Community of practice

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  • Communities are networks, made up of individuals as well as public and private institutions. They share a certain amount of practices, common goals and common language. They have a social organization that includes formal or informal hierarchies, some idea of social service (members helping each other), and a willingness learn from each other and to share that knowledge.
  • The term community of practice is accredited to Etienne Wenger. Communities of practice are "groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis." (Wenger, 2002). “Every group that shares interest on a website is called a community today, but communities of practice are a specific kind of community. They are focused on a domain of knowledge and over time accumulate expertise in this domain. They develop their shared practice by interacting around problems, solutions, and insights, and building a common store of knowledge.” (Supporting communities of practice, retrieved Jan 2011).
  • Communities can be considered as problem-solving mechanisms which contribute to establishing policy agendas and offer mechanisms to facilitate processes for negotiation between different actors. They help develop and disseminate knowledge that is crucial in addressing the challenge of educational change, the may even come up with innovative mechanisms for implementing new strategies.
  • What are CoPs? Think back to National and the PLL engineers. At the simplest level, they are a small group of people (in this case, about 20) who've worked together over a period of time. Not a team, not a task force, not necessarily an authorized or identified group, they, nonetheless, exist in some form in every organization. People in CoPs can perform the same job (tech reps) or collaborate on a shared task (software developers) or work together on a product (engineers, marketers, and manufacturing specialists). They are peers in the execution of "real work." What holds them together is a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows. There are many communities of practice within a single company, and most people belong to more than one of them. (Brown & Gray, 1995)

Communities of practice are different from teams or work groups in the following ways:

  • Membership is voluntary (though some institutions in an effort to cultivate CoPs are violating this principle and making membership compulsory);
  • The goals of a community are less specific and more changeable than those of a team or work group;
  • Results are not easily discerned or measured;
  • The community exists as long as its members participate. A team or work group ceases to exist once its goal is attained.

Supporting a COP through virtual environments

Enginneering (creating) or supporting a community of practice (COP) is not an easy task and many attempts actually fail. Finding and engaging a good online community manager may help though.

Often such attemps use technology in one or an other way. Virtual communities of practice are loose or tight communities of practice that may be geographically dispersed, communicating through the use of Internet software (usually a kind of portal) that provide collaboration and information tools (email, online discussions (forums, videoconferencing, CSCW tools, etc). A well designed portal that provides both functionality and a sense of "social presence and being there" may help.

Note: When groups of users interact intensively through some medium, they progressively may constitute a community. The community feeling does not automatically emerge because groups use electronic communication, it takes a lot of time, a lot of interactions. It requires sharing goals and, whatever that means, sharing experiences. If (and only if) there is a potential for a COP, one way to foster it is to work on factors that prevent its emergence. In particular time is a critical factor, individuals should be protected from other competing demands.

Related subjects:

Communities of practice, formal learning and education

In formal education, issues related to community of practice are not uncommon:

  • "Classroom dynamics", "class spirit", etc. refer to similar issues
  • The interest for communities of practice also emerges from situated cognition that emphasizes apprenticeship, coaching, collaboration, multiple practice, articulation of learning skills, stories, and technology (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). See situated learning and collaborative learning.
  • Collaborative Writing-to-learn designs that engage learners in various forms of exchange and confrontation.

Components of a social learning system

For Wenger et al. a community of practice is a part of a larger social learning system.

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, p. 225)

In Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Etienne Wenger defines three major classifications that define participation and evolution within a social learning system and recursively within a community of practice and their respective dimensions.

Communities of practice

Three "modes" of belonging are introduced to describe the way in which members interact and participate.

  • Engagement refers to the way in which members take part in the activities of the community together.
  • Imagination refers to the construction of an image the community, one's place within it and it's place within a larger context in order to be able to reflect upon options and possibilities. (Wenger, p.227) This shapes the way members will interpret their participation and influence within a community.
  • Alignment refers to making sure that one's activities follow prescribed methods or frameworks that are used by other members.

