Communities of Practice
This page was originally authored by Mark Reed. (2008)
This page was revised by Jaki Braidwood (2009), David De Pieri (2009).
The concept Communities of Practice (often abbreviated as CoP) was developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in order to describe how people learn or create knowledge through their participation in groups. According to Wenger (1998), a CoP defines itself along three dimensions:
- What it is about — its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members
- How it functions — the relationships of mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity
- What capability it has produced — the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time. 
Participation in CoP may vary from the transfer of soft knowledge through situated learning experiences such as apprenticeships to international commercial organizations and higher education institutions that utilize virtual communities to improve participants’ knowledge and the general knowledge within the domain that is being explored.
- 1 Key Concepts
- 2 The relationship between Communities of Practice and Knowledge Management
- 3 Communities of Practice, Learning Communities and Organizational Learning
- 4 Limitations of Traditional Communities of Practice
- 5 Virtual Communities of Practice
- 6 Criticisms of Virtual Communities of Practice
- 7 The current situation with regard to Communities of Practice
The development of CoP is based on the idea of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) which Lave and Wenger considered to be the way people learn through their interaction in the world. LPP uses three components - legitimation, participation and peripherality - to define itself but each of these components cannot be considered to be mutually exclusive of each other. Legitimation describes the power and control one may have in belonging within a group and may be formal (rank) or informal (experience). Participation is also concerned with belonging in a group and is manifested in the activities that all members of a group are part of and play a role in. It is difficult to distinguish this element from the idea of community. Peripherality is concerned with the extent to which an individual is engaged with the group in the activities that take place.  Wenger describes the emergence of Communities of Practice from the concept of LPP due to the dynamic of tension being created through interplay within four different dualities. They are described as: participation vs. reification, designed vs. emergent, identification vs. negotiability, and local vs. global (Wenger, 1998).
Reification can be described as taking the abstract and amorphous nature of an interaction within a group of people and turning it into something that is hard and substantial such as a document. According to Wenger this process must be organized and streamlined or it will degrade to informal dialogue. The component of participation occurs when one is engaged in creating or negotiating meaning from the interaction within a group. This process is essential for countering the ambiguity that occurs during reification. When this dialectical interaction between reification and participation successfully occurs the individuals working together on the learning task are said to be in alignment with accomplishing the communal learning task. The process of coordinating perspectives and actions toward a common learning task is not easily accomplished, as it requires individuals to connect with other participants who have other ways of thinking. It is this dynamic that is both a challenge and a major strength of CoP. Much research has been done on how to utilize and maximize this type of learning; however, there is a fine balance and a prescribed formula for creating and nurturing CoP does not exist. Some of these groups may flourish without intervention, but many will require some intervention to maximize their potential to create and retain knowledge. There is a basic need for experts to be involved, but according to Wegner (1998) the emphasis for success in a CoP is based on internal leadership, which may occur in many ways:
- The inspirational leadership provided by thought leaders and recognized experts
- The day-to-day leadership provided by those who organize activities
- The classificatory leadership provided by those who collect and organize information in order to document practices
- The interpersonal leadership provided by those who weave the community's social fabric
- The boundary leadership provided by those who connect the community to other communities
- The institutional leadership provided by those who maintain links with other organizational constituencies, in particular the official hierarchy
- The cutting-edge leadership provided by those who shepherd "out-of-the-box" initiatives
The relationship between Communities of Practice and Knowledge Management
According to Hildreth and Kimble (2002), most Knowledge Management (KM) projects seek to record and store information so that it can be retrieved and utilized to meet the needs of the user. Increasingly, attention is being turned toward the utilization of tacit or soft knowledge. Hildreth and Kimble (2002) describe soft knowledge as internalized experience, skills, internalized domain knowledge and cultural knowledge embedded in practice. In a CoP, the process of LPP enables the development of soft knowledge through social interaction with the members. This, in turn, enhances the transfer and meaning of hard, or explicit knowledge as these two types of knowledge are intertwined. When developing a KM system, the attributes and development of soft knowledge using models such as Wenger’s model of reificaition/participation duality are necessary to balance the interaction between hard and soft forms. Encouraging CoP as forums for sharing and creating will nurture the development of both tacit and explicit knowledge.
