knowledge and Hot DCW. However research into the way that geographically distributed CoPs work has shown that aspects of hard KM, such as the use of shared documents which act as boundary objects, also play a vital role (see Communities of Practice in the Distributed International Environment for examples of this). Additionally, although CoPs have recently been the subject of much interest in the business world, the notion of using a CoP in such setting is itself problematical.

Firstly, CoPs do not fit comfortably with the notion of work within a formal organizational setting. For Lave and Wenger (1991), legitimacy was gained by being accepted and gaining informal authority through consensus within the group. This notion often sits uncomfortably with the more formal view of a CoP where rank or position in an organizational hierarchy is seen as the principal source of authority. (See Kolbotn, R (2004) Communities of Practice in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Chapter 7 in Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice, Paul Hildreth and Chris Kimble (Eds), Idea Group Publishing for a further discussion of this point.)

Secondly, while CoPs are clearly collaborative, there is some dispute about whether they can ever be truly virtual (see, Communities of Practice: Going Virtual for a further discussion of this point). However, if CoPs can become virtual, what effect might this have on the nature of a CoP? For example, through electronic networking, it may be possible for members of a CoP to make links with individuals at other locations who do similar work. These individuals might also be members of CoPs. This process could continue and one CoP could link with a CoP in a different area of the organization, possibly in another organization or even in a different country. If this were to continue we could be left with a situation as shown below where a CoP could continue to expand until everybody who had an interest in a particular area became a member.

Network CoPs in a virtual environment

From Computer Mediated Communications and Communities of Practice

In Lave and Wenger's (1991) original view of a CoP this could not happen as the CoPs they studied were co-located. Later Wenger (1998) proposed a view of an organization, not as a single CoP, but as a constellation of interrelated CoPs that reflected how membership of CoPs overlapped within an organization to allow the transfer of knowledge and learning through social links. More recently, Brown and Duguid (2000) coined the term Network of Practice to describe these wider but more diffuse social networks. (See Teigland, R and McLure Wasko, M (2004) Extending Richness with Reach: Participation and Knowledge Exchange in Electronic Networks of Practice. Chapter 19 in Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice, Paul Hildreth and Chris Kimble (Eds), Idea Group Publishing for a further discussion of this point.)



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