Learning in Communities of Practice

According to social learning theorist Etienne Wenger-Trayner, we all belong to communities of practice (CoPs), whether at home, at work, at school, or in our hobbies, and we will likely be members of different CoPs over the course of our lives.

Published 09 October 2015
Learning in Communities of Practice

Wenger-Trayner defines CoPs as "groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." and gives the examples, "a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope."

In the workspace, people organize their lives with their immediate colleagues and customers to get their jobs done. In doing so, they develop or preserve a sense of themselves that they can live with. No matter what their official job description may be, they create a practice to do what needs to be done. While they might work for a large institution, they work day-to-day with and, in a sense, for a much smaller set of people and communities. They fulfil their employers' and clients' requirements, and have some fun.

Similarly, as learners learn, they form CoPs, both inside and outside the classroom. Wenger-Trayner observes that, despite the curriculum, self-discipline, and exhortation, the learning that's most personally transformative turns out to be that which involves membership of these CoPs.

The basis for these communities can be geographic, demographic, topical, and/or activity-based. All of these communities work because they have, or display, one or more of the following:

  • A defining interest.
  • A shared space.
  • A group identity.
  • A personal identity.
  • A shared culture.
  • Trust.
  • Defined roles.
  • Defined rules.
  • Defined management.

Whether we recognize it or not, CoPs play an enormous part in our lives - although most of these CoPs don't have official membership lists.  So, it's only natural that we'll want to form, and be part of, CoPs at work.

It's this need - and familiarity - with the concept that the L&D professional can exploit to reinforce formal learning and encourage informal learning throughout his or her organization. With the increasing application of technology in the workplace, allied to organizations' workforces being more widely spread geographically than ever before, there are increasing opportunities for technology-enabled (especially Internet-enabled) CoPs.

In online learning, the rationale for forming CoPs comes from the situated learning theory. Situated learning - a subset of constructivism - involves learners experiencing simulated environments and tasks, communicating with other Internet users, and developing CoPs.

Online communities - networks of people who share insights, information, experience, and tools about a topic of common interest - tend to function within a busy work environment and take time to mature. Yet they can be very useful and fun for their members.

There are several types of online communities. These can be skills-based, jobs, beliefs, or affinity communities. In each community, people become members to improve their productivity, speed up learning, make better and faster decisions, make a safer workplace, energize innovation, and so on.

Kathryn Horton of Turning Factor says, "CoPs are an invaluable tool in helping with the sustainability of learning. Learners are often mistaken in thinking that the learning takes place mainly in the classroom when, in fact, it's after the event that the true learning and understanding takes place, as the newly learned knowledge and skills are put into practice.

"Action learning sets are a popular way to foster learning and are formal CoPs. Although this approach is very beneficial, I've found that commitment to them has often been subservient to the busy day-to-day schedule. CoPs are powerful when they're overt and ad hoc, and if they're remotely facilitated in an unobtrusive way, it enables a more natural learning process.

"Today's working practices offer a challenge to CoPs, due to employers offering increased flexibility in working hours, along with teams and individuals who work remotely. This is where the use of social media platforms and technology plays a vital role."

Nick Hindley is the associate director of learning and performance improvement at PPD, which operates several CoPs, including:

  • A trainer group made up of employees with full-time roles who also offer their local colleagues soft skills training. They all receive initial trainer training and then attend regular calls to share best practice, things to avoid, new ideas, and so on.
  • A leadership program group where the participants meet in a virtual 3D environment as avatars and via a closed Facebook page.

Nick advises, "When you initiate a CoP, you should have clear outcomes for the group members so they know why they are meeting. This ensures focus and prevents 'scope creep' of meetings. You should create and insist on group ownership of the meetings, including logistics and content.

"You should also carry out regular evaluations to assess the impact of the CoP and to assist in identifying best practice from different groups. And a CoP needs to start with structure and guidance with a defined timescale when ownership is transferred to the group."

But, however these communities operate, the technology is the easiest aspect to manage. It's the soft skills – getting people to work together - that's the real challenge!

Which communities of practice are you a member of, whether formal or informal, and how do you benefit? Share your tips for success in our comments section below.


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