In it she quotes a definition by her colleague Etienne Wegner, who coined the term:
"Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly."
Like most everyone, I'm part of several "Community of Practices"; some that primarily or exclusively congregate online, some that are primarily face-to-face, and several that flow easily between mediums. I find most of them extremely valuable, and each one is unique, with its own particular strengths and weaknesses.
In some cases those strengths and weaknesses refer to the medium in which I experience them, but more often the benefits and drawbacks are to do with limiting factors like time availability, or interpersonal conflicts, differing models of relationship, or lack of some sort of necessary support.
I'm intrigued by the idea that many organizations want to have what they call Communities of Practice, but they don't know how to negotiate the fact that to a large extent communities of practice can't be created, they can only be encouraged and nurtured as they are developing. Too much structure or expectation is a "buzz killer" and can squelch a community of practice before it ever gets going.
One of the things I found most interesting in Etienne Wenger's article (which was part of this week's course reading) was his list of the largely internal leadership roles that he's found to be foundational in building & sustaining communities of practice:
- The inspirational leadership provided by thought leaders and recognized experts
- The day-to-day leadership provided by those who organize activities
- The classificatory leadership provided by those who collect and organize information in order to document practices
- The interpersonal leadership provided by those who weave the community's social fabric
- The boundary leadership provided by those who connect the community to other communities
- The institutional leadership provided by those who maintain links with other organizational constituencies, in particular the official hierarchy
- The cutting-edge leadership provided by those who shepherd "out-of-the-box" initiatives.
This distributed authority offers a new model of leadership that creates an altogether different fabric of relationship within a group. When almost everyone has some way of positively influencing and contributing to the experience of the whole, the "practice" becomes a collaborative endeavor and nurtures both individuals within the group and the ongoing development of the skills or learning involved.
Another point I found fascinating in Wenger's article was the paradox he observes in successful communities of practice between the need for external leadership or inspiration, and the need for autonomy and internal space. He puts it like this:
"Communities of practice do not usually require heavy institutional infrastructures, but their members do need time and space to collaborate. They do not require much management, but they can use leadership. They self-organize, but they flourish when their learning fits with their organizational environment. The art is to help such communities find resources and connections without overwhelming them with organizational meddling. This need for balance reflects the following paradox: No community can fully design the learning of another; but conversely no community can fully design its own learning."
So as facilitators it seems a challenge we face is how to both create the conditions that nurture leadership within communities of practice and make sure there is enough external stimulation to help them thrive.