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Communities of practice in the 21st century

Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner

How have communities of practice changed over the years, especially with the advent of internet and social media?

B: Communities of practice themselves haven’t changed, but the ways in which they can come together have increased. So you’ve got more places for meeting.

E: The internet and social media allow you to cut through time and space. So you can have a community of practice with people all over the world. You can connect across time zones, so this is quite different than in tire past because you can find your learning partners anywhere in the world.

B: So that means that you’re more likely to get more diverse communities of practice because you can come from different places around the landscape.

So I guess it has changed in that way.

E: I think it has changed in another way too. With the internet, it has become possible for a lot of people to participate in certain communities who don’t participate particularly actively, the so-called ‘lurkers’. So you have communities of practice with large numbers of people not all of whom are particularly active but still benefit from learning.

If nobody shows up then it is not a community of practice

So It has become too easy?

B: It has actually become very difficult. Just because you set up the technology doesn’t mean that you set up a community of practice. It’s mistaken, because a community of practice is about people and learning.

E: You know, people open up a community of practice but then no one shows up. Let’s face it, if nobody shows up then it’s not a community of practice, even if the space is open. So sometimes people neglect the social task of bringing people together because they think they can just open a space somewhere.

Describe the role that communities of practice play in knowledge management.

E: Historically, the field of knowledge management was saved by communities of practice. At a certain point it started

becoming heavily technology oriented, with knowledge bases and that kind of tiring. The concept of communities of practice allowed them to start thinking about knowledge not just as information but as the property of communities, a result of people being together. In the late 1990s, that really transformed tire field of knowledge management by giving people a new way of conceptualising how knowledge exists in an organisation. And that transformed communities of practice too, because people started realising that they could start and cultivate a community of practice themselves. It became something much more active, which it wasn’t originally. So you were less of an observer now and more of a doer.

What are the necessary conditions to make a community of practice thrive?

B: Well, the most important tiring is that they care about something and that they recognise that the other people sitting around the table are people who also care about the same thing.

E: In the end, value creation is the key. You have to have people who need each other as learning partners because it creates value for them, for what they’re trying to do. It also creates value for their organisation, which also needs the capacity to be successful in what it’s trying to do. So maybe that’s also a danger of technology. It makes it easier to bring people together, but they pay less attention to why they should come, to what’s being created.

B: And if you don’t have the value creation, if people don’t see the value hr coming together then no amomrt of trust or emphasis on interaction will ever work.

What’s the link between learning and human identity?

E: The theory that communities of practice came out of is one in which learning is viewed as tire ‘becoming’ of a certain person. Belonging to a community where you can claim to be a competent member will definitely help you to build an identity with respect to that domain.

B: So now tire theory is expanding to say ‘yes, we have an identity in relation to tire community of practice, but now we live in landscapes of practice where there are multiple and competing communities of practice where we have to decide which ones we belong to and how much effort we put into each one?’ And so you’re modulating your identity in relation to those different communities of practice in tire landscape. So learning is a journey through those communities of practice and it’s about creating an identity through those communities.

E: A big aspect of living in the 21st century is the breaking of the parallel between identity and community. I think that is transferring some of the burden of identity to the person.

It’s like living in a small village 300 or 400 years ago. Imagine, you live your whole life in that village within one practice and the community does a whole lot of work for you. It defines what it means to be a good person, what it means to know. All you have to do is belong, and you inherit all that work that the community has done. But if you are constantly traveling from one community to the next, then it’s a much more personal tiring to know what it means to know, what it means to be knowledgeable. I think tire whole notion of identity has been neglected in the field of knowledge management. Knowledge management has to involve who we are, because what it means to be knowledgeable is a lot of work on tire part of tire person, who has to learn what to pay attention to. That’s a really interesting thing about the 21st century.

Further readings

Wenger-Trayner, E., and Wenger-Trayner, B. (2014) Learning in landscapes of practice: a framework. In Wenger-Trayner, E., Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Hutchinson, S., Kubiak, C., and Wenger-Trayner, B. (Eds.) Learning in landscapes of practice: boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning. Routledge.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W.M. (2002), Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

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