Paper Analysis – Evaluation – “Exploring the potential of communities of practice for learning and collaboration in a higher education context”

This paper explores the potential of CoPs as vehicles that promote learning and collaboration in organisations.

Literature Review:

A Community of Practice has 3 structural elements:

  • Domain (the key issues or problems that members experience regularly
  • Community (refers to the relationships and mutual commitment developed as a result of continuous interaction)
  • Practice (the set of frameworks, tools, information, styles, languages, stories and documents that members in the community share)

Participants in CoPs engage in “productive conversations” or “productive inquiry” that promote learning and innovation. Productive Inquiry is a dynamic process of questioning and validating information as well as the rules, guidelines and practices, through which tacit knowledge is retrieved and gives meaning to explicit knowledge. This process becomes the catalyst to transform information into knowledge and to drive capability generation.

Communities of Practice and higher education contexts

In higher education, according to McDonald and Star (2008), CoPs –

  • provide a space for staff to collaboratively reflect on, review, and update current teaching and learning practices
  • at a business school of professors, CoPs resulted in professional support and development, improved dialogue & communication and a general sense of mutual trust

Van Wyk (2005) reported the following benefits of a CoP for a university library system:

  • the diffusion of knowledge
  • he generation of new ideas
  • increased opportunities for innovation
  • work improvements
  • sense of belonging to a community

The Method

Project started in 2007 for the library system of a higher education institution in Puerto Rico. Initially 5 CoPs formed around several topics of interest for the librarians (e.g. collection development, Web 2.0, the information competencies etc.)

After one year the research team developed a case study using a qualitative approach to determine the individual and organisational benefits generated by community activities

18 CoP members were interviewed separately

Interviews were transcribed and interpreted using content analysis

The team developed a questionnaire for semi-structured interviews based on 4 main topics which were also used in the content analysis –

  1. Contributions of the CoP
  2. success factors of CoPs
  3. effective practices for knowledge documentation
  4. influence on organisational culture

This paper focuses on the first topic – contributions of CoPs

NVivo Software was used to code the interviews


Learning and Collaboration among members of the communities = principal benefit of these CoPs

The promotion of new practices = an additional benefit



  • participants learned of new materials, concepts, approaches and technologies to facilitate their collaboration (e.g. Wikis, Blogs and Skype)
  • participants exchanged knowledge, experiences and the most effective practices – knowledge that is difficult to codify and which is embedded in work routines
  • CoP members highlighted the importance of shared issues related to their work with each other, including experiences or best practices


  • participants pointed out formal learning opportunities, e.g. training sessions and workshops
  • the emergence of CoP serves as a way to improve organisational performance because community members practice what they learn in both formal and informal environments


  • interaction between community members increased knowledge, access to different experiences and improved each participants expertise
  • relationships within communities improved communication among participants enabling dialogue between members
  • participants developed a new “network” (teamwork) that was different to what they were used to
  • participants mentioned that they developed a sense of “closeness” and mutual trust through their participation
  • participants see the relationships they have built lasting even though the project may end

The Promotion of New Practices

  • participants mentioned several initiatives they are developing to enhance their work and their units performance (e.g. developing an electronic repository to gather and exchange what i generated in the CoP)
  • collaboration and knowledge sharing among community participants is important to enhance learning and promote new practices


CoPs can be seen as “agents of change” capable of transforming the technical structures (processes, procedures, development and use of tools or practices) and social structures (relationships, collaboration, sense of identity and unity of the community)

Topics to research further

  • content analysis
  • semi-structured interviews
  • NVivo Software



Sánchez-Cardona, I., Sánchez-Lugo, J., & VŽlez-González, J. (2012). Exploring the Potential of Communities of Practice for Learning and Collaboration in a Higher Education Context. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 46, 1820–1825.


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