Communities of Practice and Their Characteristics

What are Communities of Practice?

Communities of practice are described as groups of individuals or people who come together to create and share information that is of particular interest to them. These groups are usually formed by people who want to engage in a process of collective thinking and learning in a shared domain.

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Communities of practice could include a group of students trying to find their identities in high school, a tribal clan learning to survive, a group of artists trying to find a way to express themselves, or a group of managers trying to provide a direction for the company. In a work setting communities of practice are known as intra-organizational networks where individual employees are able to share their best practices for work across the various organizational units.1

In an organizational setting, communities of practice are groups of people that share common interests and problems by focusing on a specific topic or area of interest. These groups are able to gain a higher degree of knowledge and expertise in this area through their regular interaction. Communities of practice differ from other intra-organizational networks within an organization such as project or operational teams in that the roles of the participants in these communities are not usually assigned or allocated to anyone. The roles of the participants in these groups are also not clearly defined according to the various tasks that fall under communities of practice. The delineations of member’s roles within these groups are also not clear as would be the case in the project and operational teams.2

The progress of the communities of practice is not usually measured by succession stages given the lack of clear roles and leaders or managers to provide a sense of direction to the group. The form of measurement that is used to measure the progress of the groups is the number of practices that have been developing and exchanged amongst the members of the group. This measurement of quantity ensures that the organization is able to improve on its overall business performance once these communities have been evaluated. A community of practice unlike a project or operation does not cease to exist once its goals or objectives have been accomplished.

The community continues to exist as long as the participants continue to share a common interest or area. These groups lack any form of contractual formality that might determine the roles and responsibilities of every participant within the group.3

Communities of practice are important in either the organizational context or the social context as they help foster an environment that supports the creation and sharing of knowledge amongst the members in these groups. This information sharing ensures that there is improved effectiveness in the intra organizational networks within an organization as well as the existing organizational practices exercised within the business. Companies such as Siemens and Oracle have communities of practice that allow the technical engineers and software developers to discuss and share information that will be useful in building better automotive systems and databases.4

Important Characteristics of Communities of Practice

The three most important characteristics that are used to describe communities of practice include the domain, the community, and the practice. The domain describes a community of practice as a group of people that have a shared domain of interest which means that becoming a member of the group will mean that a person has to have a distinguishable commitment to the domain as well as a shared competence.

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The domain within these groups does not necessarily have to be one that requires its members to have a particular area of expertise with regards to a certain topic or area of interest. A domain of knowledge within a community of practice creates a common ground amongst members by inspiring individuals to participate in the group. The domain of knowledge also ensures that members are able to learn and their actions within the group have some meaning. The domain of a community of practice provides its members with a sense of identity as this is usually a part of their personal identity.5

The community which is the second element of the communities of practice represents the quality of relationships that people have under these groups. These relationships are seen to bind the members together providing them with an opportunity to share and create information that is of common interest to them. The community is an important characteristic of a community of practice as it allows for the coming together of individuals who share a common interest to discuss, share information, and help each other to perform joint activities.

Members are able to build relationships within these groups that will allow them to learn from each other as well as help each other in their areas of interest. A community under the communities of practice represents the relationships that exist between members. The membership in these groups demonstrates the diversity of perspectives that the different members share as well as the approaches that can be used to create leading-edge efforts that are essential in the domain. 6

The aspect of practice ensures that every community is able to develop its practices through the sharing and development of knowledge by the people within the domain. The elements of practice within a community include frameworks, methods, approaches, and tools that are used to support learning, sharing, and innovation activities within the community. This paradigm is important for communities of practice as it places an emphasis on the bringing together of practitioners. These practitioners develop a similar repertoire of resources through their learning and sharing experiences. Such a repertoire includes stories, ways of dealing with problems in the current state, and experiences that can be used to formulate solutions to a problem. 7

The development of such a repertoire however takes time and a sustained interaction that ensures these relationships have been maintained within the group. This development of a repertoire could be an activity that has a low self-consciousness given people draw from their experiences and their personal knowledge on the area of interest that has brought them together. For example, a group of health care workers who talk about certain aspects of their work might develop a discussion that could be used in the health care of their patients or a group of technicians might forge an alliance during the development of a technical piece of hardware of software to ensure that the complex parts have been created correctly. 8

What do Communities of Practice Look Like

The communities of practice come in different forms where some are small, large, or medium in size while others are regional or core groups while others are international or national communities. These communities could also take the form of face-to-face communities of practice or online networks such as social networking sites. These communities could also exist within an organization or they might include members drawn from various organizations that share a similar interest. Some of these communities are formally recognized while others are informal and therefore invisible. Others might be supported by budget or they might receive funding from organization employers who have an interest in developing these groups. 9

