Introduction

One of the themes I’m covering in this module is some of the techniques frequently used by organisations to manage effectively and creatively in the knowledge economy. You may find this useful, since my feeling is that in your future management careers after having graduated you might be in a position to experiment with some of these techniques and, thus, it will be useful for you to have some initial insights into them.

We’ve examined so far open space technology and brainstorming. Here I want to discuss what are referred to as ‘communities of practice’.

The Knowledge Economy and Learning


Where do communities of practice slot into what we’ve been discussing so far in this module?

I spoke early on in this module about the knowledge economy and the fact that for many businesses, at least for those in the developed capitalist economies like the UK, knowledge is their principal source of competitive advantage. In other words, in order to be profitable and to see off their competitors these businesses need to be successful in terms of how they acquire, create, manage and employ different sources of knowledge. Knowledge is what is referred to in the business strategy literature as their ‘unique resource.’

If we accept the overriding importance of knowledge in the modern economy, then we can perhaps also acknowledge that effective learning in contemporary organisations is also critical and of considerable significance. Why? I would argue that for an organisation and its participants to gain and use knowledge they also must, in some way, learn effectively. In other words, knowledge is gained through learning and knowledge and learning are, thus, intimately interconnected.

This notion of communities of practice explores how organisations can learn effectively. It is therefore linked to many intriguing discussions in the management literature about effective learning in organisations, therefore touching upon topics like ‘learning organisations’, ‘organisational development’ and ‘learning cycles’.

What is Learning?



When we think about learning we usually have in mind an activity that has these characteristics:

  • It is an individual process – something that happens without significant interaction with other people

  • It is separated from the rest of our lives – it occurs in special places like classrooms and seminar rooms

  • It is overwhelmingly a cognitive and intellectual process – it is divorced from doing, action and practice

  • It involves the learner internalising specialist bodies of knowledge

Etienne Wenger (in Communities of Practice, 1998) and Lave and Wenger (in Situated Learning, 1991) argue that in most situations this model fails to capture the reality of the ways in which people actually learn. T
hey suggest – based on plenty of empirical evidence presented in their books – that how many people learn in many different contexts has these characteristics:

  • It is a social process – something that happens through the learner interacting intensely with people

  • Something that occurs in everyday situations

  • It involves learning through doing and practical action – it isn’t exclusively a cognitive process

  • It involves a skill or a competence – a capacity to do something

Given their model of ‘situated learning,’ Wenger and Lave recommend that people appear to learn through what they refer to as ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in different communities of practice. If we endorse their definition of a community of practice as a body of specialist knowledge and skills of a specific group of people, then this idea of legitimate peripheral participation denotes the manner in which a newcomer moves – almost unintentionally – from the outside of a community to full participation in it. Wenger and Lave suggest that their views on learning see it as being akin to an apprenticeship, where a novice over a number of years slowly acquires the skills and competences of the old-timers through working alongside them.

Note some of the obvious connections between this situated learning and some of the issues we’ve already discussed in relation to tacit knowledge. It could be argued that this type of learning is especially when people are acquiring tacit knowledge, rather than acquiring explicit knowledge.

What Are communities of Practice?


Wenger and Lave suggest that these communities of practice are everywhere – at work, in schools, in households, in local communities and in our leisure pursuits. But clearly the ones that interest us most – and those that Wenger has in the main discussed – are those to be found in organisations and in the workplace. He argues that those that he has researched have these characteristics:

  • A group of people informally bound together by a shared expertise or interest in a topic or project – say, a group of engineers involved in redesigning a business’ manufacturing operations

  • Their main function is to enable their members to ‘share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems. (in Wenger and Snyder’s ‘Communities of Practice: The Organisational Frontier’, HBR, Jan-Feb 2000)

  • They are self-managing and informal – they set their own agenda and decide how best to undertake their work; they decide how long they should remain in existence

  • Their membership is self-selected – people decide whether they wish to be involved

  • They are not directly managed by the business, although it might try to nurture and facilitate them
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Do Communities of Practice Add Value?


You won’t be surprised to hear that Wenger, as a consultant who stands to earn big bucks from his association with the concept of communities of practices, sees it as ‘the best thing since sliced bread.’ He argues that businesses add value through facilitating the development of communities of practices:

  • They help to drive strategy: they help a business to identify what it should seeking to achieve and how its goals might be achieved

  • They start new lines of business: they help in the process of new product develop and identifying new markets

  • They solve problems quickly: they pool expertise and knowledge enabling problems to be solved that could not be solved by an individual working by himself

  • They transfer best practices: they ensure that good ideas are communicated quickly through a business

  • They develop professional skills: they build and develop these skills as newcomers become full participants in a community of practice

  • They help businesses recruit and retain talent: experts may remain with a business due to involvement in a community of practice

Discussion


  1. How do people in organisations (and organisations themselves) learn?
  2. Does the model of situated learning correspond with your own experiences of learning in the workplace?
  3. Can communities of practices be managed?
  4. In what ways do you think that communities of practice might add value to a business?

References


Lave, J and Wenger, E (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate and Peripheral Participation
Wenger, E (1998) Communities of Practice
Wenger, E and Snyder, W (2000) Communities of Practice: The Organisational Frontier, HBR Jan-Feb