11.3.1 What is “Community of Practice”

The concept of a community of practice (often abbreviated as CoP) refers to the process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions and build innovations. It refers to the stable group that is formed from regular interactions.1

CoP are 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.2

In relation to knowledge management, communities of practice refer to ways of sharing soft (and hard) knowledge, developing new knowledge, stimulating innovation etc. A short definition is that communities of practice” provide an environment for people to develop knowledge through interaction with others in an environment where knowledge is created, nurtured and sustained”.3

Not every community however can be called a community of practice. It might have already crossed your mind that a neighbourhood for instance, is a community of practice! Well although it could constitute as one, it is not usually a community of practice.

Three characteristics are crucial:

  1. The domain:
    A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies commitment to the domain and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people. The domain is not necessarily something recognized as “expertise” outside the community. A youth gang may have developed all sorts of ways of dealing with their domain: surviving on the street and maintaining some kind of identity they can live with. They value their collective competence and learn from each other, even though few people outside the group recognize their expertise.4
  2. The community:
    In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other. A website in itself is not a CoP. Having the same job or the same title does not make a CoP unless members interact and learn together. The claims processors in a large insurance company or students in American high schools may have much in common; yet unless they interact and learn together, they don’t form a CoP. Members of a CoP do not necessarily work together on a daily basis. The impressionists, for instance, used to meet in cafes and studios to discuss the style of painting they were inventing together. These interactions were essential to making them a community of practice even though they often painted alone.5
  3. The practice:
    A community of practice is not merely a community of people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. Members of a CoP are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing recurring problems – in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction. A good conversation with a stranger on an airplane may give you all sorts of interesting insights, but it does not in itself make for a community of practice. The development of a shared practice may be more or less a CoP.6 

The “windshield wipers” engineers at an auto manufacturer make a concerted effort to collect and document the tricks and lessons they have learned into a knowledge base. By contrast, nurses who meet regularly for lunch in a hospital cafeteria may not realize that their lunch discussions are one of their main sources of knowledge about how to care for patients. Still, in the course of all these conversations, they have developed a set of stories and cases that have become a shared topic for their practice.7

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_of_practic   
2 http://www.ewenger.com/theory/  
3 Koubek, A., Laister, J. (2001) “3rd Generation Learning Platforms.
   Requirements and Motivation for Collaborative Learning.”  
4 http://www.ewenger.com/theory/  
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