These modes of belonging are crossed with the "dimensions of progress" that are measures of a community's activity.(Wenger, p. 230)

  • Enterprise measures the level of activity that is focussed on learning and development initiatives, inquiry and new possibilities and filling knowledge gaps.
  • Mutuality measures the depth and breadth of social commitments ('social capital') between members and the community as a whole. It includes how well members know each other, their confidence in each other's capacities and each member's perception of the level of appreciation of one's own contributions.
  • Repertoire measures the 'degree of self-awareness' through reflection on the language, tools and concepts developed by a community through its activity and members' interactions, so that it can gain insight into its own evolution and potential.


Boundaries within learning systems and between CoPs are mutable. They are the borders that, though unintentional and not pre-defined, determine whether one will belong to the CoP or not. The boundary is created as a result of common practice. Wenger draws much attention to boundaries, as he sees them to be the frontiers where “competence and experience tend to diverge: a boundary interacton is usually an experience of being exposed to a foreign competence.” (Wenger, p. 233). This is where learning happens (so long as the divide between experience and competence is not too wide), where new ideas are developed and old ones challenged, and inspiration occurs. The down side is that divisions and misunderstandings also occur at the boundaries within a learning system.

  • Coordination involves finding a balance between the expertise of a CoP and the adaptations and/or simplifications required to make it useful across boundaries (another CoP).
  • Transparency allows those at the boundaries to understand the reasoning behind a practice.
  • Negotiability describes the extent to which the communication is two-way and allowing for the bridging of CoPs or competence and experience.


Wenger defines identity as what we know, what is foreign and what we choose to know, as well as how we know it. Our identies determine with whom we will interact in a knowledge sharing activity, and our willingness and capacity to engage in boundary interactions. (Wenger, p.239). In the same spirit, learning is then defined as identity transformation.

  • Connectedness is built upon shared histories, experiences, reciprocity, affections and mutual commitment.
  • Expansiveness allows an individual to belong to multiple CoPs and easily engage in boundary interactions.
  • Effectiveness enables inclusive social participation.

Since a community of practice is a learning community where becoming a full practitioner is part of the discourse, the COP itself is a permanent negotiation of what it is about.

Related topics:

Building a social learning system

Community building

Wenger points out 5 activities crucial to building a CoP. (Wenger,p. 232)

  • Events that bring the community together
  • Connectivity through various contexts and media
  • Membership that is neither so extended that its focus is diluted or that it splinters (though the latter can be part of the evolution of a CoP and a social learning system) nor so confined that there is no need for exchange.
  • Learning projects that explore or fill in gaps in the knowledge and practice of a community increase the commitment of participating members.
  • Artifacts produced, gathered and maintained so that they are accessible and useful traces of the community's activities allow for reflection upon the evolution of the CoP.

Richard McDermott outlines 10 Critical Success Factors in Building Community

Management Challenge
1. Focus on topics important to the business and community members.
2. Find a well-respected community member to coordinate the community.
3. Make sure people have time and encouragement to participate.
4. Build on the core values of the organization.
Community Challenge
5. Get key thought leaders involved.
6. Build personal relationships among community members.
7. Develop an active passionate core group.
8. Create forums for thinking together as well as systems for sharing information.
Technical Challenge
9. Make it easy to contribute and access the community’s knowledge and practices.
Personal Challenge
10. Create real dialogue about cutting edge issues.

Exploring boundaries


Brokering is the process that "introduces elements from one practice to another".(Wenger, p. 236) Some individuals within a CoP inevitably take on the role of brokers making connections to other CoPs and translating knowledge from one domain to another. Good brokers are essential to the evolution of a CoP, though their position within the boundaries often mean they are unrecognized and undervalued.

Boundary objects

The enTWIne project at Univeristy of Boulder Colorado defines boundary objects as:

Artifacts, Documents and perhaps even vocabulary that can help people from different communities build a shared understanding. Boundary objects will be interpreted differently by the different communities, and it is an acknowledgment and discussion of these differences that enables a shared understanding to be formed. (from the enTWIne project)

Wenger presents three categories of boundary objects. (p. 236):

  1. Artifacts: tools, documents, models shared by CoP's.
  2. Discourses: a common language that can be shared across CoPs
  3. Processes: shared processes, routines, procedures that facilitate coordination of and between CoPs

See also: boundary object

Boundary interactions

Given the importance of boundaries of CoPs with a social learning system, interactions at points of intersection should be nurtured. Wenger suggests three types of interactions to be encouraged. (p. 237)

Boundary encounters immerse members of a CoP in the activities of another CoP allowing them to bring new knowledge from the interaction to their community.

