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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.

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.






General sources CoPs world wide Communities of Practice and Work Some examples

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