Community of practice (CoP)

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  • Updated.jpg This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, July 2017


See also Digital Communities of Practice (CoPs) | Embedded librarianship | Situated learning theory | Lev Vygotsky | Etienne Wenger

"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." — Wenger, 2006

Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a passion for something that they do, and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better. The group may evolve naturally because of a common interest in a particular domain or area or created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to their field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally. CoPs can exist online, such as within discussion boards and newsgroups, or in real life, such as in a lunchroom at work, in a field setting, on a factory floor, or elsewhere in the environment. Organizations often use CoPs to share knowledge thematically, across traditional silos and teams. While teams focus on work outputs, CoPs focus on learning.

A CoP is a form of social learning where learners share a desire to improve their competencies and build best practices. Often CoPs evolve organically due to members' interests in a set of ideas that make up a domain which can be then fostered through mutual information and knowledge-sharing. It is through a process of sharing information and experiences that deep learning takes place in groups making it possible to develop one's personal and professional skills. Learning in any CoP is deeply social. In transferring this principle online, CoPs co-exist in digital contexts using social media such as blogs, wikis and web 2.0 tools. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger described this learning perspective in the 1990s but the practice has existed for as long as people have come together to talk, share and create things. In 2009, Wenger, White and Smith recontextualized communities of practice for digital environments in their book Digital habitats: stewarding technology for communities. Of note in the book is the idea of "technology stewards" which recalls the importance of librarians and our work in the digital age.

Key characteristics

  • Sustained mutual relationships — harmonious or conflictual
  • Shared ways of engaging in doing things together
  • The rapid flow of information and propagation of innovation
  • Absence of introductory preambles, as if conversations and interactions were merely the continuation of an ongoing process
  • Very quick setup of a problem to be discussed
  • Substantial overlap in participants’ descriptions of who belongs
  • Knowing what others know, what they can do, and how they can contribute to an enterprise
  • Mutually defining identities
  • The ability to assess the appropriateness of actions and products
  • Specific tools, representations, and other artefacts
  • Local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing laughter
  • Jargon and shortcuts to communication as well as the ease of producing new ones
  • Certain styles recognized as displaying membership
  • A shared discourse reflecting a certain perspective on the world

Purpose of a CoP

  • To share knowledge and experience so that each individual operates effectively
  • CoPs own knowledge in a particular area of knowledge. By exchanging stories, problems and solutions, members bring their collective knowledge to bear on solving problems.
  • CoPs consist first and foremost of practitioners; specialists who perform the same job or collaborate on a shared task. The community acts like an in-house professional society, cutting across team and divisional boundaries.
  • How big are they? Intense face to face CoPs seldom grow larger than 50 people. Smaller local CoPs can be bound together into a wider community by communications technology, and membership of up to 100 or more is not uncommon.
  • What do they need in order to work? CoPs often form spontaneously, driven by members' need for operational knowledge. A workshop or conference often provides the catalyst. CoPs can be deliberately encouraged where there is a need for knowledge transfer.
  • CoPs do not facilitate themselves. They need a facilitator; someone they see as an 'insider' and who has the respect of the community. CoPs require organizational recognition to be effective, and face to face meetings strengthen communication.
  • How do they communicate? CoPs may rely on electronic communication. Email distribution lists and online discussion groups help strengthen relationships that have developed at face to face meetings and provide 'meeting points' for members.
  • Is a CoP the same as a network? A CoP is a form of a network, but not every network is a CoP. A network could be considered a CoP if it is informal, open to all practitioners, works as a mutual help society rather than having a shared performance contract, and has a means of constant virtual communication rather than relying on occasional formal meetings.
  • How do you plan a workshop to launch a new CoP? Conduct a face-to-face event in which the founding members get to know each other, discuss common thematic issues and interests and establish a charter and governance framework


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