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Communities of Practice - Book Review

1 November 2007
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

” Communities of Practice” explores learning and knowledge from the perspective of a researcher and consultant in learning social systems. Wegner, a globetrotting consultant, imparts lectures and applies his teachings worldwide to the current writing. Wenger is concluding a visit to Moldova and plans to be in Sydney next month. He is truly a peripatetic consultant with a broad perspective.


The concept of the "experience community" (the term we will use to describe Communities of Practice in the context of the book) refers to a group of people sharing an interest, passion, or concern for an everyday activity and learning how to enhance it through regular interaction. For this reason, there is much to glean from the book on knowledge management and the management of knowledge communities (in our sense of the term). Examining this field from an external perspective contributes significantly to theoretical and practical aspects.


Beyond being recognized as one of the recommended knowledge management books in a survey conducted in 2005, the book stands out for another reason. Initially written in 1998, it was reprinted in 1999, printed twice in 2000, twice more in 2001, and twice in 2002. Only once in 2003, and twice more in 2004. What is it about this book that makes it so appealing? This article reviews the book and its main points, attempting to capture its essence without delving too deeply, as in the original. The book is written from a research-oriented, philosophical standpoint. The article touches on the nature of the content while abstracting it to enhance comprehension. Enjoy your reading!


Learning and knowledge are intricate subjects. We acquire knowledge in four primary ways: practice, experience, becoming, and community belonging. We all belong to experiential communities—at home, work, school, or hobbies and interests. At any given time, we are part of several communities, changing our affiliations throughout our lives. Communities are crucial in facilitating learning and understanding, giving meaning to our experiences, and shaping our identity.


For individuals, learning involves connecting with and contributing to specific communities; for communities, learning is about enhancing and refining their collective experience while nurturing new generations of members. Experience serves various purposes:

  • It provides answers and aids decision-making during conflicts in work settings.

  • It supports the creation of a shared memory, enabling individuals to perform their tasks without needing to know everything themselves.

  • It assists newcomers in joining the community and participating in existing experiences.

  • It generates specific perspectives that aid in completing tasks.

  • It makes work more enjoyable by integrating dramas, stories, events, and procedures into the rhythm of community life.


The author delves into the ways and components of interconnected experience communities:

  • Meaning

  • Participation

  • Reification

  • Community

  • Learning

  • Boundary

  • Locality

  • Identity

  • Participation

  • Belonging


As the book nears its conclusion, the author explores learning communities, organizations, and education, drawing insights from the analysis presented in the various components.

Meaning

The experience of creating meaning does not spontaneously emerge; instead, it can be viewed as a process in which we learn to engage in ongoing negotiation. This process enables us to discern unique life situations, categorizing them under standard classifications to understand how to navigate them appropriately. But attributing meaning through contemplation involves continuous interaction, yielding scalable achievements through perpetual negotiations with ourselves and those around us. Meaning, in this context, is always a result of deliberation—it is not inherent within us or the world but resides within the connection between us and the world. Meaning comprises two complementary components: participation and conceptualization.


Participation

As described in the book, participation refers to membership in social communities. It is an intricate process encompassing doing, speaking, thinking, and belonging. Participation engages us as complete individuals, involving our bodies, thoughts, emotions, and social connections. The dynamics of relationships need not be symmetrical (as seen in parent-child or employee-managerial relationships), yet they influence each party, shaping the meaning of the experience.


It's crucial to note that "participation" is not synonymous with "collaboration." It encompasses various bonds, conflicting and harmonious, intimate and corporate, political and personal, competitive and collaborative. Understanding that participation in social communities molds our experience, simultaneously shaping the communities' knowledge, is vital. Our ability (or inability) to influence the understanding of the communities in which we participate is a significant aspect of our role as participants.

Participation extends beyond mere commitment to action. We engage in communities related to our work roles even after working hours, and we participate in social communities even during work hours. This community involvement transcends the original context, becoming integral to our identity.


Reification

Conceptualization needs to be more apparent and familiar in discussions about communities. It is a term that denotes the process of shaping our experience by creating tangible entities, such as forms, procedures, rules, or tools. These tangible elements focus on the experience, providing a specific context and understanding. Conceptualization plays a crucial role in shaping our experience. It can do so in concrete ways, like a word processor shaping how we write while offering insights into the act of writing. While conceptualizing gravity does not alter how our bodies are attracted to Earth, it influences our perspective, understanding, and perhaps our emphasis on certain aspects of gravity.


Several key points in understanding conceptualization include:

  • Conceptualization can be both a process and a product, with the author referring to it interchangeably.

