Monday, August 25, 2008

Excerpts from Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System

A recent trend in some of the private companies in Oman is “Communities of Practice”. Below are the excerpts regarding the same. Dr. Etienne Wenger is a globally recognized thought leader in the field of learning theory and its application to business.

You are an engineer working on two projects within your business unit. These are demanding projects and you give them your best. You respect your teammates and are accountable to your project managers. But when you face a problem that stretches your knowledge, you turn to people like Jake, Sylvia, and Robert. Even though they work on their own projects in other business units, they are your real colleagues. You all go back many years. They understand the issues you face and will explore new ideas with you. And even Julie, who now works for one of your suppliers, is only a phone call away. These are the people with whom you can discuss the latest developments in the field and troubleshoot each other's most difficult design challenges. If only you had more time for these kinds of interactions.

We all recognize knowledge as a key source of competitive advantage in the business world, but we still have little understanding of how to create and leverage it in practice. Traditional knowledge management approaches attempt to capture existing knowledge within formal systems, such as databases. Yet systematically addressing the kind of dynamic "knowing" that makes a difference in practice requires the participation of people who are fully engaged in the process of creating, refining, communicating, and using knowledge.

Even when people work for large organizations, they learn through their participation in more specific communities made up of people with whom they interact on a regular basis. These "communities of practice" are mostly informal and distinct from organizational units.

Defining Communities of Practice:
Communities of practice are everywhere. We all belong to a number of them—at work, at school, at home, in our hobbies. Some have a name, some don't. We are core members of some and we belong to others more peripherally. You may be a member of a band, or you may just come to rehearsals to hang around with the group. You may have just joined a community and are still trying to find your place in it or you may be a leader of a group in your company or college. Whatever form our participation takes, most of us are familiar with the experience of belonging to a community of practice.

Members of a community are informally bound by what they do together—from engaging in lunchtime discussions to solving difficult problems—and by what they have learned through their mutual engagement in these activities. A community of practice is thus different from a community of interest or a geographical community, neither of which implies a shared practice. A community of practice defines itself along three dimensions:
What it is about – its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members
How it functions – the relationships of mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity
What capability it has produced - the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time.

Communities of practice develop around things that matter to people. As a result, their practices reflect the members' own understanding of what is important. Obviously, outside constraints or directives can influence this understanding, but even then, members develop practices that are their own response to these external influences. Even when a community's actions conform to an external mandate, it is the community—not the mandate—that produces the practice. In this sense, communities of practice are fundamentally self-organizing systems.


Anonymous said...

Translation by Nice Twaddle Buster: People known to you can help with your work even if they have another employer.
Tranlation by Nasty Twaddle Buster: The term 'communities of practice" is a good cover for self serving groups - sounds better than 'Indian Mafia'.

Unknown said...