Good CoP, Bad CoP #1: When Communities of Practice go bad


“The Cartesian worldview of “I think, therefore I am” seems to be finally giving way. A next step, “We participate, therefore we are,” better captures today’s ethos, we think”

John Seely Brown and Estee Solomon Gray, Creating a Learning Culture: Strategy, Practice, and Technology (2003) 

I first heard the term Communities of Practice (CoP) used in Education when I was in my last job, visiting and assessing Universities. A course was trying to tell us why they should be accredited, and one lecturer informed me that they had recently set up a Community of Practice amongst teachers in the subject area. I remember at the time thinking , but surely this happens organically? Don’t birds of a feather swarm together? Why does one need to organise such a thing?

Wind forward four years and my current situation has changed my mind. Communities of Practice need working at; passion alone isn’t enough.

Good CoP?

CoP_etienne-wengerIt’s fair to say that the internet was one of the drivers for Communities of Practice, although it pre-dates its  ubiquity with initial formulation in 1991 by theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, although it was extended by Wenger in 1998. CoP can be a flag to rally around, a machine to promote innovation, develop ideas and social capital, facilitate and spread knowledge within a group and beyond. CoPs are not just bunches of people sharing the same interests, locked in the same section of some demographic venn diagram. Collective social learning needs to take place, even if this is not intentional. “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (italics mine) says Wenger.

Wenger admits he was originally spurred by the question  What’s wrong with our learning institutions that leads to so much criticism of today’s education?

This took Wenger and Lave back to the supposed ‘ideal’ of the master and apprentice relationship. They found that wasn’t how a lot of learning actually happened within such apprenticeships. A lot of the time the master was too imposing and remote a figurehead to approach. Apprentices learnt much from each other. A Community of Practice!


Bad CoP?

CoPThinkers_cartoonThe APM (Association for Project Management) point out not all social groups can be defined as CoP. They mention other variants: Helping Communities (say a forum on a software website, or a Call centre), Best Practice Communities (a professional association or an examination board) or even a Knowledge Stewarding Community (like Wikipedia or a library) and Innovation Communities (say, a government thinktank or policy committee). These are all lacking vital ingredients to be communities of practice.  Whilst learning can be, and often is, an incidental outcome that accompanies these, many lack social learning and real interaction, some are only domains, or ‘broadcast mediums’ without any commitment. Conversations with experts alone doesn’t make a community. In Communities of Practice: learning, meaning, and identity Lave and Wenger state:

“Communities need to develop their practice through a variety of methods, including: problem solving, requests for information, seeking the experiences of others, reusing assets, coordination and synergy, discussing developments, visiting other members, mapping knowledge and identifying gaps. ”

Now I’d state my first year cohort have become a community of practice, in and outside the classroom. They use social media to solve problems with each other firstly, and sometimes with me.They are starting to identify with the domain of VFX and discuss and negotiate their own trajectories in both learning and what Wenger calls Knowledgeability. They see each other’s experience as a way of bettering themselves.

My main community of practice seems to be external and diffuse- Visual Effects practitioners across the globe. Recently it has been been brought into relief through the MOOC I have been working on, where connection now seems tangible, and social interaction very much foregrounded. After all, part of the motivation to keep Communities of Practice dynamic is to have a meaningful trajectory. CoPs should be transformative, and the MOOC even catalogues this.


Should there be a CoP amongst teaching staff across our institution?  My suspicion  is that CoPs exist in NUA according to subject fault-lines, but in an era where the collaboration agenda looms, should there be nudges or incentives to create a wider CoP?  To Wenger such spaces need a commitment from the learner-they cannot be imposed. But who might take the role of facilitator?

Wenger suggests the people who create such spaces are ‘social artists’, attuned to social dynamics. Social Learning spaces do not just appear: they proliferate with the right governance and right systemic configuration.

Most of our current staff interaction could be said to conform to Helping Communities (say a validation committee), Best Practice Communities (a Peer Observation review) or even a Knowledge Stewarding Community (staff at an Open Day). I’ve missed out Innovation Community, since I see this as happening at an individual level. As John Seely Brown said, the “next step is strongly in line with the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It takes a community to change a practice”

My contention is that whilst these more specialised communities proliferate at my University, a CoP centred around teaching and pedagogy is perhaps surprisingly absent. We lack a social learning space to enable genuine interactions amongst staff and maybe wider educators and trainers, who contribute both their experience of practice and their experience of themselves in that practice. Maybe the HEA ADAM course will become this.

Illustration by Simon Kneebone

In my next blog I’ll explore if we can learn anything from the world of business, who were the first to adopt the CoP framework.


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