  • Participants in a community may not necessarily be the ones who formulate its principles; instead, they give these principles their meaning to implement them.

  • The process of conceptualizing often doesn't begin with premeditated planning; sometimes, it arises spontaneously from the act itself (e.g., fingerprints conceptualizing a suspect present at a scene).

  • Conceptualization can manifest in various forms, whether as an ancient pyramid, an abstract formula, a dirty truck, a word, a complex concept conveyed through a book, a silent gaze, an impressionist painting, a butterfly, or even a knot in a handkerchief. What matters about all these manifestations is that they represent the tip of the iceberg, indicating broad contexts of human meaning-making. The products of conceptualization need not be material in themselves; they are practical reflections of meaning given by us, the people.


Conceptualization is a potent force. It simplifies and focuses meaning simultaneously. However, it is essential to recognize its potential danger; conceptualization can act as a substitute for deep understanding rather than a symbol and context for it.


Community

The consistent and cohesive connection between the community and the experience of practice originates from three components:

  • Mutual commitment

  • Organization in which partners

  • A common tradition


Mutual Engagement

Practical experience doesn't exist in isolation, within books or tools; it thrives because individuals are interconnected and dedicated to their actions, attributing meaning through individual and group discussions. Beyond the reliance on "professional" actions, such as work methods employed in practice, commitment encompasses an additional dimension: atmosphere. This shared commitment fosters mutual professional assistance and personal support. Importantly, commitment doesn't demand uniformity among partners. Typically, individuals differ from one another, each participating in various communities with unique connections. These connections may vary in nature, encompassing dependence, power, pleasure, pain, trust, suspicion, interest, and boredom. Despite their diversity, these connections collectively contribute to a mutual commitment, serving as a foundation for community formation.


A Joint Enterprise

The second source of community formation lies in a joint enterprise. When the author uses the term "organization," it doesn't exclusively refer to a formal entity employing partners. Instead, it denotes participation in a virtual group or a broader context that unites individuals and gives rise to the community. For instance, a support group for bereaved siblings in Israel is part of a more comprehensive organization of bereaved siblings globally or bereaved families in Israel. In every community's genesis, a group of people is associated with an organization or umbrella organization, even if these umbrella structures are entirely unknown to them.


Learning

Practical experience evolves through a shared history of learning, where the term "history" pertains not to personal or accumulated experience but to the creation of meanings through participation and conceptualization. When individuals are asked about their roles, the conversation often shifts to learning, emphasizing historical and prospective changes that contribute to the learning process. To comprehend this dynamic learning process, we must recognize its fluid nature, incorporating various aspects rooted in partnership and conceptualization:

  • Memory and Forgetfulness - Both conceptualization and partnership play integral roles in memory and forgetfulness. For instance, a document detailing a process serves as conceptualization, aiding communal remembrance. Yet, paradoxically, documenting can sometimes lead to forgetting as it frees the subject from our minds. The document may become a potent memory, but it solidifies the context and meaning in which it originated, ultimately fading away. Partnership, too, shapes memory and forgetting through our interpretation of "memories."

  • Continuity and Breaks - Communities are not everlasting; they evolve as history and learning unfold with changing members, encompassing those who depart or alter roles and those who join with new perspectives. Forms and documents also undergo their life cycle, reflecting the community's ongoing learning.

  • Politics - It is unrealistic to perceive action communities as lacking in politics. Politics influences learning, drawing from aspects of participation (such as influence, personal authority, charisma, trust, friendship, ambition) and conceptualization (involving vested powers, contracts, policies, plans, and legislation). Experience embodies a shared history of learning:

    - The attempted act is dynamic, combining both continuity and pauses.

    - Learning in practice involves mutual commitment, partnership within an organization, and a shared tradition, as described earlier.

    - Experience constitutes an evolving structure.


Learning generates the experience of action, but it is also the experience of action that facilitates learning. Classroom learning remains partial and limited; accurate and effective learning emerges from practical experience or, at the very least, proximity to the field. This foundation is grounded in the practical experiences of individuals and groups, guiding a compelling learning journey.


Boundary

Some preceding aspects (learning, meaning, etc.) may have been intuitively understandable in the community context. I must confess, as a reader, that when I commenced reading, the importance of restricting boundaries for a community and understanding its learning processes was not immediately apparent to me. The first fundamental understanding is rooted in recognizing that communities are not isolated entities. There are always proximate communities, and each member participates in several. Setting boundaries proves to be a nuanced task. Unrelated communities sometimes coexist within the exact physical boundaries (e.g., a forest encompassing cyclists, academic researchers, foresters, etc.). However, defining these boundaries is crucial because it clarifies the interior by determining what is not excluded, thereby sharpening the contained contents.