Communities might also take a different form where they develop their own practices and areas of concern based on aspects such as problem solving, documentation, and experience. Despite the various forms that these communities might take, all these communities contain the three elements or characteristics of a community of practice. Because these groups have been around for a long time, it is difficult to determine a general form or shape that can be used to identify these groups within the social or organizational contexts. Yet, when these communities are identified and given a name, they can be able to provide a perspective to the rest of the world that will be used to help people within the society or organization to understand the world in a better way. 10

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Where does the Concept of COP’s Come From

Many communities of practice have their origins from an attempt to bring together boundary practices and communities. New scientific disciplines on the subject have been borne from existing interactions of established communities of practice. Scholars and scientists the world over have incorporated the use of different versions of communities of practice to expound on the learning theories that exist on the topic. Wenger et al describe the origin of communities of practice to have its foundation in studies of apprenticeship where complex sets of social relationships are established as the learning process takes place.11

Once the concept was properly articulated through the learning theories, these groups began being established everywhere even when no form of apprenticeship existed. Its background in apprenticeship has enabled it to be integrated into business operations that deal with knowledge management and employee performance improvement. Communities of practice have formed a foundation that can be used to develop appropriate perspectives that will be used in knowledge and learning management. It has also provided organizations and social networks with the ability to improve individuals by allowing them to form groups that will improve their knowledge and ability levels.12

Where do we find Communities of Practice?

Communities of practice have found various practical applications in various types of businesses and organizations such as government institutions, educational facilities, organization structures, developmental projects, societal or community contexts, and civil life. In organizations, communities of practice are found in intra-organizational networks that recognize the importance of knowledge in improving business or work performance.

The initial efforts of improving business performance were mostly focused on information and operating systems which would be re-engineered to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. These systems however failed to provide sufficient results that could be used to improve the performance of employees within these organizations. Communities of practice provided a new approach to improving employee’s performance by focusing more on the people rather than on the operating system.13

These communities allowed the employees to become involved in social structures that would enable them to learn with each other and from each other. The concept has become so common that every organization of a reasonable size has some form of a community of practice that provides employee initiative to improve their work performance and efficiency. A number of factors have been used to explain the increased growth of communities of practice within organizations and these factors include communities of practice that enable practitioners to take collective responsibility for managing the knowledge that they will need to perform their jobs.14

Communities of practice bridge the gap that exists between learning and performance thereby allowing practitioners to exercise the two without any problem. They also allow practitioners to address dynamic or complex problems through the creation and sharing of information as well as through the creation of connections with people across various geographical boundaries. These factors explain the increasing concept of communities of practice as they cover any specific aspect of competence within the organization.

Government institutions have adopted communities of practice for the same reasons that organizations have adopted them for. Many knowledge challenges exist within government organizations and institutions which increases the complexity of governmental operations. Communities of practice ensure that people within the various sectors of the government such as the health, education, and security industry can be able to share their knowledge and experience on how to perform government duties more effectively. The education sector incorporates the use of communities of practice as they also face knowledge challenges with the first applications of the concept being used in teacher training activities.15

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Communities of practice in the education industry have been exercised according to three dimensions which include the internal dimension where communities of practice are formed based on educational experiences and learning practices, the external dimension where communities of practice are developed to provide a connection to students and teachers based on their learning and teaching experiences. The third dimension which is over the lifetime of the students ensures that communities of practice are used to serve the lifelong education and learning needs of the students. This is achieved by organizing communities of practice that incorporate students who have a specific focus on various topics of interest.16

Professional associations also incorporate the use of communities of practice in the activities where these groups are used to reflect on the aspect of learning and knowledge as an acquired practice. These associations incorporate the use of peer-to-peer learning options that are used to offer complimentary learning alternatives. These associations also involve the use of training programs where people with similar interests are able to develop their skills and knowledge.

The social sector has incorporated the use of communities of practice with a particular focus on the civic domain. Non-profit organizations are realizing the importance of these communities when it comes to philanthropic activities and needs around the world. They have utilized these communities to create awareness and conduct projects that are meant to better the current society and alleviate any problems that exist in the current society.

The communities of practice that exist under the social industry include the regional economic development communities; inter-regional learning communities and intra-regional communities that exist in various domains. The web is the most common place where communities of practice can be found as a result of the various technologies that exist which have improved the interactions that exist between people.

