The contemporary world has been characterised by simple and complex organisational structures that define the organisation’s mission and goals. In the organisational setting, the human factor works differently, as described in the working manuals, training programs, job descriptions, and organisational charts. In most cases, organisations rely on the working manuals to explain how operations would be carried out to attain efficiency towards the set goals.
However, the workforce is a dynamic element that accepts new ideas to alter the traditional ways of practice in the organisation. Thus, the aspects of communities of practice and learning organisations emerge with the aim of defining the interactions and adaptation in the dynamic organisation environment (Argote 2012). In this regard, the informal interactions in the communities of practice trigger the adoption of new approaches characterised by innovation through organisational learning. This paper seeks to analyse communities of practice and learning organisations by reflecting on the similarities and differences between the two concepts.
Communities of practice
The concept of communities of practice infers that even in seemingly routine or unskilled work, there is an enormous amount of purposeful interactions to ensure that the job is done. This assertion implies that the formal interactions, as defined by the organisational culture and informal engagements among employees in different departments, play a role in the realisation of organisational objectives. In this respect, learning experiences emerge in these social contexts that concentrate on the shared goals of the organisation (Murillo 2011). The division of labour, knowledge, and shared understandings constitute the idea of communities of practice. Therefore, a community of practice can be perceived as a group that binds through continued mutual engagements in an organisation, thus resulting in the creation of a common and goal-oriented understanding (Wenger 2004).
Lave and Wenger (1991) are credited with coming up with the concept of communities of practice by developing the construct of legitimate peripheral participation ideas. The communities of practice were meant to explain how novice employees would join practitioner communities and learn their socio-cultural practices. Organisational development considers the communities of practice since it facilitates the creation of social capital, innovation stimulation, and nurturing new knowledge.
The interactions in the communities of practice create learning experiences that are essential for the growth of the organisation. Learning is thus perceived to emanate from the social course of becoming a practitioner in a certain profession whereby an individual is integrated into the community. The identity that is created socially gives the practitioner a new perspective of the organisational world that is characterised by communities that regularly interact for the accomplishments of tasks. Beitler (2010, p. 82) notes that the ‘learning process entails the development of new knowledge that occurs in the dependent forum of the community, which is usually shared in the context of community practice’.
Learning organisations arise from group interactions, and they are supplementary to individual learning (Smith 2001). The concept is an emergent process implying that it is not predictable since it depends heavily on the contributions of individual members of the organisation. Self-organisation is a characteristic of learning organisations as groups are formed for the exploration of new ideas without directives from managers outside the social units. The knowledge is mainly integrated into the culture by establishing the values and language of the organisation.
The concept of legitimate peripheral learning (LPP) was developed to show the connection between communities of practice and organisational learning. The motive of learning within an organisation is to gain access to the communities of practice by learning the culture as depicted by aspects of behaviour, values, and language of the communities. The legitimacy of membership into the communities of practice is acquired through learning both the informal and formal relationships through upholding some values. In so doing, the newcomers advance to full participation, and they are no longer at the periphery stage. Therefore, organisational learning can be seen as the process in which knowledge management is facilitated within an organisation. In this regard, the social units enhance the suitability of communities of practice, which construct the necessary culture for learning.
Similarities between communities of practice and learning organisations
Communities of practice and learning organisation are closely related since the former in most cases accommodate the later by triggering its development after an analysis of the organisational interactions. The two concepts are characterised by mutual engagements that aim at benefiting the individual and the organisation. This aspect implies that they are indispensable.
Communities of practice involve sustainable mutual interactions that are informal in nature, as depicted in the shared means of doing things collectively. Additionally, there is a continuous flow of information and innovative propagations that seek to improve the performance of individual employees. Similarly, learning organisations entail mutual engagements that are purposeful as the organisation purposes to develop the knowledge base of the workforce. The organisation usually designs the knowledge development model, which is launched and administered to the personnel to promote the adaptation to the environmental changes that affect the organisation’s sustainability (Easterby-Smith & Lyles 2011). The learning organisations set up discussions speedily through healthy interactions when a problem arises, hence enhancing the knowledge development of the employees resulting in the organisation’s productivity.
Communities of practice and learning organisations portray shared repertoire in their engagements. Practitioners use specific tools and equipment, among other artefacts in their line of work. Besides, communities of action depict shared stories, local lore, and inside laughter. Certain styles are used to identify oneself with the community and shared discourse on several aspects regarding the line of work. Correspondingly, learning organisations are characterised by a collection of activities that are similar in nature. In the process of knowledge development before an individual is inducted into the communities of practice, similar mental models, systems thinking, and personal mastery approaches are considered for the process to be systematic (Lave & Wenger 1991).
In both aspects, members go through shared learning experiences through focused engagements. Communities of practice ensure that members learn as they perform the tasks assigned to them through participation in practice. Besides, learning organisations instil learning experiences to the members as they find ways of adapting to the changes triggered by the external environment. Furthermore, participation in the engagements of the social groups within an enterprise fosters the development of personal skills, thus enhancing the continuous process of learning (Lynham 2002).
