Paper Analysis – “Questioning the Place of Commuities of Practice”


Roberts, J. (2006). Questioning the place of communities of practice. OLKC Conference at the University of Warwick, (January 2011).


  • knowledge is held, transferred & created through communities of practice (CoPs)
  • they have become more and more influential within management literature and practice
  • the term was originally developed in a study of situated learning but now CoPs have become a fashionable knowledge management practice
  • Research Question: “If CoPs can lead to effective learning and knowledge generation within and between organisations, can they be used to promote learning and innovation in an extra-organisational context at a regional, national and even international spatial scale?”
  • Layout of the paper:
    • a brief overview of the scope of extant empirical studies of CoPs
    • the size and spatial reach of CoPs
    • the need to differentiate between different types of CoPs
    • the place of CoPs in the knowledge based economy
    • the place of CoPs among approaches to inter-organisational learning and knowledge generation & point to policy measures to promote their role in economic development
  • What are communities of practice? – (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 98) – “a system of relationships between people, activities, and the world; developing with time and in relation to other tangential and overlapping communities of practice”
  • According to Wenger (1995) meaning in a CoP is negotiated through a process of participation and reification (making something real) – he defines the concept of reification as the process of giving form to experience by producing objects
  • CoPs are important places of negotiation, meaning and identity
  • Wenger defines three dimensions of a CoP
    • mutual engagement (members interact with one another, eestablishing relationships)
    • joint enterprise (what brings the community together)
    • shared repertoire (communal resources)
  • Wenger (2000) distinguishes between 3 modes of belonging to social learning systems
    • engagement – doing things together
    • imagination – constructing a image of ourselves, our communities and of the world in order to orient ourselves, to reflect on our situation and to explore possibilities
    • alignment – making sure that our local activities are sufficiently aligned with other processes so that they can be effective beyond our own engagement
  • Key characteristics of a CoP (Wenger 1998)
    • shared mutual relationships
    • shared way of engaging in doing things together
    • rapid flow of information and propagation (spreading and promoting) of innovation
    • absence of introductory preambles (i.e. an introduction) – conversations and interactions treated as if they are a continuation of an ongoing process
    • very quick set up of problem to be discussed
    • substantial overlap in participants’ descriptions of who belongs
    • knowing what others know, what they can do and how they can contribute to an enterprise
    • mutually defining identities
    • the ability to asess the appropriateness of actions and products
    • specific tools, representation and other artefacts
    • local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing together
    • jargon and shortcuts to communication as well as the ease of producing new ones
    • certain styles recognised as displaying membership
    • a shared discourse reflecting a certain perspective on the world
  • CoPs evolve over time. They cannot be formed (Lave and Wenger, 1991) – e.g. a business can establish a team for a particular project, which in time may emerge as a CoP.
  • Problems with CoPs literature –
    • the marginalisation of the issue of power
    • its failure to take int account pre-existing conditions such as habitus and social codes
    • its widespread application within organisational studies beyond its original focus on situated learning
    • the use of the term “community” which is problematic, embodies positive connotations and is open to multiple interpretations
  • The research methods adopted in the empirical studies include
    • ethnographic investigations
    • **qualitative case studies including interviews, focus groups and questionnaire surveys (Dewhurst and Cegaara-Navarro 2004)
    • investigations of online communities include analysis of email and e-portal usage data
  • large distributed communities of practice can be seen as a collection of CoPs
  • (Wenger 1998) – a specific CoP can be part of a number of constellations of practice which arise from interactions among practices involving boundary processes
  • Boundary processes through which knowledge can be transferred include
    • brokering
    • boundary objects
    • boundary interactions & cross-discipliary projects
    • e.g. elements of style and discourses can travel across boundaries but they may be integrated into these various practices in very different ways
  • Brown and Duguid (1991) argue that all but small organisations should be considered communities of communities of practice.
    • they use networks of practice to describe relations among members which are a lot looser than a CoP
    • while members of such a network are able to share knowlege, most of them will never know or meet one another
  • A tentative typology of CoPs
    • Situated Practice – involving mutual engagement – CoPs
    • Situated Practice – achieved through boundary spanners/brokers
    • Dislocated Practice – networks of practice – local, regional, national, global, virtual

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