Communities of practice

Popularised by the Swiss sociologist Etienne Wenger, communities of practice are groupings that either evolve naturally, or are created specifically, that share a craft and/or a professional role. Through sharing experiences and informational resources, members learn from each other and develop capacity. Such communities may or may not share a physical space.

The word ‘community’ is often used as a simple synonym for ‘group’, but there is a core aspect to the community which is important, and which is reflected in the etymology of the English word. This comes from the Latin communis, meaning to share or hold in common. Other words like communal, Communism and (importantly) communication originate in the same root. This suggests that communities share things.

Football supporters celebrate a goal

Football supporters are a prime example of a community, sharing desires, symbols, stories, spaces and possible threats

A ‘local community’, for example, does not become one simply because people live in the same vicinity but through developing shared perspectives and narratives, linking people together through brokers and boundary objects of various kinds (like local schools, pubs, environmental issues of concern, etc.). This does not mean all community members have to hold the same opinion on issues. But it does mean that when it comes to making judgments, members can draw on what Wellmer termed “collective matrices of interpretation”. These “matrices” can be equated to the information landscapes that the community inhabit, and which it works to steward.

A community of practice is a group that shares learning needs. In his 1998 book Communities of Practice Wenger described how this sharing manifested itself among claims processors at a US insurance company. Processors went through a formal training process on joining the firm. Through this training they were, in effect, exposed to the ‘maps’ of the organisation and its work that had been created at a managerial level, through processes such as systems analysis. These maps laid out the formal way of performing core tasks (processing claims).

Baking a cake

Communities of practice can emerge anywhere that learning needs are shared, including how best to run a kitchen

However, once on the shop floor and engaged in everyday work tasks, the processors were in turn introduced to the maps of their more established colleagues. These included things like ‘short cuts’, ways of circumventing official practice, and new sources of information. For example, official procedure in the event of an ICT breakdown might be to register the fault on a central system, but informally the community might know that one of its members could fix the problem.

Thus, the community of practice develops its own maps of the information landscape — understandings of the resources available to it as it and its members undertake their work. These maps do not have to contradict the more formal, analytical understandings of business processes, but can be complementary to them, and in fact help these processes be properly implemented in different contexts around the workplace. It is these understandings, manifested in actual maps of the landscape, that our project seeks to develop in community members.