Differences between communities of practice and learning organisations
Despite the close connections between communities of practice and learning organisations, some fundamental differences depict the uniqueness of the two concepts. Basing the differences in organisational and knowledge management studies, a distinction of the two concepts can be achieved for a clear discernment of the two aspects of organisations.
Communities of practice are emergent structures that are informal in nature. The social units that develop in organisations depict informal relationships that allow personal interactions that are perceived to enhance the productivity of the involved individuals (McDermott, Snyder & Wenger 2002). The communities of practice emerged due to the need for reducing the rigidity of the organisational structure through purposeful interactions that facilitate professional growth and the realisation of corporate growth.
On the other hand, learning organisations are perceived as knowledge assets of the organisation, which are facilitated by the induction of new professionals into the communities of practice. Therefore, the organisation values the learning process since it enhances the professional growth through knowledge acquisition, thus implying that the skills would be applied in the delivery of desirable output.
The informality of the communities of practice suggests that the management of an organisation is not in control of the interactions. In most cases, organisations focus on the integration of the organisational culture through formal provisions that outline the corporate culture in the form of values that seek to achieve the set mission. Informal interactions are personal in nature. This aspect implies that the management’s control would infringe the effectiveness of the organisational activities (McDermott, Snyder & Wenger 2002). On the contrary, learning organisations value the management of the knowledge-based assets that are acquired through the induction of new members into the communities of practice (Easterby-Smith & Lyles 2011).
Therefore, the organisation enhances the skills of the workforce by various initiatives that are fostered by the human resources department. In this case, the formal approach of the organisation in promoting the learning process as the practitioners or professionals is introduced into the organisation.
The communities of practice in an organisation constitute all the competencies of the organisation. This assertion implies that members with different skills irrespective of their line of profession interact in socially constructed groups, thus merging the competencies as they find ways of getting the work done (McDermott, Snyder & Wenger 2002). In this regard, communities of practice should not be considered as teams that are based on a particular department, but informal interactions that are established by personal interest and compatibility. On the other hand, learning organisations cultivate the core competencies of the organisation by facilitating the creation of mental models that influence the behaviour of the organisation (Lave & Wenger 1991). This assertion implies that the organisation seeks the enhancement of its core competencies through the management of the formal interactions that complement the effectiveness of the informal interactions in the communities of practice.
The development of communities of practice is usually for solving routine problems within the organisation. The inefficiencies of an organisation require the creation of solutions that drive the organisation towards goal attainment. In this essence, employees form social units, which are different from departmental teams to create solutions to the routine problems that hinder the growth of the organisation.
Learning organisations concentrate on the strategically significant problems that inhibit the competitiveness of the organisation. The organisation conditions employee to create and use creative tension required for solving the relevant issues through knowledge development. Additionally, learning organisations facilitate the PPL, which prepares the new professionals for specific challenges that are ahead before they are integrated into the communities of practice.
The emergence of communities of practice is derived from the accordance of the members who form informal relationships voluntarily. In this case, the management does not construct the social units, but the members seek to create harmonious relationships geared towards the attainment of shared organisational goals. The management usually designs and launches the learning organisations to foster the knowledge of the workforce and boost its competitiveness. In this case, through their sound leadership, managers facilitate organisational learning to create a positive and competitive organisational climate to deliver quality services to the public. The design for organisational learning seeks to achieve knowledge development of the workforce through a collaborative social approach (Marquardt 2011).
Communities of practice act as an analytical category that depicts the organisation’s interactions that are geared towards the accomplishment of the shared goals and objectives. An evaluation of the effectiveness of the informal interactions enhances the organisation’s strategic plans that are directed towards efficiency. Furthermore, the organisation could consider the creation of an enabling environment that ensures purposeful interactions from the analysis of the communities of practice engagements. On the other hand, learning organisations are considered as new-fangled organisational groups that are essential for the management of knowledge and innovation.
The development of the learning organisation is based on the recommendations of the analysis of the communities of practice to ensure the active generation of knowledge from the interaction. Technological developments that induce innovativeness in the workplace setting also necessitate the development of the learning organisations to embrace new working strategies (Marquardt 2011). Therefore, the professional, the learning organisation, and the external environment form the basis for consideration in the knowledge development strategies.
The communities of practice usually benefit the welfare of the members. The regular informal interactions that characterise the socially constructed units boost interpersonal relationships, thus facilitating personal and professional development. Therefore, despite the generation of solutions to problems that hinder quality output, communities of practice mostly profit the individual members of the organisation (Wenger 2004). On the contrary, learning organisations benefit the organisation collectively in terms of knowledge development as designed by the management. The knowledge and skills developed through innovative strategies imply that the organisation would enhance its productivity, thus fostering the realisation of its goals.
