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Communities of Practice:
The social dimension to the virtual world?
Following from the section on Virtual Organizations, this section will look at a different form of virtual group: Communities of Practice. The Encyclopedia from CALT at Insead offers a large selection of material that may be of general interest for this and other sections concerned with different types of virtual group.
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 (1991) originally described a Community of Practice as "... a set of relations among persons, activity and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping CoPs". Later Wenger (1998) abandoned the notion of LPP and described CoPs in terms of the interplay of four fundamental dualities - participation vs reification, designed vs emergent, identification vs negotiability and local vs global. However, although Wenger (1998) describes CoPs in terms of these four dualities, because of the perceived link to Knowledge Management, the participation vs reification duality has been the focus of most interest (see The Duality of Knowledge and An Analysis of Key Factors for the Success of the Communal Management of Knowledge for a further discussion of this point). For the purposes of the discussion of CoPs in this section we will simply add (1) that members of CoPs have a shared set of interests and motivated to do something about them and (2) that CoPs are self-generating, the membership is self selecting and they not necessarily co-located.
CoPs provide a particularly interesting example of the relationship between Knowledge Management and Distributed Collaborative work. 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 Dualities, Distributed Communities of Practice and Knowledge Management for an example of this). Finally, 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: are CoPs really suitable for use in a business and can a CoP ever be truly virtual? (see Communities of Practice: Going One Step Too Far?).
For a further discussion of this topic, see Communities of Practice: Distributed Collaborative Work? from the MSc IP HI2 course.
Finally, you might like to look at some of the publications relating to Virtual Communities of Practice from the MIS Research Group in the Department of Computer Science at the University of York.
- Computer Mediated Communications and Communities of Practice. ( pdf version)
- Communities of Practice: Going Virtual. ( pdf version)
- Communities of Practice in the Distributed International Environment ( pdf version)
and contrast these with a paper called Where is the Action in Virtual Communities of Practice? from Christopher Lueg who argues that although Communities of Practice have become increasingly popular as ways of sharing of knowledge effectively, the transfer of a concept that is deeply rooted in the lived-in world to the virtual involves significant conceptual problems.
- See any of the books from the MIS books section
- Hildreth, P. and C. Kimble. Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice. Hershey, PA, Idea Group Publishing, 2004
- Wenger, E., McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 2002
- Brown, J. S., and Duguid, P. The Social Life of Information. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000
- Wenger, E. Communities of practice. Learning meaning and identity. CUP, 1998
- Lave, J and Wenger, E. Situated Learning - Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, 1991
- Kimble C and Hildreth P. (2005) Dualities, Distributed Communities of Practice and Knowledge Management, Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(4), pp. 102-113.
- Brown, J. S., and Duguid, P. (2001). Knowledge and Organization: A Social-Practice Perspective. Organization Science, 12(2), 198-213.
- Wenger E and Snyder. WM. (2000). Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier. Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb, pp 139-145.
- Sachs P. (1995) Transforming. Work: Collaboration Learning and Design. Communications of the ACM, 38(9) pp 36-44
- Brown, J. S., and Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation. Organization Science, 2(1), pp 40-57.
- Orr J. (1990). Sharing Knowledge Celebrating Identity: War Stories and Community Memory in a Service Culture. In Middleton D. S. and Edwards D. (eds) Collective Remembering: Memory in Society. Beverley Hills CA: Sage Publications.
CoPs world wide
Communities of Practice and Work
- If you wish to search for additional sources of information, use the MIS links page
- Facilitating Knowledge Sharing in the Information Systems Academic Community
In this study the global Information Systems academic community is viewed as a community of practice in which knowledge is resident but inadequately shared.
- Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation
'Work in Progress' published by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in 1991. Recent ethnographic studies of workplace practices indicate that the ways people actually work usually differ fundamentally from the ways organizations describe that work in manuals, training programs and organizational charts. Conventional descriptions of jobs mask not only the ways people work, but also significant learning and innovation generated in the informal communities-of-practice in which they work.
- The People Are the Company
"Revolutions start in the most unexpected places and with the most unlikely heroes. Who would imagine that the conventional wisdom of the Industrial Age would be challenged by copier repair technicians - tech reps - at Xerox? Or that field research by anthropologists would support a new set of management principles for competing in the Knowledge Era?" One of the classic early articles on CoPs in a work setting from 1995.
- Communities of Practice: the Invisible Key to Success
"Organizational learning depends on these often invisible groups, but they're virtually immune to management in a conventional sense - indeed, managing them can kill them." Another classic early article on CoPs from 1996.
- Communities of Practice and Organizational Performance
"We argue that the social capital resident in communities of practice leads to behavioral change, which in turn positively influence business performance. We identify four specific performance outcomes associated with the communities of practice we studied and link these outcomes to the basic dimensions of social capital."
- Knowledge Management and Communities of Practice: an experience from Rabobank Australia and New Zealand
Knowledge management has emerged as an overarching strategy to enhance knowledge creation, information transfer, utilization, and reticulation in order to generate innovation and improve organizational performance. Part of this strategy involves the creation of Communities of Practice. This paper describes the experience establishing Communities of Practice at Rabobank Australia and New Zealand.
- Virtual Communities of Practice: Design for Collaboration and Knowledge Creation
This paper addresses the newly emerging paradigm of knowledge dissemination and collaboration in Online Communities. The authors devote a significant amount of attention to the investigation of design functionality, collaborative tools and practices that support member participation and knowledge sharing. Knowledge sharing in virtual enterprises and communities of practice presents a major challenge due to a failure to align their incentives with the objective of knowledge sharing.
- Evolving communities of practice: IBM Global Services experience
In 1995, IBM Global Services began implementing a business model that included support for the growth and development of communities of practice focused on the competencies of the organization. This paper describes the experience working with these communities over a five-year period, concentrating specifically on how the communities evolved.
- Communities of Practice
From the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, a federally owned and operated research facility in McLean, Virginia.
- Environmental Communities of Practice in the US army
The Environmental Community of Practice (eCoP) provides the public with a central point to access information on all the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental programs.
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