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A community of practice is a term that is extremely broad. The concept of the communities of practice derived from theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991, who primarily identified the term in explaining situated learning, an informal way of learning through social interaction, rather than a process of cognitive transmission. Such learning is one of high interaction, learning through actively engaging in the practice itself, within a theoretical framework, rather than the individual mind. Lave and Wenger’s (1991) has since been an iconic text that has been widely cited, elaborated and expanded by others, and much recently utilised heavily in the workplace learning field. The purpose of this analysis is to explore, break down, and critically analyse Wenger’s concept of the communities of practice, in order to understand the management of knowledge and its significance among practitioners, management academics and individuals in recent years.
Wenger (2010) in one of her books explains that ‘a community of practice can be perceived as a simple social system, and one of a complex social system that can be perceived as constituted by interrelated communities of practice.’ The approach significantly focuses on the social interactive dimensions of situated learning. According to Wenger (1998), the definition of meaning within communities of practice is negotiated through a process of reification and participation. She explains that ‘any community of practice produces abstractions, tools, symbols, stories, terms, and concepts that reify something of that practice in a congealed form’ (Wenger, 1998). Communities in particular is an important focus because as explained by Wenger (2000), ‘communities of practice are the basic building blocks of a social learning system because they are the social ‘containers’ of the competences that make up such a system’. Wenger (1998) identifies three elements: mutual engagement, the interaction between one another where relationships and norms are established; joint enterprise, where members mix with one another through their collectively developed understanding of their community; and a shared repertoire, access to communal resources, i.e. language, routines, tools, styles. Moreover, Wenger (2000) individualises three elements of belonging to a social learning system through engagement, participating in activities with one another; imagination, constructing literal imagination, ‘of ourselves, our communities, and of the world, in order to orient ourselves, to reflect on our situation, and to explore possibilities’ (Roberts, 2006), and alignment where we ensure that activities are aligned in order to enable the community to be effective beyond engagement.
‘Communities of practice are not stable of static entities. They evolve over time as new members join and others leave’ (Roberts, 2006). For example, an organisation may form a team to work on a particular project, and in time, the team may develop into a community of practice. Management cannot determine a community of practice. What it can do however, is accelerate the ‘spontaneous emergence of communities of practice and support those communities of practice that do develop’ (Roberts, 2006). Suggested by Brown and Duguid (2001a), a community of practice allows managers to seek in structuring spontaneity; more specifically, they play a role to structure fragmented practice across their organisation. Managers are in position in supporting the development of communities of practice while also encouraging alignments of shifting practices between communities, thus aiding the knowledge transfer across the organisation (Brown and Duguid, 2001). In much recent contributions, it has been suggested that communities can be leveraged and refined for strategic advantage (Saint-Onge, 2012, Wenger, 2002). Aligned with this perspective, nowadays numerous consultancy companies are implementing the communities of practice approach in order to apply their best practices and to spread and develop existing knowledge.
Implementing communities of practice into an organisational environment
As emphasised by Wenger (2002), a community of practice differs from intra-organisational networks, i.e. operational teams, project teams, and purely informal networks. It differs in a sense that roles are not assigned in any formal manner to the participants and are not distinct with respect to the concept. The progress of a community of practice is not determined by being categorised in stages, i.e. being promoted, instead it is measured by ‘the quantity of practices developed and exchanged within the community of practice’ (Probst and Borzillo, 2008). Members of a Community of practice share common interests with one another in developing innovations in their specific field, whilst in contrast to an informal network, it would only stay beneficial to a member once they find it beneficial for their professional needs. Though sharing common interests with one another is not enough. A community of practice aid members in cultivating relationships that will help them grow and develop (Gonçalves, 2019).
Communities of practice allow the share of know-how and the infinite knowledge in each individual head possible. The concept aids in fostering an environment where knowledge can rise through creating and sharing ideas to improve effectiveness of prevailing practices used in organisations (Lesser and Everest, 2001). It has been a practice that has long been used as an effective strategy for leveraging organisations over the past decades. The role of the communities of practice in the business world is mainly recognised in the knowledge management framework. As knowledge management gradually develops, the need for a framework that is effective has become very apparent amongst organisations. The practice can aid leverage in organisations in several ways: by developing professional skills, solve problems, generate innovations and even help organisations retain and find their talent.
