“Communities of practice 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.”—Etienne Wenger
I was lucky early in my career to be involved in a robust, active community of practice (CoP) comprising classroom trainers employed in North Carolina government. On a mission to “stamp out bad training,” they met voluntarily once a quarter and ran a three-day conference every spring. Already well established long before I found my way in, the group began when a dozen friends, all trainers in a single county, got together to discuss challenges they were having and bemoan the fact that most classroom training was just so… bad. They decided to commit to the mission of “stamping out bad training.” Recognizing that it would not be possible for 12 people to stamp out bad training statewide, the group decided to open up to a wider population of trainers who, in the age before email, mostly found their way to the group by word of mouth. CoP members further supported their mission by—on their own time, at their own initiative—developing a training skills course based on what they felt were key principles of creating and facilitating great instruction. The CoP grew to a mailing list of 150, with average meeting attendance at about 50. While the CoP is past its heyday—for one thing, there came a split between those very much attached to the classroom, and others, like me, who moved into eLearning and the use of educational technologies—many of us are still in touch and still meet informally. And we still offer the training skills course, now in its 30th year and seventh iteration. This community formed the unit of interest of my 2008 dissertation, in which I compared the internal dynamics of this CoP against a framework developed by Etienne Wenger. As there is so much interest in—and misunderstanding of—the idea of communities of practice, I thought I’d offer up a recap of the framework.
Analyzing a community of practice
In the simplest overview of his framework, Wenger divides analysis across four components: meaning, community, identity, and learning. His unit of interest was a group of insurance claims processors; mine, the group of classroom trainers. Here’s a quick overview of the basics. Details for analysis (like how you measure whether “meaning” is being made) rely on markers for each item; for more on that, see my full paper.
Community members help make meaning and transfer it to their practice. For my CoP, there was ongoing conversation and negotiation around meaning: “What do we mean by bad training? What is good training? What do we mean by putting the learner first?” Simply being part of those conversations, demonstrating the ideas, and working together to figure it out is all part of participation. Transferring that back to practice includes reification—a collectively understood definition of ideas, of materials, of what is “good” training. A key idea in the CoP, for instance, was “finding your 20 percent”—identifying your critical content, what people must know to perform—as critical to “good” training. As the community dealt with this as a shared point of focus, the idea for this image emerged. That’s reification. It’s this duality of participation and reification that that helps make meaning: We all know putting things in writing isn’t always enough. When I was doing my research, CoP members were very generous with materials they had saved over the years (Figure 1). I wouldn’t have been able to make much use of them had I not spent years in active involvement with the CoP’s repertoire, vocabulary, and shared stories. You need overlap with participation, seeing material in use, and understanding generative meaning. It’s through that duality of participation and reification that meaning is made and can be transferred to practice.
Figure 1: CoP artifacts amassed for my dissertation research
I was glad to have such a preponderance of information, but it would have made little sense had I not been an active CoP participant or had access to active members.
Knowledge is embedded in practice: “A quality of the CoP missing from more traditional, cognitive approaches to learning is the CoP’s ability to transmit tacit knowledge, that which may otherwise never be found in manuals, guidelines, or similar documentation amassed by organizations,” I wrote in my dissertation (see References).
This aspect looks at what binds people to each other: In a true CoP, it’s a shared interest and passion for work, and a desire to improve. “Community” is not just people attending meetings, but refers to meaningful, collaborative engagement: being included in what matters, contributing to community maintenance, and having the opportunity to really contribute. Behaviors include asking for and giving help, truly wanting to see others succeed, and not making life harder for others. People work together to tune the enterprise, as happened in my CoP when the community decided, as a unit, that it would move into the business of developing and providing a train-the-trainer course.
Wenger talks here of the function of negotiating a joint enterprise as helping to make a job more habitable. In the case of my group of trainers, members found the CoP helped to alleviate feelings of isolation, marginalization, and being misunderstood. One research interviewee said: “[The CoP] fills a need for us by reminding us that there are reasons for what we do and the way we do it. Adult learning, the way adults learn—the regular bureaucrat doesn’t know a lot about it. They’ve been to college and think that’s what ‘adult education’ is. They experienced what was probably crappy training all their lives, they don’t see the sweat that goes into making training effective and good. They see the end result but don’t connect it to theory or effort.”
I’ve been interested in the role of identity for years, starting with research into why many classroom trainers seemed so resistant to eLearning. A key takeaway from the literature: Those who identified themselves as “experts” hired to “impart knowledge” were much more resistant than those who saw themselves as partners and facilitators of learning. The idea of identity in CoPs deals with how members differentiate themselves from other people and groups, how they identify with a way of practice involving specific artifacts and approaches. A component of identity is the idea of competent membership: In my example case, the member identifies with and wants to be known as “a good trainer” aligned with the other members, understands the common conception of what makes training “good,” and is fluent with the CoP repertoire—and because of this can make valuable contributions to the CoP. There’s a shared view of “bad” training and an agreement that members will not promulgate it. Recognizing and using the repertoire, operating and adapting practice based on this common discourse, is part of competence. (Note here that not every person on the mailing list is a “member” as it’s defined here.)
What has the community learned? How has time affected meaning, community, and identity? Over time members learn who knows what, who is good at what, who has expertise or connections. What things have been negotiated or undergone ongoing tuning? What stories, anecdotes, and routines have developed? In the case of my group, we saw two big periods of disruption: the invention of PowerPoint and the advent of online learning. Both of these brought long, frequent conversations about what constitutes “good” training. There was also ongoing tension in reconciling evidence-based practice with craft, and stress in holding people to the enterprise: Again and again, conversation turned to “Are we really interested in stamping out bad training, or being fabulously entertaining presenters?” It was in examining this time-based analytic component that the artifacts (see Figure 1 above) proved invaluable and shone a light not only on what the CoP had learned but what it had forgotten. In our case, a question as big as “What is good training?” might be “What did we learn about how practice can be handed down?” The answer, in brief, is: Yes, much can be handed down explicitly, but it also requires an ongoing social/interaction process.
I hope this quick overview helps further your understanding of CoPs and helps differentiate the idea of CoPs from other group configurations. I have had a long, happy, successful career in L&D and credit my own CoP of peers with a passion for learning for much of that. If this has piqued your interest, please do take a look at the resources below.
Bozarth, Jane. The Usefulness of Wenger’s Framework in Understanding a Community of Practice. Dissertation, North Carolina State University, 2008.
Pastoors, Katja. “Consultants:love-hate relationships with communities of practice.” The Learning Organization, Vol. 14, No. 1. 2007.
Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.