Boundary practices are specific practices that develop when the constant maintainance of a connection between two CoPs is required. They can in turn establish their own boundaries.

Peripheries include services and activities that can be of use to newcomers and outsiders, to introduce them to the community without burdening it.

Nurturing identities

Wenger finally suggests some design considerations that can help foster 'healthy' identities that are connected to their CoP, effectively participate within it and yet expand beyond it. (p. 241)

  • Home base: a place where one's knowledge is recognized and understood by peers.
  • Trajectories: views to possible paths of participation one can take and their outcomes.
  • Multimembership: acknowledges and values that members belong to multiple communities simultaneously (though not necessarily with same level of engagement), as this acceptance of one's multi-faceted identity encourages members to engage to a larger degree and allows the community to benefit from the peripheral activities of their members.
  • Fractals: large communities that are prone to 'splintering', can benefit by containing subcommunities that give greater voice to members within them, and permit a more specialized focus. Representatives of each subcommunity can then act to bring together the subcommunities into a larger whole.

Communities of practice in the context of teacher education and learning

The modern teacher development literature defines existence of teacher communities as a critical variable for the success of pedagogical reform.

Here is a longer quotation from Schlager et al. (2002:2 - online draft version)

Brown and Gray (1995) define workplace CoPs as small groups of people held together by a "common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows." George Por [1] describes a CoP as " more than a 'community of learners,' a community of practice is also a 'community that learns.' Not merely peers exchanging ideas around the water cooler, sharing and benefiting from each other's expertise, but colleagues committed to jointly develop better practices." In the CoP literature, learning is viewed as a social activity that occurs as newcomers and journeymen move through an established community's professional hierarchy toward expertise (Brown & Duguid, 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Learning opportunities occur primarily through informal interaction among colleagues in the context of work. Newcomers gain access to the community's professional knowledge in authentic contexts through encounters with people, tools, tasks, and social norms. New practices and technologies are adopted by the CoP through the evolution of practice over time. Thus, a CoP can be an effective hothouse in which new ideas germinate, new methods and tools are developed, and new communities are rooted. The CoP can help professionals gain access to, and facility with, ideas, methods, content, and colleagues; help novices learn about the profession through apprenticeship and peripheral participation; and enable journeymen to become valued resources and community leaders through informal mentoring and participation

in multiple work groups.

Examples of technology enhanced communities of practice

  • TappedIn, a community of education professionals
  • Classroom 2.0 a large online community with various degrees of participation.
  • ... more needed




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  • Lin, Maeng-Fen (2005). Story Thread Analysis: Storied Lives in an Online Community of Practice, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol 2 (9). (interesting methodology paper, helps to advance knowledge of computer mediated communication and its role in community building through a lens of storytelling).
  • McDermott, R. (2000). Knowing in Community: 10 Critical Success Factors in Building Communities of Practice, Community Intelligence Labs, [3], (accessed June 21, 2006)
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  • Schlager, M., & Fusco, J. (2004). Teacher professional development, technology, and communities of practice: Are we putting the cart before the horse? In S. Barab, R. Kling, & J. Gray (Eds.), Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [[6]]
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  • Steele, H., Toprac, P. & Reimer, T. (2004). COMET: Designing a teacher-to-teacher community of practice based on the input of target participants. In L. Cantoni & C. McLoughlin (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2004 (pp. 450-453). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
  • Wenger, Etienne, McDermott, Richard, Snyder, William M. (2002) Cultivating communities practice. Harvard University Press.
  • Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Synder, Richard (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge - Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. pp. 107–136. ISBN 1578513308. HTML free text (excerpts from the book above).
  • Wenger, Etienne. (2000), Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Organization, Volume 7(2): 225-246
  • Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith (2009). Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare. ISBN 9780982503607.
  • West, R.E. & Williams, G.S. “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”: A proposed framework for defining learning communities, Education Tech Research Dev (2017).

fr:Communauté de pratique


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