Monday, 31 May 2010

Communities of practice

I was surprised recently to hear a senior colleague refer to communities of practice as though they are a passing fad. The language may have been around for less than twenty years, but communities of practice are as old as human society itself. So what made my colleague think they are a passing fad, and – implicitly – something new?

I think the answer lies in digital technology, the growth of which has empowered communities of practice on a global scale, given them greater prominence, and provided them with lots of new tools and resources. As the tools and resources improve, I think we can expect to see further growth in communities of practice – they’ve become easier to get involved in, easier to manage, and more sustainable.

Communities of practice, as Etienne Wenger explains, are groups of people with not just shared interests, but a shared stake in applying those interests to both practical and theoretical activity. They have a big emphasis on learning, and on sharing the results of learning.

Websites featuring resource sharing and collaborative tools, such as Wikis, blogs, discussion forums, live chat and virtual classrooms, are the new things. Some people – perhaps my colleague – confuse these tools and resources with the community itself, and of course we can expect the tools and resources to change. But as long as the purpose for a community existing remains, its members will keep in touch, stick together, and find new ways to collaborate and share learning.

Some applications of digital technology are fads, and will pass. I happen to believe Twitter is one of them (a subject for another post, if ever there was one), but I’m confident that communities of practice will continue to go from strength to strength.

1 comment:

Howard Johnson said...

Hi Kenneth;
I agree, COPs are not fads, they're an expression of one way people learn according to social cultural theory. I believe they are at risk of becoming fads for two reasons.
1. Most executives have a poor understand of learning, even though learning is likely the most important thing in business these days. In order to understand COPs you need a fairly nuanced understanding of learning and education beyond direct instruction.
2. Technology can get in the way. So many blogs seem to be saying that social media = learning. I believe that relationships are the real key. Technology can be important as a relationship affordance, but setting up social media without supporting the relations behind it will not help. Again, is not a nuanced understanding of learning and education what manager need most.