Communities and Practice

Communities and Communities of Practice (CoP's), are they related?  How?  They have to be, right?

In my knowledge management class, we've been talking about communities in general: what brings them together, why do they stay together, what splits them up.  We have shifted to discussion of CoP's with the suggestion of designing a specific CoP that focuses on career development for the students and alumni of this program.

In another course, the students have worked on a project with the goal of increasing the sense of community within the degree program.  There were a lot of after-class questions to the effect of, "What's the difference" between community-building and setting up a community of practice.  Indeed.

At the first pass, a CoP is a subset of Community.  They both groups of people; people with a common something; people that identify with the community; maybe even with goals around improving things for the community. 

A Community of Practice is a community in which people are gathered around a very specific practice.  I think of them as more formal than the generic "community."  On the other side, I think of communities as forming naturally out of the shared needs of the members, where CoP's are created or formalized due to another need.  Communities can be very strong and clear-cut, or they can be quite loose and hidden.  Some streets in our area have annual block parties, where they block off the street and organize food and games.  One of my students gives a great example of the weak-yet-still-important community in academics.  CoP's - to reflect the practice - need to be formal and have some central structure that isn't necessarily in the definition of "community" alone.

So, to answer the students' question, community-building activities, as they have been rolled out for the students, are around developing a sense of cohesiveness and shared goals and desires.  A lot of it has to do with helping the students get to know one another and develop a kinship to the (relatively small) academic program.  The CoP for career development is to be a specific community of students who are looking for help with and to help one another with their careers.  There would be goals and leadership of this group.  I'm guessing that a strong MS-LOC community will enable this CoP to operate more effectively.

I wrote most of this off the cuff.  In looking back through my notes, I found Nancy White's reference on the topic, How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community - Update 2005.

1 Comment(s)

David Montgomery said:


Communities of Practice and Communities -- related? Of course. But before moving on to describe the relationship there needs to be some understanding or better still agreement about what is meant by Community of Practice and Community itself.

As your extract highlights, communities existed long before the advent the Internet so the term has been, depending on your viewpoint, usurped or adopted by cybernauts to fit with virtual scenarios. Similarly, communities of practice have long since existed but they were typically co-located whereas today and they are interconnected via the Internet but are ever less likely to be co-located. There is a lot of hype and also rhetoric surrounding the potential benefits of Communities of Practice -- I have written a session called Cops and Robbers playing on the acronyms but also highlighting the challenges faced by the users in that some are loquacious/frequent posters while others are more reserved/lurkers. Indeed the language that has evolved to describe various partners or players within communities of practice reveal much about how they are perceived.

A Community of Practice is centred around a common interest perhaps even a common practice. However, communities of practice need regular and varied input coupled with critical review to remain active and mutually beneficial. No intrinsic benefit = prepare for the wake! Consequently, CoPs are constantly evolving since they are dynamic rather than static. The ones that last the longest tend to be largely self organising. Indeed, there is almost a paradox in that trying to organise a community of practice becomes self-defeating since members choose whether they want to participate or not. That said, it is possible to provide situations in which communities of practice are more likely to thrive than others.

I sense that a Community of Practice is a label that members would never use to describe their activities in terms of sharing ideas and providing feedback to one another. Instead, it is more likely to be a descriptive term used by others when trying to analyse or make sense of activities that are occurring in what they perceive to be a Community of Practice. A formal community of practice is an oxymoron since it eliminates the complete freedom of choice about participation if there is some level of organisational control however loose that may be. They should be no defined agenda but one that evolves through discussion, lateral thinking and free exchange of ideas. And communities of practice that are based over the Internet will have slightly different rules of engagement from those organised on a face-to-face basis. Arguably, people who regularly meets a coffee or a quick beer to shoot the breeze and all the while exchange ideas are communities of practice yet paradoxically such a formal description is the antithesis of the informal nature of such groups.

Therefore do what comes naturally and don't worry about the terms of people ascribe to them. Such terms are really only tools of analysis used by outside observers. Of course, those concerned with organisational development will be interested to learn how they can foster an environment in which communities of practice will thrive. But here's the rub -- are communities of formal, structured components of an organisation or a reaction, possibly a slightly subversive one, to organisational strictures?


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