Knowledge can be examined from three theoretical perspectives. First, as an object knowledge exists independently of the human mind as a corporate asset that can be owned and used as needed. Secondly, knowledge can be considered as existing in the minds of people who are utilized by a corporation to share their knowledge with others often in exchange for ‘intangible’ returns. The third perspective proposes that KM systems are developed as a result of the development and support of a CoP. From this perspective, knowledge within a CoP is embedded within the community as a product of the context or goal of the community and as a result greater then any one individual. Computer based collaborative tools such as listservs, electronic discussion groups, electronic bulletin boards and chat facilities are well suited for knowledge development from this perspective (M. Wasko, S. Faraj, 2000).
Communities of Practice, Learning Communities and Organizational Learning
Organizational Learning is a process designed to assist organizations in adapting to change so that individuals or groups with a vested interest can respond to challenges, new information, and new situations in an effort to effectively plan to meet the needs of the organization. According to Imants (2003), learning communities and communities of practice are related in the ways they both stimulate organizational learning for teachers and workers, but remain distinct processes. Learning communities are not characterized by the same tight-knit relationships found in CoP. Individuals in a learning community tend to feel less responsibility towards the group as a whole, whereas CoP members develop more meaningful ties and identify strongly with each other in their shared practice. Establishing Communities of Practice as one part of organizational learning is an effective method to elicit tacit knowledge from a group that is working together to accomplish a goal.
Limitations of Traditional Communities of Practice
As there are many valuable and positive aspects that occur in Communities of Practice whether virtual or face to face, there are also limitations with this form of information gathering and sharing. As described by Wenger, McDermott & Snyder (2002), communities, if not held in check, can hoard knowledge, limit innovation and hold others hostage to their expertise. This inclusion deals with the traditional or face to face arrangement of community life.
According to Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, there are three levels of community life: single communities, constellations of communities and organizations. In the Single Community, limitations stem from the temptation of ownership where over-enthusiasm can lead to excessive zealousness and exclusive ownership. If the community is well entrenched and widely recognized, it may become saturated with arrogance. Outsiders feel like hostages to the self-righteous experts. If a new idea is introduced to the community, a sense of Imperialism begins to strangle the new group efforts or ideas. The term, “knowledge police” describes a strong sense of ownership where individuals believe they need to be consulted on every issue of the community. These imperialists, because of passionate beliefs, are not open to alternate views, opinions of outside experts or new methodologies.
Constellations of Communities are defined as groups of communities that align themselves with specific interests. This type of community thrives so long as they connect well with other communities and constituencies. Criticisms of this nature of community begin when members deepen their focus and inadvertently and inevitably create boundaries. Trust becomes an issue as new (benchmarks) vocabularies in perspectives, standards, values and experiences are jeopardized. Everyone is after first prize so a boundary of silence becomes a new challenge in managing knowledge. Stickiness is a term described by the authors where a community will effectively create new and original technical jargon in attempts to conceal their product or information. Knowledge 'sticks' within the boundary of the community. In direct contrast, leakiness refers to knowledge gained through shared practices that cross organizational boundaries whether purposely or unintentional.
Within a larger organizational context, Communities of Practice work best if allowed to develop across boundaries. Wikipedia defines an Organization as “a social arrangement which pursues collective goals, which controls its own performance, and which has a boundary separating it from its environment.” Organizations can restrict community development with excessive bureaucratic structures and can become overly political, rigid, irrational and rampant with conflict and suspicion which leads to counter productivity. In addition, the nature of the design of an organization requires accountability and is not well-suited for communities. When staff become measured and rewarded, there was little incentive to share ideas and expertise within the organization. Conversely, some individuals may find it easy to become “lost” in an organization, which can also stagnate its progress.
Communities of Practice have the most potential if they materialize within less formal and more natural structures. It is to their benefit if organizational structures are horizontally connected, but traditionally organizations are more vertically aligned. If maintaining the hierarchy is of greater importance to individuals within the community of practice, instead of developing strategic capabilities, then it will not be successful.