The emergence of social networking sites has ensured that people are able to form communities of practice where they can be able to share their common interests as well as their experiences with other people of similar interests. The web has reduced the geographical limitations that existed in the traditional communities which mostly existed under limited locations, networks, or social/organizational contexts.

Critical Points of Communities of Practice

One of the most important critical points of communities of practice is the credibility of shared information. Practitioners only feel secure when they reuse solutions that have proved to be useful in the past. These solutions prove to be important when they have been discussed within the scope of a community as long as a process of trust has been established within these communities. Practitioners or professionals, therefore, feel comfortable when reusing solutions that have been discussed within communities of practice. Another critical point of communities of practice is that they help to bridge the institutional boundaries that are critical in getting things done in the organizational or social context.17

Knowledge management is another critical point of communities of practice as knowledge lives in the human act of knowing. This enables human beings to share their experiences with other members of the group. Knowledge allows practitioners to be able to develop their expertise by providing these practitioners with the opportunity to engage with others who face similar situations. Communities of practice under knowledge management do not reduce knowledge and vital information to an object but they instead make it to be an integral part of the practitioner’s activities and interactions.18

Members of Communities of Practice

The above analysis has shown that communities of practice can exist in various organizations and sectors as well as social contexts around the world. The members in a community of practice are usually bought together as a result of the level of expertise they share with other people within the community of practice. Members in these groups are required to have some experience in areas of interest or knowledge that exist within these groups. Members of the community of practices might include medical practitioners, nurses, teachers or students, engineers, lawyers, employees in the business department, marketers, a group of friends on the Internet, or a group of colleagues who are in the same professional field.19

Works Cited

Probst, Gilbert and Stefano, Borzillo. Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail. European management Journal 26.5 (2008): 335-347.

Roberts, Joanne. Limits to communities of practice. Journal of Management Studies 43.3 (2006): 623-639.

Scarso, Enrico and Ettore, Bolisani. Communities of practice as structures for managing knowledge in networked corporations. Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management 19.3 (2008): 374-390.

Thompson, Mark. Structural and epistemic parameters in communities of practice. Organization Science 16.2 (2005):151-164.

Footnotes

  1. Roberts, Joanne. “Limits to communities of practice”. Journal of Management Studies, 43(2), 2006, 623.
  2. Probst Gilbert and Stefano Borzillo. “Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail”. European Management Journal, 26(5), 2008, 335.
  3. Roberts, Joanne. “Limits to communities of practice”. Journal of Management Studies, 43(3), 2006, 624.
  4. Probst, Gilbert, and Stefano Borzillo. “Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail”. European Management Journal, 26(5), 2008, 336.
  5. Roberts, Joanne. “Limits to communities of practice”. Journal of Management Studies, 43(3), 2006, 625.
  6. Scarso, Enrico, and Ettore Bolisani. “Communities of practice as structures for managing knowledge in networked corporations”. Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, 19(3), 2008, 375.
  7. Thompson, Mark. “Structural and epistemic parameters in communities of practice”. Organization Science, 16(2), 2005, 151.
  8. Roberts, Joanne. “Limits to communities of practice”. Journal of Management Studies, 43(3), 2006, 623.
  9. Roberts, Joanne. “Limits to communities of practice”. Journal of Management Studies, 43 (3), 2006, 626.
  10. Probst, Gilbert, and Stefano Borzillo. “Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail”. European Management Journal, 26 ( 5), 2008, 336.
  11. Probst, Gilbert, and Stefano Borzillo. Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail. European Management Journal, 26 (5), 2008, 335.
  12. Scarso, Enrico, and Ettore Bolisani. “Communities of practice as structures for managing knowledge in networked corporations”. Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, 19 (3), 2008, 374.
  13. Thompson, Mark. Structural and epistemic parameters in communities of practice. Organization Science, 16 (2), 2005, 151.
  14. Probst, Gilbert, and Stefano Borzillo. “Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail”. European Management Journal, 26 (5), 2008, 336.
  15. Roberts, Joanne. “Limits to communities of practice”. Journal of Management Studies, 43 (3), 2005, 627.
  16. Probst, Gilbert, and Stefano Borzillo “Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail”. European Management Journal, 26(5), 2008, 345.
  17. Thompson, Mark. “Structural and epistemic parameters in communities of practice”. Organization Science, 16 (2), 2005, 152.
  18. Scarso, Enrico, and Ettore Bolisani “Communities of practice as structures for managing knowledge in networked corporations” Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, 19(3), 2008, 374.
  19. Probst, Gilbert and Stefano Borzillo “Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail” European Management Journal, 26 (5), 2008, 343.
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