Paper Analysis: “Communities of Practice: Never Knowingly Undersold”


Kimble, C. (2006). Communities of practice: Never knowingly undersold. CEUR Workshop Proceedings, 213, 218–234.


  • This paper shows how the term Communities of Practice has changed from the early works of Lave and Wenger, through the later, more theoretical works of Wenger to the current more “business friendly” version propounded by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder
  • For each period, they give:
    • some background to the period under examination
    • an analysis of the way in which the term is used
    • a summary of the key features of the view of communities of practice from this particular period

The Early Period (1991-1995):

  • The two key texts from this period were both published in 1991:
    • Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Lave and Wenger 1991)
    • Organizational Learning and Community of Practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation (Brown and Duguid 1991)
    • both are primarily concerned with theories of learning
  • Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation
    • What is a community of practice?
      • “…a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and a relation with other tangential and overlapping Communities of Practice”
      • “A community of practice is an intrinsic condition for the existence of knowledge, not least because it provides the intrinsic support necessary for making sense of its heritage…the social structure of this practice, its power relations and it’s conditions for legitimacy define possibilities for learning”
    • What does it do?
      • primarily concerned with situated learning
      • it is largely based on the idea of learning through apprenticeship
      • a community of practice is seen as a mechanism for the reproduction of existing knowledge through active engagement with others in some form of “practice”
      • the knowledge that is required in these communities begins to constitute both a sense of identity of oneself and becomes part of one’s identity in the eyes of the others
      • such communities are described as enacted – members can be thought of as ‘performing’ or ‘improvising’ their roles in the community as they go about their everyday activities
    • How does it work?
      • Legitimate Peripheral Participation
      • stories are told, retold and elaborated as the novice moves from peripheral to full participation in the community
  • Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice
    • the goal is to bring together theories of working, learning and innovation in order to provide new insights into organizational learning and the role of communities in the work place
    • What is a community of practice?
      • they use the term to describe groups that are (a) fluid and dynamic, “..constantly adapting to changing membership and changing circumstances..”, (b) emergent “..their shape and membership emerges in the process of activity, as opposed to being created to carry out a task..”, and (c) exists “..outside the organisation’s limited core world view..”.
    • What does it do?
      • The reality of the technician’s work is far more complicated and is as much about maintaining social relations with their customers and their peers as it is about machines – they make better sense of the machines than their employer either expects or allows
      • communities of practice also serve to “..protect the organisation from its own shortsightedness..”
    • How does it work?
      • Brown and Duguid acknowledge the role of LPP in fostering learning but highlight 3 categories of their own – “narration”, “collaboration” and “social construction”
      • narration reflects the complex social web within which work takes place; stories have a flexibility that makes them both adaptable and particular
      • collaboration is based on the exchange and elaboration of shared narratives, both across the organization and within communities
      • social construction – the collaborative telling and re-telling of stories contributed to the construction of a technicians’ own identity , and reciprocally to the construction and development of the community in which they work
    • for both sets of authors, CoPs are primarily concerned with learning and they are seen as autonomous groups
    • knowledge is situated, mutable and socially constituted.
    • The process of learning is seen as something that is ongoing: over time meanings are contested, negotiated and re-negotiated through participation, both in the community and in the practice
    • they exist independently of the formalised world of organisations are are driven by their own internal needs

The Middle Period (1996-1999)

  • one of the “Big Ideas” of this period is “Knowledge Management”
  • the work considered here is
    • “Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Wenger 1998)
  • Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity
    • the source material from the book is drawn from an ethnographic study of clerks in a medical insurance claims processing office
    • What is a community of practice?
      • it consists of 3 interrelated terms – joint enterprise, mutual engagement, shared repertoire
      • here Wenger is more concerned with CoPs in the context of a formal organisation: “Communities of Practice that emphasizes the learning that people have done together rather than the unit they report to, the project they are working on or the people they know.
      • they arise out of a need to accomplish particular tasks buut Wenger continues to see them as self-directed and self-organising systems
    • What does it do?
      • it is a forum where learning, meaning and identity are negotiated – and practice “gives structure and meaning to what we do”
      • he sees part of the role of a community of practice being to make work habitable
      • they can contribute to the “host” organisation
      • the contribution is phrased in “Knowledge Management” terms: “Communities of practice are important to the functioning of any organization, but they become crucial to those that recognize knowledge as a key asset…Knowledge is created, shared, organised, revised and passed on within and among these communities”
      • Wenger views the organisation as a “constellation of communities”
    • How does it work?
      • LPP no longer features
      • he argues that all of the activites in a CoP can be described in terms of the interplay of four fundamental dualities and these dualities are: (1) participation-reification, (2) designed-emergent, (3) identification-negotiability, (4) local-global, although the participation-reification is of particular interest
      • participation plays a crucial role in the creation of knowledge in the core
      • reification is important for interactions at the boundaries of the community
      • informal learning is now only considered in the context of formal organisational settings
      • communities of practice act both as support systems for employees whilst also providing a benefit to the organisation that contains them
      • move towards a view that communities of practice can act as a means of problem solving and sense making within an organisation
      • Wenger links what happens inside the community to the wider social context within which it is embedded
      • he suggests communities of practice are still emergent but they can be guided or nurtured in some way

The Late Period (2000-2003)

  • The work considered here is: Cultivating Communities of Practice
  • a new wave of articles critical of the whole CoP approach were beginning to emerge
  • it is argued that these later works can be interpreted as attempts to demonstrate the “maturity” of the CoP concept to delay the inevitable decline
  • Cultivating Communities of Practice
    • What is a community of practice?
      • although communities of practice can take many forms, “…they all share a basic structure…a unique combination of three fundamental elements”
      • “…groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise [which can] drive strategy, generate new lines of business, solve problems, promote the spread of best practices, develop professional skills and help companies to recruit and retain talent..”
      • “Communities of practice steward the knowledge assets of organisations and society. They operate as “social learning systems” where practitioners connect to solve problems, share ideas, set standards, build tools and develop relationships with peers and stakeholders”.
    • What does it do?
      • steward knowledge inside organisations
      • complement formal units and help organisations weave critical connections across formal groups to leverage knowledge for performance
      • help shape society [and] provide new points of stability and connection in an increasingly mobile, global and changing world
    • How does it work?
      • it is mostly taken that CoPs can achieve what authors claim
      • they describe a five stage life cycle for CoPs
      • each stage addresses a particular issue
      • at each stage the authors offer a convenient range of strategies that can be deployed to move on to the next stage
    • communities of practice have now become manageable and of enefit to the organisation that chooses to do so
    • they can be made to deliver
    • they are now directly linked to the “management” of knowledge – stewarding knowledge but what is meant by stewarding is never defined
    • communities of practice can be geographically distributed and can even benefit from having a technological infrastructure to support their activities
    • communities of practice have now become CoPs

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