Wenger tells us that communities of practice can be a foundation of effective learning systems in all kinds of businesses and organisations. The overriding principle upon which communities of practice rely is a sense of co-created relationships linked by a commitment to a particular area of interest, and a group of people who consistently both practice in the area and engage with others who practice in the area.
There is a clear profile here of commitment and distributed knowledge. There is no ‘authority’ in these relationships, and the extent to which people engage can vary over a long time period. The primary advantage is that often people get more out of it than they put in, by calling on the help of others who practice in this area to assist them in many varied ways. And it allows for any member of the community to ‘teach back’, a process which can improve understanding and knowledge through scaffolded and layered learning. Wenger argues that communities of practice offer rich and complex relationships in which the individual is sometimes the apprentice and sometimes the teacher, depending on the specific topic and at what point of development within their practice each individual is.
Can a community of practice be effective?
A community of practice is for learning; an effective and social method for learning with and from others. One way to think about it is to use an example. The website Chess.com, which has about 7 million members currently, is just such an example. One of the site’s key benefits is as an alternative to a local chess club (a club being considered one of the best ways to learn and improve at chess). The experience is a social one; players learn and improve by playing games against others, self-analysing performance and reflecting on past games and how to improve by gaining the comments on games, and by taking part in group games where members discuss and vote collaboratively on the best moves to play. At its core, this community is fostering important learning behaviours; peer learning support and feedback, self assessment and peer assessment on performance, and reflection on how to improve. The beauty of the online approach, of course, is that, where 20 years ago, chess was primarily learned in local clubs with a small group to learn from, now, learners can easily find peers online.
Learning technologies and communities of practice
This type of approach to learning and developing is powerful and echoes many of the things I have been thinking about recently in my professional role. There are others in my physical organisation from whom I know I could learn, as well as those online. I have been embarking on plans to build relationships with people through my practice because I believe we can all help each other in our approach to technology enhanced learning. One of the ways to think about building relationships is to tease out what others’ roles look like, and from this see how our common goals might help us engage with each other. Wenger’s theory is a good starting point to do so.