Communities of practice: what are these groups and how do they work?
Communities of practice are very useful spaces for learning and knowledge sharing.
There are many methods of working in groups to expand knowledge on a particular topic.
Communities of practice represent one of the most potent of these.. Through the following points we can get a general idea of how these systems work and what their strengths are compared to other different methodologies.
What do communities of practice consist of?
Communities of practice are groupings of people who associate with the common goal of expanding knowledge and practice on a particular topic.. In this community, the practical experiences of each person are shared and reflected upon. In this way, everyone benefits from the mutual work and also experiences a strengthening of the relationships between the members of the group.
Researchers Étienne Wenger and Jean Lave were the first to mention this methodology in 1991.. Since then, the popularity of communities of practice has been increasing, with more and more articles referring to them. Other authors, such as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid tell how one of the first communities of practice emerged naturally, at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.
In this case, they discovered that the operators in charge of repairing the printers often did not use the technical manuals they had been given, but preferred to take advantage of breaks and breaks to discuss with their colleagues the different incidents they had encountered and how they had managed to find a solution. Others explained the breakdowns they were dealing with and asked for advice.
Without realizing it, this group of workers had inaugurated a very powerful and effective methodology, that of communities of practice.The communities of practice. Thanks to this, each technician could share his experience with the rest of his colleagues and in turn benefit from the practical cases that each of the others had experienced and was now sharing with the group in question.
Some researchers suggest that communities of practice may be an evolution of the classical brainstorming method, viewed from a practical rather than a theoretical perspective.
Characteristics of communities of practice
Communities of practice should have a number of characteristics that we will describe below.
1. Shared leadership
The community is made up of a homogeneous group of participants.. That is, everyone is in the same position. There is no figure of a leader who shares his knowledge while the others listen, but all members teach with their experience and at the same time learn with the experience of the others, so they would be on equal terms.
There may be a figure of a coordinator, in charge of connecting the different members and organizing the meetings or events, suggesting the debate on different issues and promoting the active participation of all the members of the group, so that all make contributions equally and benefit from the contributions of the rest.
2. Field of knowledge
The common link between all members of the community of practice must be a specific field of knowledge. This element will be the one that will provide the group feeling, being the element shared by all members of this society.. Each member wishes to become an expert in the field and at the same time collaborate so that all the others become experts as well.
The activity or practice of this shared knowledge will be the driving force of the community, since it is the activity that generates the experiences that can then be shared to give meaning to the group and allow all members to learn from each other's activity as if they had carried it out themselves.
4. Sense of community
When communities of practice are put in place, a sense of identity is generated, facilitated by all the above elements, whereby all members want to help each other, sharing whatever can be useful and also making use of the information that others contribute.. It would be a kind of beehive in which all are bees pursuing a common goal, which would be the success of both themselves and their colleagues.
It could be the case of people who approach the community only with the objective of gathering information and experience from the members, but not with the objective of sharing their own practice with the rest. In this case such a person would not be an active member of the community, since he/she would not be complying with the criterion of reciprocity. Instead, he/she would be a peripheral member, assuming that at some point he/she makes some contribution, or he/she could even be an external participant.
Virtual communities of practice
The emergence of new technologies, particularly the Internet and social networks, has led to the evolution of virtual communities of practice. nowadays it is not necessary to meet face-to-face with a group of people to be able to share knowledge, far from it.far from it. We don't even need to be geographically close.
On the contrary, digital media make it possible for people from different parts of the world to connect through an online platform with people interested in the same field of knowledge and thus be able to share experiences and learn from each other.
As generally in these platforms (forums, Facebook, WhatsApp groups, etc.), the contributions of each person are written down, it is not even necessary that all members are connected at the same time or belong to the same area. or belong to the same time zone. A person can ask a question at the moment it arises and will receive answers as members access the publication and write their answer.
Having a written record of all postings also makes it easy to find the author of a particular contribution. and also to be able to offer the information in an organized way when new members arrive in the different communities of practice.
Obviously not everyone has the same knowledge or the same practice, so there will be people who can participate more actively and share more complete or more useful information. They will be the reference members of the group, but little by little a homogenization will take place, as others also learn and can contribute more experiences that enrich even the most active members.
Although we had anticipated that communities of practice do not have a leader who contributes data while the rest of the members receive them passively, there may be a moderator or animator who can be a member of the group. a moderator or facilitator may be present, especially in these virtual communities.. This figure would be responsible for encouraging bidirectional participation among all members.
How to create such a group?
We already know what the characteristics of these groups are and what makes them so useful. The next thing we might ask ourselves is how to create a community of practice. For this, Wenger proposes a system of seven principles to be followed in order to build one. These are the ones we are going to see.
Ease of evolution
The community of practice must behave like a living organism. For this we must lay the foundations that allow it to grow and evolve according to the interests and needs of the members of the group.
It is important that the opinions of the members are taken into account and therefore penetrate the community.. But sometimes it is just as important to take into account the ideas coming from outside our community of practice, as they can be enriching and generate growth.
Levels of participation
We must encourage participation, with a group of very active members who will encourage the rest, the peripherals, to contribute more and more knowledge to the group.The peripheral members, the peripherals, so that they contribute more and more knowledge to the group. There will also be people outside the community who, even if they do not participate, can also benefit from the knowledge provided. Ideally, these people will also make their contribution, but in many cases this will not happen.
4. Public and private spaces
Communities of practice function in the same way as many other social interactions. Sometimes they will be public, where all members can participate, while at other times, two or more participants will prefer to have a private conversation to resolve a particular issue without the others knowing about it. It is necessary that there is a balance between both situations so that the health of the community is guaranteed..
5. Adding value
What makes a community of practice valuable is the interest that members have in that particular topic. If the community provides data of value to those people, we are facilitating the continuity of the group.If the community provides data of value to those people, we will be facilitating the continuity of the group.
6. Closeness and Emotion
What differentiates the community of practice from a working group is that there is no pressure to meet objectives and in addition we have a motivation towards the subject, which facilitates to generate a climate of closeness and pleasant emotions among the members of the association.
7. Taking care of the rhythm
Finally, it will be important to measure the pace at which the community is advancing.. As with everything in life, the virtue lies in the middle ground, because if the community of practice barely advances and no one contributes interesting information, people are likely to lose interest, while if we bombard them with an incessant cascade of data and experiences, we may also overwhelm the members and run the risk of them dropping out.
- Fernández, M.R., Valverde, J. (2014). Communities of practice: an intervention model from collaborative learning in virtual environments. Comunicar: Iberoamerican scientific journal of communication and education.
- Sanz, S. (2005). Virtual communities of practice: access and use of contents. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento.
- Wenger, E. (2002). Communities of practice. Learning, meaning and identity. Cognition and human development. Paidós.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)