According to Wenger “communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly“ (Wenger 2010). They build a common stock of knowledge, accumulate expertise in their domain, and develop their shared practice by interacting around problems, solutions, and insights. A CoP aims to improve educational practice through experiental learning from each other. The table below provides an overview of major outcomes on individual and collective level.
Every Community of Practice is unique
Communities of Practice vary widely in name, style and size. They have different life cycles, from short-lived to long-lived, and may emerge within, across or outside organisational contexts. In the real world we find a broad range of Communities of Practice. From those, who build on weak ties and informal relationships between its members, to communities who have gained formal recognition, and shaped into formalized membership. Communities of practice can be intended and designed, but also emerge from spontaneous action, temporarily events and occasions. They can be composed of persons having the same profession or function, or conversely, people, who have a completely different professional background and experience.
Communities of Practice according to Etienne Wenger should be “cultivated” in conjunction with the following principles (Wenger 2002)
- Design for evolution,
- Open dialogue between inside and outside perspective,
- Inviting different levels of participation,
- Development of both public and private community spaces,
- Focus on value,
- Combination of familiarity and excitement,
- Creating a rhythm for the community
Ownership vs. Openness
In every community we will find a tension between developing a sense of ownership and the openness to new ideas and people. Communities develop a sense of ownership of their domain, they take pride in the ideas they have developed and in the actions they take. Therefore there is a tendency that communities try to “defend” their boundaries, and new members feel less ownership of the topics, practices and processes, and there is a certain risk that the community doesn’t grow organically. Therefore community managers are requested to regularly evaluate the development of ownership and sense of community, and implement appropriate measures if necessary.
Inviting different levels of participation
People participate in communities for different reasons— some because the community directly provides value, some for the personal connection, and others for the opportunity to improve their skills. The Community of Practice therefore should be built in a way that allows for the inclusion of a broad range of community activities from peripheral to core and, the integration of different member interests.
Spaces for different activities
Last but not least the Community of Practice should create opportunities for formal and informal exchange between the members of the community, divergent thinking and activities, and the incubation of new and innovative, but fragmentary ideas without immediate repercussion.
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