Developing professional skills
One of the most prevalent adoption of the communities of practice is by helping individuals succeed in their career through knowledge transfer. A component that is necessary of a community of practice is regular interactions of the members. The concept is widely utilised within organisations as a professional development tool. Sharing knowledge can be practiced in many different ways, from fortnightly meetings where employees can share tips of productivity between each other, discuss challenges as well as enhance their skills.
Communities of practice is different to other learning models built around practices that members usually participate in. A community of practice promotes learning fluidly where the participation of a member varies from one person to another. An example of this may be that one may enter the community as one whom is quiet, an observer or a listener, and later on becomes a participant that is fairly active and one of constant contribution, and then eventually becomes a facilitator of community activities.
Organisations currently face the daily pressures of sharing employee know-how and generating innovations throughout their organisations. Consequently, they are constrained in exploring different approaches in gaining meaningful insights. Organisations must understand that to be able to meet the altering demands of modern consumers, the must comprehend innovation as a process that is open and collaborative.
With the technological emergence of online communities of practice, it has enabled organisations innovate ideas by incorporating customer feedback and insights. Companies that are sponsored have sprung, which not only allowed organisations to obtain a better connection with their customers, but it also aided in helping their brand by raising brand awareness, increasing loyalty and generating excitement amongst customers. Well-known brands like Nike, Adobe, and Dell are one among the tech giants that employed the communities of practice approach in leveraging their brand and to enhance their customer engagement.
Retain and acquire clients
The key to retaining top talent within an organisation is by assisting employees in developing their skills to an advanced level. Currently organisations encourage the utilisation of platforms and tools allowing employees to collaborate and communicate, exchange advice and tips and to motivate one another. By implementing this strategy, it aids organisations in achieving knowledge transfer, as well as promoting professional and personal development, which has all helped retain top employees.
By incorporating organisations into onboarding and training, it would encourage its employees in connecting with their colleagues, asking questions, accessing learning resources, and in turn receive the support they need. Members of a communities of practice are often motivated by their elemental desire to share knowledge and expertise, to learn for themselves and from their peers. It is important that organisations support, enable, and provide their employees tools in order to benefit and allow their organisation to thrive to its best potential.
How the concept helps organisations create value for their organisationand their employees
Employees within an organisation given unlimited access to help with any possible problem, allowing them to spend less amount of time searching for information or solutions. Simply by listening to their peers voice their perspectives and experiences, members of the communities of practice are able to construct solutions and decisions at a higher level. By feeling supported within their community, members feel they would be more likely to take risks and try new things. Communities of practice contribute quite significantly to the organisation’s long-term strategy, as a long-term value, and also drive success and growth by discussing the demand for development professionally, assisting employees in keeping acquainted new developments, and also receiving insights from employees and customers that are meaningful.
Communities aid in creating results that are tangible: access to information at a faster manner, skill improvement, reduced costs, workflow improvement, new methodologies and innovations. Communities of practice advantage in intangible outcomes, more importantly, like built relationships and the sense of belongingness amongst people. It also enables companies to design business strategies by cooperating with collective learning. Members of the community are able to propose strategies they believe can deliver value to their organisation, whilst also directly benefiting from their own participation.
How communities of practice fail in organisations
Whilst the communities of practice approach can highly benefit an organisation, it also has some downfalls. Wenger (2002) in her book, Cultivating Communities of Practice herself devotes a chapter to the ‘downsides’ of the concept with an argument that ‘very qualities that make a community ideal structure for learning – a shared perspectives on a domain, trust, a communal identity, longstanding relationships, an established practice – are the same qualities that can hold it hostage to its history and its achievements’. Whilst looking at a much broader perspective of the concept, this section discovers difficulties evident and unresolved issues.
