Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice

Gonçalo Costa (De Montfort University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-883-3.ch021
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A dynamic and constant change, characteristic of the existent paradigm, imposes that organizations assume, as an imperative, the need to be adaptable and evolutionary and flexible in their operations, all without losing their technological and human structure (Davenport & Prusak, 1998). In that sense, the need to capture, to apprehend, and to develop ideas and know-how have been discussed thoroughly by academics and managers worldwide. With such scenario, the need for organizational innovations increases dramatically, with communities of practices as one of the possible answers. Their purpose is then to complement the existing structures and to galvanize in a radical way the creation and sharing of knowledge, generating learning and change inside the organization. However, in spite of appearing as an answer to the organizational environment, the truth is that throughout mankind history the expression “communities of practices” can be apply; that is an unquestionable reality. For that, it is enough to recall the first men communities, the first sedentary communities, the great classic civilizations, the feudalism of the Medium Age, the renascent communities, the industrial communities (post-Industrial Revolution), and finally, the communities of practices. However, these communities present diverse analytical dimensions, that is, creation aim, leadership/hierarchical structures, and knowledge sharing processes.
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The characteristics of the business environment clearly demonstrate that workers need to be able to adapt to new skills and processes and to update their knowledge on a regular basis. In fact, the idea pointed out in the book Empresas, caos e complexidade- gerindo à beira de uma ataque de nervos (Pina e Cunha, Fonseca & Gonçalves, 2001), supplies generic elements that, somehow, we can take as references about the origin and real vocation of the communities of practices.

Organizations are increasingly dealing with the problem of creating, sharing, and managing knowledge in order to adapt themselves to the changing environment; they are also transforming into learning organizations and expect their workers to become lifelong learners. In a learning organization, workers are stimulated to share and develop knowledge together.

The learning potential of expertise networks has become a matter of interest and social and cultural aspects of learning have become important to understand and foster their learning (Brown & Duguid, 1996; Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Fontaine & Millen, 2004; Qureshi, 2000; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). In organizations, workers tend to form networks of expertise to facilitate individual learning, collaboration, and to discuss work-related problems together. However, in some specific situations these networks become communities of practices (see below).

On the other hand, we should not forget the formidable increase of all types of human organizations, existing evidence that human organizations are complex systems. Kaufman (1995) defines a complex adaptable system as an organizational unit that it intends to preserve his identity and integrity, which means for guaranteed survival, it is “forced” to interpret an amount of information superior to his processing capacity, given the variety and the amount of present information in the involving environment.

However, if we consider communities of practices features (see Communities of Practices Dimension), it is possible to acknowledge an organization as a conversational network, which is extremely useful regarding the existent business environment. But, how can we define communities of practices? Initially, it will be very useful to understand the concept “community,” because some authors agree on the uncertainty of its meaning (Paccagnella, 2001). According to Cardoso (1998), a community arises when individuals are organized in groups due to the physical, social, and cultural environment. And we must not forget the technological element.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Community: Individuals’ group that is organized around a physical, social, cultural, and technological atmosphere.

Leadership: A certain individual’s capacity in leading a group or community.

Communities of Practices: Community of people belonging to the same professional group, which creates a culture, language, and rituals.

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