Cultivating communities of practice
Communities of practice are voluntary, and thus one can join or leave freely. Scholars argue that this aspect makes such communities fruitful throughout time by producing excitement. Further, being voluntary makes the communities relevant, and they attract new members. Communities of practices beg the question of how to make them grow and become more fruitful. It is not possible to design or dictate communities of practice (Murillo, 2011). Therefore, their fruitfulness cannot be determined. Despite the view that communities of practice are voluntary, their capability to evoke aliveness and invite new members determines their fruitfulness. Cultivating communities of practice majors on designing or growing the ability to attract and invoke enhanced interactions in the organisation (Lave & Wenger 1991).
Communities of practice are natural and thus increasing the amounts to fostering the achievement of their goals. The creation of communities of practice is not practical. Nonetheless, designing elements facilitate their development. For instance, Etihad Airways has a familiar place where cabin crewmembers relax, eat, and nap after flights before heading home or taking the next flight. At these places, pilots meet and interact, thus forming social groups depicting communities of practice characteristics. Any other pulling factor to a familiar place will catalyse the formation of communities of practice. Saint-Onge and Wallace (2011, p. 102) hold that these ‘catalysing elements are dependent on the stage of development of the communities of practice, the surrounding, the cohesiveness of participants, and the kind of the shared information’.
After forming communities of practice, informal interactions become the next important part of trying to contrive. Communities of practice require firm leadership that fosters the culture of the group among the members and newcomers. Communities of practice are based on the conjoined experience of all members. Therefore, they communicate primarily about all the challenges in their field of practice (McDermott, Snyder & Wenger 2002). To combat or find solutions to the challenges in the field, the communities of practice look at the emerging ideas and techniques used by their competitors. To bring out this aspect of communities of practices, the Etihad Airways’ managers facilitate debates that create discussions within the communities of practice, thus resulting in the solutions for the quality delivery of services.
In nurturing communities of practice, allowing different levels of participation is important since it helps in covering all aspects of interactions. This aspect means that imperative solutions are reached. Disregarding the contribution of some members is detrimental to the survival of the communities of practice. However, participation is limited to the members of the communities of practice at Etihad Airways since non-members might not be familiar with the company.
The cultivation of productive communities of practice requires the provision of solutions to the problems faced by employees in the organisation (McDermott, Snyder & Wenger 2002). In so doing, the interactions would be based on the creation of new ideas required for personal and organisational success since the hurdles would be curtailed, and new ideas formulated.
To continue growing, communities of practice combine value addition to the company and excitement. Most members of communities of practice will leave the communities if they are based solely on discussing the challenges they at work (Pham & Swierczek 2006). For communities of practice, excitement precedes the value-added to the company. For instance, Etihad Airways recently organised the New York Film Academy workshop to enhance the excitement that comes along with film viewing. A rhythm should also be created for communities of practice to grow. There should be a specific convening time when employees report for work and interact as they undertake their duties. Such a repertoire supports the creation of a stronger bond within the communities of practice.
Cultivating a learning organisation
Organisations need to facilitate continuous knowledge development through learning processes. In this regard, organisations need to emphasise the creation, acquisition, and transfer of knowledge among skilled employees. In so doing, organisations would cultivate tolerance, enhance open discussions, and foster holistic and systematic thinking. According to Beitler (2010, p. 84), over the past two decades, ‘inquiries have been conducted to identify the factors that are essential for the development of organisational learning and adaptability’. The factors include a supportive learning environment, leadership behaviour that offers reinforcement, and concrete and comprehensive learning processes and practices.
Beitler (2010, p. 106) notes that a ‘supportive learning environment is usually characterised by four elements that include psychological safety, appreciation, openness to new ideas, time for reflection, and the appreciation of differences’. Psychological safety at the workplace environment should allow employees to express their thoughts regarding the working processes comfortably. The fear of marginalisation among the employees should be curtailed by reducing negative perceptions of disagreements, naive inquisitiveness, and being responsible for their mistakes. The appreciation of differences enhances learning, whereby employees become aware of conflicting ideas.
Openness to new ideas implies that the workforce should be stimulated to take risks and explore new ways of performing tasks efficiently. Creating time for reflection after performing the various tasks directed towards the accomplishment of goals enhances the needed analytical and creative thinking, thus boosting learning (Rogers 2002).
A leadership style that reinforces learning is also essential for the streamlined learning processes in an organisation. The behaviour of leaders influences organisational learning through interactions between the leaders and their followers. Active questioning and listening to employees trigger dialogue and debate that seeks to enhance workplace activities. Leaders that invest in problem identification, reflective audits and knowledge transfer create environments that cultivate learning (Lave & Wenger 1991). When leaders portray the willingness to embrace new perspectives, employees feel encouraged to provide novel ideas.
Concrete and comprehensive learning processes and activities foster the generation, gathering, elucidation, and dissemination of information. The identification and resolution of problems through disciplined analysis and evaluation is also recommended, along with the training of experienced and novice employees.
The models of communities of practice and learning organisations require a social constructivist approach to understanding the underlying mechanisms that foster their emergence. The communities of practice are created from the informal interactions among various practitioners within the organisation. On the other side, learning organisations are based on knowledge development. The cultivation of the two processes is vital for the development of organisations that uphold individual and organisational growth.
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