Virtual Communities of Practice

Virtual Communities of Practice

Chris Kimble (University of York, UK) and Paul Hildreth (K-Now International Ltd., UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch635
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When knowledge management (KM) began to emerge in the 1990s it was seen as an innovative solution to the problems of managing knowledge in a competitive and increasingly internationalised business environment. However, in practice it was often little more than information management re-badged (Wilson, 2002). More recently, there has been recognition of the importance of more subtle, softer types of knowledge that need to be shared. This raises the question as to how this sort of knowledge might be managed. Communities of practice (CoPs) have been identified as means by which this type of knowledge can be nurtured, shared and sustained (Hildreth & Kimble, 2002). Do CoPs offer a means of managing the softer aspects of knowledge and, if they do, are they applicable to today’s increasingly “virtual” world?
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Background To Communities Of Practice

The term communities of practice (CoPs) was coined in 1991 when Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger used it in their exploration of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Although the examples they used (non-drinking alcoholics, Goa tailors, quartermasters, butchers and Yucatan midwives) were all based on what might be broadly termed an apprenticeship model, the concept of a CoP is not restricted to this form of learning.

Lave and Wenger (1991) saw the acquisition of knowledge as a social process in which people participated in communal learning at different levels depending on their authority or seniority in the group, that is, whether they were a newcomer to the group or had been an active member for some time. The process by which a newcomer learns by being situated in the group was central to their notion of a CoP; they termed this process legitimate peripheral participation (LPP).

LPP is both complex and composite; legitimation, peripherality and participation are each indispensable in defining the other. Legitimation is concerned with power and authority relations in the community but is not necessarily formalised. Peripherality is not a physical concept or a measure of acquired knowledge, but concerned with the degree of engagement with the community. Participation is engagement in an activity where the participants have a shared understanding of what it means in their lives.

For Lave and Wenger (1991), the community and participation in it were inseparable from the practice. Being a member of a CoP implied participation in an activity where participants have a common understanding about what was being done and what it meant for their lives and their community. Thus, it would appear that CoPs with their concentration on situated learning and the exchange of understanding might be well suited to the management of the softer aspects of knowledge: but can this idea be applied to the business world?


Extensions To The Community Of Practice Concept

Interest in CoPs continued to grow throughout the 1990s and several attempts were made to re-define Lave and Wenger’s (1991) original model to encompass new areas such as communities of circumstance, communities of interest and communities of purpose. In particular, several attempts were made to re-define CoPs in a way that was more relevant to the commercial environment (e.g., Seely Brown & Duguid 1991, 1996; Stewart 1996). One of the most popular work related definitions of a CoP was offered by John Seely Brown and Estee Solomon Gray in their 1995 article called “The People Are the Company”:

“At the simplest level, they are a small group of people … who’ve worked together over a period of time. Not a team not a task force not necessarily an authorised or identified group … they are peers in the execution of “real work”. What holds them together is a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows” (Brown & Gray, 1995).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Knowledge Management: Knowledge management is the means whereby an organisation “manages” and leverages its knowledge resources. This can include reports, databases and patents; it also includes people – identifying experts, sharing knowledge, and helping people learn.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation: LPP is the process by which a newcomer gradually works his/her way towards full participation in the community. Lave and Wenger’s (1991) examples were based on the apprenticeship model, where a newcomer (the apprentice) was allowed to undertake basic tasks. As they became more experienced, they were given more complicated tasks until they could fully participate in the practice of the community and became old-timers.

Communities of Circumstance: Communities of circumstance are driven by position, circumstance or life experiences. Communities of circumstance are distinguished from CoPs in that they tend to be personally focused and are often built around “life stages,” such as teenagehood, university, marriage or parenthood.

Artefact: An artefact in the context of CoPs indicates objects, articles, and “things” which have been created by the CoP to assist the members in their work and which may have some of the community’s knowledge embedded in them. Artefacts do not have to be concrete – a process or procedure may be an artefact.

Communities of Interest: Communities of interest are groups of people who share a common interest. Members exchange ideas and thoughts about the given interest, but may know little about each other outside of this area. Participation in a community of interest can be compelling and entertaining but is not focussed on learning in the same way as a CoP.

Communities of Purpose: Communities of purpose form around people who are to achieve a similar objective. Such communities only serve a functional purpose. Members of the community can assist each other by sharing experiences, suggesting strategies and exchanging information on the process in hand.

Network of Practice: People who are not directly connected to each other but still engage in similar kinds of activities are said to belong to a network of practice (NoP). NoPs link local communities whose members have similar interests and give a minimal coherence to the network.

Communities of Practice: Communities of practice are groups of people who have a common goal and who are internally motivated to reach the goal. The members have some form of common background and shared language.

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