The interaction between the community and its surrounding entities often employs conceptual tools (such as forms or computer transactions). However, there is usually an additional partner—the mediator. The mediator's role is multifaceted: conveying, translating, and coordinating between the perspectives of the community and those of an external audience. The mediator must strike a delicate balance—avoiding complete immersion in the community to retain an external vision while simultaneously preventing themselves from being perceived as an intruder, an internal factor not genuinely considered internal and complicit. Successful mediation demands the ability to exist in duality, facilitating the introduction of additional points of view with the legitimacy to be heard.


The clarity of boundaries is not always as straightforward as it may seem: there are straightforward boundaries, where connections occur through conceptualizations and intermediaries; overlaps, where two or more communities share common elements of their existence; and marginal boundaries, where individuals not part of the core community are permitted to be spectators or partial partners. By their inherent nature, the boundaries at the margins are intriguing: marginal partners are partly external, allowing them to bring perspectives and viewpoints into the community that differ from those of the "hardcore".


Locality

To elaborate on this subject, it's crucial to acknowledge that the text was written before the current state of the Internet, where people engage in shared communities without ever seeing or hearing each other. According to the author, locality is deemed essential for the existence of a community. However, more than a shared physical place is needed to establish a community (consider a high-rise office building where employees may not even know each other's names). Another dimension must also be considered—the community predicate. However, defining this dimension is not straightforward; one can contemplate broad boundaries such as country or native speakers, and it isn't always clear whether a community exists or is a constellation uniting multiple communities.


Several indicators signify the existence of a practical community:

  • Long-lasting mutual bonds.

  • Standard methods and commitment to collaborative endeavors.

  • Rapid flow of information fosters innovation.

  • Lack of need for introductions, as if life were one continuous discourse.

  • Ease in discussing problems.

  • Significant overlap in the description of partners and who else belongs to the group.

  • Understanding what others know, their capabilities, and how they can contribute to the organization.

  • Mutual identity definition.

  • The ability to assess the suitability of operations and products.

  • Specific tools.

  • Local wisdom, shared stories, and inside jokes.

  • Jargon and shortcuts are used for communication, with the ability to generate more.

  • Styles.

  • A shared discourse reflecting a perspective on the world.


A local community is part of a broader constellation encompassing multiple communities (e.g., an entire insurance company). The constellation possesses its characteristics but lacks the sense of closeness facilitated by some community traits mentioned above. Of course, a specific community can be part of various constellations.


Identity

The individual's identity is a crucial element in comprehending and constructing communities. Addressing identity in social terms doesn't negate the individual's existence but instead explores it as a component of the community experience. The author refutes the assertion that there is an inherent conflict between the individual and the community, suggesting that goodness can be rooted in both. The connection between individual identity and practice is evident through:

  • Experience through debate: We define our identity based on how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.

  • Belonging to a community: Our identity is shaped by what is familiar and foreign.

  • Learning path: We define our identity through the places we have been and the places we aspire to go.

  • Multi-affiliation connection: Our identity is shaped by the diverse ways we are members of different communities that align with our identity.

  • Balance between local and global: Our identity is defined through negotiations to establish a local connection that facilitates our belonging to global constellations.


The three dimensions mentioned above, which serve as the foundations of community (mutual commitment, shared organization, common tradition), are also the components that construct each individual's personal identity. Our identity is constantly in flux. We evolve and shape our identity along a path parallel to our learning journey. The paths through which we perceive ourselves (temporary work, internships, passing affairs) influence our learning as we navigate these experiences.


Participation

The author addresses the concept of participation as an integral part of the meaning's definition. However, the exploration extends to the context of identity. We define ourselves through our choices regarding what we engage in and, no less importantly, what we abstain from participating in. These decisions significantly shape our lives in various ways:

  • How we position ourselves in social aspects.

  • What we invest in and what we neglect.

  • What we choose to know and understand versus what we choose to ignore.

  • With whom we form connections and with whom we abstain.

  • How we establish commitment and channel our energies.

  • How we attempt to steer the courses of our journeys.


Throughout these considerations, it is crucial to remember that there are diverse reasons for choosing not to participate. These include:

  • Non-participation as a compromise.

  • Non-participation as a strategy.

  • Non-participation as a cover.

  • Non-participation is based on accumulated experience, teaching us when it is worthwhile and appropriate not to participate.