Lack of core group
Communities of practice may lack core groups that actively engage in activities. It is important communities consist of regular participation and the inflow of fresh ideas, member support on problem solving, that is usually emerged at the early stage of a community of practice but lacks eventually. For example, an organisation may not have sufficient time in regularly meeting and discussing critical issues. Therefore, they failed in developing a core group that is dedicated in being a point of reference and a driving force.
Essentially to understand the dynamics of power in a community of practice is fundamental in the development of understanding fully the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Power is the ‘ability of capacity to achieve something, whether by influence, force or control’ (Roberts, 2006). While Wenger (2002) explains that meaning can be negotiated within a community of practice, it is also important to recognise the significance of the power role in this process. A community of practice ideally would include a variety of members, in terms of age, personality, experience, expertise, authority within the organisation. Power is indeed evident in a sense of participation. From Lave and Wenger’s (1991) study of situated learning, community members that are new shift from being the ‘guinea pigs’ (periphery) to an active member, as eventually they would have developed and learnt knowledge from skilled practitioners within the community. However, a peripheral community member, in a broader organisational context, may not necessarily grow past peripheral participation. This arises that meanings could continue to be a reflection of a source of power that is dominant. Though Lave and Wenger (1991) in their study note power as a significance in shaping the validity of participation and peripherality, on the other hand they also fail in investigating the consequences of the distribution of power.
Trust is always vital within any individual. Without trust, members may feel reluctant in voicing their opinions and knowledge with others. Defining and understanding the term may be complex and problematic, however Lazaric and Lorenz (1998) discuss that there are three definitions of trust in which they provide a general definition of the term. By having a relationship of trust between members signifies the ability in sharing mutual understanding at a higher degree that is constructed upon a mutual appreciation of a shared cultural and social context. Studies show that employees and management with strong hierarchal control and low levels of trust can fail in supporting operational communities of practice. Employees may feel competition between one another and may discourage collaboration that is required in the maintenance and establishment of a successful community of practice. The concept may only be better for organisational environments that are trusting and harmonious, where they are given an autonomy of a high degree.
Size and spatial reach
The concept was presented orginally as a practice that is ‘spontaneous, self organising, and processed fluidly’ (Lave, 1991). Communities of practice are usually applied in multinational organisations, and though they can be identified in small groups of members working in close proximity, as well as in communities of practice distributed within 1500 people, there is a huge difference between these two kinds of communities of practice. Is it being realistic in applying the exact principles to these communities? A community of large distribution can be seen as a ‘collection of communities of practice.’
Communities of practice that are successful are ones of with well-balanced systems that alternate between exploring brand new practices, as well as exploiting existing practices. Though communities of practice are ‘self-organised and spontaneous through members needs, these systems should be directed by strategic intentions. Successful communities of practice are often found in organisations where members and experts enjoy absolute freedom in regards to collaborating across their fields. In context, the management must encourage collaboration and interaction between members. Successful and unsuccessful communities of practice should be monitored by the means of an approach that is ethnological, by interacting with as many members in order to gain a deeper understanding of the significance of the success and failure of a community of practice.
- BROWN, J. S. & DUGUID, P. 2001. Structure and Spontaneity: Knowledge and Organization.
- LAVE, J. 1991. Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge ;, Cambridge University Press.
- LESSER, E. & EVEREST, K. 2001. Using communities of practice to manage intellectual capital. Ivey Business Journal, 65, 37-41.
- PROBST, G. & BORZILLO, S. 2008. Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail. European Management Journal, 26, 335-347.
- ROBERTS, J. 2006. Limits to Communities of Practice. Journal of Management Studies, 43, 621-622.
- SAINT-ONGE, H. 2012. Leveraging Communities of Practice for Strategic Advantage, Burlington, Taylor and Francis.
- WENGER, E. 1998. Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity, Cambridge, U.K. ;, Cambridge University Press.
- WENGER, E. 2002. Cultivating communities of practice : a guide to managing knowledge, Boston, Mass, Harvard Business School Press.
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