Time is also another limiting factor that impacts communities of practice in different ways. Communities of Practice need time to develop naturally as well as opportunities for consistent participation. If work demands increase, individuals may lack the necessary time needed for the CoP to effectively function. Incorporating communities of practice within schools is another instance where time may not be as available as a community of practice requires. To optimize the CoP’s potential, time also needs to be available for participants to engage in informal processes with other group members in addition to more formal ones.
Virtual Communities of Practice
Virtual communities of Practice are similar to CoP as described previously with the distinction that the individuals communicate online. Through this interaction about a particular problem or interest, the goal of improving knowledge for each of the participants and the overall domain of the topic remains. Typically CoP are used to increase the knowledge of participants as formal education or professional development, but it is also possible to conduct original research. Digital technologies allow accessibility to knowledge whenever and wherever participants are located through the use of browser-activated search engines to locate information and a communication infrastructure so participants can connect to one another. This perspective focuses on explicit information but through asynchronous communication a shared understanding of a particular topic/ issue and the underlying cultural assumptions inherent in individual perceptions can be examined and understood. Participants can gain a higher awareness of the implicit aspects of knowledge. A recent study by Gannon-Leary, P. & Fontainha, E. (2007)  indicates that there is a dramatic increase in the use of CoP in virtual learning communities particularly in the delivery of courses and programs from higher education institutions (HEIs). They indicate that the potential for virtual CoP is afforded through information communication technologies (particularly geographically isolated areas). There are clear benefits such as connectedness, shared passion and a deepening of knowledge. Barriers exist in the form of limitations within a discipline to disseminate specialized knowledge that is unique and independent to a particular academic culture. Collegiality may be diminished due to not being physically co-located and shifting membership (which is characteristic of a CoP) needs to be countered by effective internal leadership. Building trust both for personal interaction and institutionally regarding authorship for original ideas can also be barriers. Despite this documentation, virtual CoPs in networked learning and elearning is growing in Europe as evidenced by the organizations that are promoting, developing and studying how to engage more effectively in this area of learning.
Criticisms of Virtual Communities of Practice
In more recent years, Communities of Practice have been critically analysed with regards to their possible drawbacks in their assumed ability to easily transfer into the virtual world. While many have successfully integrated a virtual component, Kimble and Hildreth  argue that virtual communities have great difficulty establishing strong connections between members because they lack the opportunity for face to face interaction. They suggest that these communities should be more aptly labeled Networks of Practice (NoP) because individuals within this scenario often work in isolation developing the network one contact at a time. According to Seely Brown and Duguid (2000), Networks of Practice (NoP) describe groups of people who are geographically separate, and may never get to know each other personally, but who share similar work or interests.” Organization based on personal social networks constitutes the primary difference between NoP and CoP, as the the latter ones focus more on the mutual benefits within collective groups that are able to build a strong sense of community.
The current situation with regard to Communities of Practice
Research by Gongla & Rizzuto in 2001 indicates that “examples of communities of practice are found in many organizations and have been called by different names at various times, names such as learning communities at Hewlett-Packard Company, family groups at Xerox Corporation, thematic groups at the World Bank, peer groups at British Petroleum, p.l.c., and knowledge networks at IBM Global Services”. Furthermore, in 2001 there was an established need to identify what CoP design strategies were working and how this type of management could be improved and utilized in the business environment. What they learned was that each CoP developed uniquely and there were distinct stages that the communities tended to move through, but this was not a strict guideline. The transition between the stages also tended to fluctuate back and forth at times. This could lead to frustration and periods when the members and the leadership were confounded; however, understanding this nuance in the evolution of a CoP would give a group confidence and motivation to persevere. Also, even though groups did not always reach the later stages of CoP and were in a continual stage of building they could “provide a magnet for capturing and sharing intellectual capital and attracting skilled resources. And they are in a position to advance, if the business needs or community members require it.” The influence that a CoP has on a business organization can also be evaluated in terms of the development and maintenance of Social Capital (SC). Lesser and Storck (2001)  espouse the notion of thinking about a CoP “as an engine for the development of SC” which in turn creates an environment that positively impacts business performance. More studies are needed to reflect the current use, perceptions of how CoP are performing as an effective business strategy, and the strengths and challenges that participants are experiencing.
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