Belonging

At the article's outset, the author delved into commitment, elucidating it as an individual's affiliation with a community. Various forms exist through which an individual can connect and foster belonging to a community:

  • Engagement: This involves active participation in community processes, integrating connections, interactions, practical experiences, and a shared learning history. Through our commitment to the community, we consolidate and stabilize our identity.

  • Imagination: This pertains to the perception of the world and the community, amalgamating possibilities, a worldview, our self-perception, and an understanding of the past and present. Our interpretation of reality, coupled with the activation of our imagination, empowers us to create a vision and aspire to greater heights. Similar to any engagement with imagination, it is crucial to maintain a grounding in reality.

  • Alignment: Unlike commitment, alignment represents another way we participate in the community. When we align within a structure, we become part of something larger, such as an organization or supergroup. This type of belonging transcends physical and social spaces. Each method of belonging has advantages and disadvantages, and altering the balance between them transforms the face and character of the community. Time is also a critical factor, as increased emphasis on one type of belonging may be more appropriate during specific periods in the community's development, while a different kind of belonging may gain prominence at other times.


learning communities

The social and community aspects of learning can be briefly summarized through the following principles:

  1. Learning is inherent in us, the members of the community, an integral part of our nature, permeating our lives even before community involvement.

  2. Learning, primarily, is the capacity for debate and the creation of new meanings.

  3. Learning gives rise to evolving structures.

  4. Learning is fundamentally experiential and socially grounded.

  5. Learning leads to a transformation in our identity.

  6. Structured learning unfolds through paths of participation and engagement.

  7. Learning involves confronting boundaries.

  8. Learning is both a social investment and a power dynamic.

  9. Learning is a matter of commitment.

  10. Learning is a matter of imagination.

  11. Learning involves alignment and integration into a larger framework.

  12. Learning necessitates finding a delicate balance between the local and the global.


Experience communities actively engage with content, fostering live learning and continuous debate about the meaning of that content. It is crucial to remember that learning cannot be strictly planned, but planning an optimal infrastructure that facilitates community learning is feasible and beneficial. This includes planning the balance between the local and global, participation and conceptualization, adherence to the schedule and room for growth, and maintaining a balance between our identity and ongoing negotiations.


Organizations

Organizations meticulously plan and guide social entities in their operational courses. Experience communities are crucial to an organization's competitive capability and long-term development. While establishing an organization involves creating structures, policies, and clearly defined job roles, it's essential to recognize that litigation around this establishment has limits. As an organization is broader than a single community, often encompassing multiple communities, it activates imagination across communities, enhancing the capabilities of each community of action and its learning potential. When establishing an organization, it's imperative to ensure that the supportive framework constructed serves the experience rather than constraining it through rigid and irrelevant structures.


Another challenge organizations face is enabling multi-faceted knowledge planning and transmission at all levels, from vision to detail, fostering the organization's transformation into a learning entity. The organization must actively support its communities and learning processes, particularly in facilitating litigation, preserving existing knowledge, developing new knowledge, disseminating knowledge throughout the organization, and accommodating different identities.

Experience communities are fundamental assets for the organization, forming the social fabric at the core of the learning organization. Despite often going unnoticed, as they may not always be formal entities, organizations must recognize that their capacity for depth and innovation hinges on creating, developing, and transmitting knowledge within experience communities, both old and new.


For further insights into the components of the learning organization, refer to Peter Senge's book "The Fifth Discipline," where this concept was initially coined.


Education

The fundamental premise is that education extends beyond the confines of school walls and is not exclusive to children embarking on their life journey. Education serves as a rhythm through which communities and individuals continuously renew. The author challenges the concept of planned education implemented within organizations, mainly through training within structured classrooms. The analysis of education incorporates the four dimensions of planning, as detailed above, in the context of learning communities.


Similar to all forms of learning, the emphasis in education should be on planning for an educational environment rather than on direct education itself. Teachers, parents, and other educators should consider defining their pedagogical roles and, foremost, their membership in the communities where they aspire to educate. This approach enables them to comprehend better how to educate by actively participating in contemporary experiences and becoming closer role models.


Rather than assimilating as ordinary members (maintaining some distance is meaningful), educators should be inside the community with measured distance, avoiding an outsider's position with minimal closeness. The efficacy of an influential manager lies in their ongoing engagement with the core activities of the organization they lead. An educator's ability to be a partner, express a certain level of affection, and reveal their identity enables them to foster trust, share experiences, and genuinely become educators in practice. The openness of educators and their communities to newcomers and outsiders, inviting them into their own identity, allows individuals to transform into what they have never been before and achieve what was once deemed unattainable. The possibilities are limitless.

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