Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems

Communities of Practice (CoPs) is a multi-purpose concept.  As a social learning theory, CoP considers learning in a social context requiring both participation and reification (making something concrete) in order to make learning meaningful. The interplay of participation and reification creates a social history of learning and it is this history that gives CoPs an informal and dynamic social structure,  (Wenger, 2010 in Blackmore, 2010).

CoPs have their roots in developing accounts of the social nature of human learning, drawing on anthropology and social theory.

The concept is advocated as:

  • A means to foster innovation
  • A theoretical lens to create a discourse around tacit (informal, situated) knowledge
  • An effective practice to create and share knowledge based on situated learning, and
  • A strategy to archive tacit knowledge that is not often captured by more formal monitoring and evaluation processes.

Therefore, it has conceptual, theoretical and practical uses.

There are two levels – CoP Scale and Systems Scale.

CoP Scale
There are three central (structural) features of CoPs:
1.    Domain
2.    Community, and
3.    Practice.

Domain is the area of knowledge that interests the community.

Community is the set of people who care enough about the domain to give their own time to participate.

Practice is the way that work is done, by the community, to further their goals in regard to the domain. All frameworks, tools, ideas, stories, documents, legal entities, code, and so forth, are all part of the practice. It’s the work, and all the tools used to get the work done.

An overarching concept is identity. The identity of the CoP member reflects a complex relationship between the social and the personal. The extent to which a learner aligns (or not) with the culture and functionality of a CoP is mediated by the learner themselves and is always in flux. Therefore,  identity adds a dimension of dynamism to the production of a CoP as each member finds their place in a community.

Learning and knowledge-making is a negotiated process amongst CoP members in relation to the culture and functionality of a CoP. Therefore, learning and knowledge-making can be viewed as a process of realignment between socially defined competence and personal experience where each moment of learning is a claim to a CoP’s suite of competences.

Systems scale
Taking a systems view, a CoP can be viewed as a simple social learning system, and complex social system can be regarded as a number of interrelated CoPs.

CoPs considered as a social learning system exhibit system characteristics, including:

  • Emergent structure
  • Complex relationships
  • Self-organization
  • Dynamic boundaries, and
  • Ongoing negotiation of identity and cultural meaning.

Communities of practice are not isolated entities but are part of broader social systems (e.g. project, institutions, movement or associations) and other interrelated CoP practices. Therefore, these broader systems and interrelated practices form ‘landscapes of practice’. Boundaries are created in landscapes of practice because sharing a history of learning distinguishes those who have been involved and those who have not.

While boundaries are important for building identity and a history of learning, it is at the boundary’s edge where new ideas and innovation are more likely to take place (i.e. the learning and innovative potential of the whole system lies in the coexistence of depth within practices – boundaries – and active across boundaries and practices.)

There are three different modes of identity that positions learning in the landscape:

  1. Engagement (e.g. engaging in activities, working alone or together, using and producing artefacts)
  2. Imagination (e.g. constructing an image of the world that helps us to understand how we belong or not), and
  3. Alignment (e.g. alignment with the context – making sure that activities are coordinated, laws are followed or intentions are communicated).

All three modes function both inside practices and across boundaries.

A CoP can be viewed as a learning partnership (i.e. learning capability is anchored in a mutual recognition of the other as learning partners). There are four distinct disciplines to assist in building and deepening the learning partnership:

  1. The discipline of domain: What is our partnership about? Why should we care? Are we likely to be useful to each other? What is our learning agenda? What specific set of issues does it entail?
  2. The discipline of community: Who should be at the table so the partnership can make progress? What effects will their participation have on the trust and dynamics of the group? How do we manage the boundaries of the community?
  3. The discipline of practice: How can the practice become the curriculum? How can it be made visible and inspect able? What should participants do together to learn and benefit from the partnership?
  4. The discipline of convening: Who will take leadership in holding a social learning space for this partnership? How can we make sure that the partnership sustains a productive inquiry? Who are the external stakeholders and what are their roles? What resources are available to support the process?

Application of Communities of Practice (Wenger, 2010: 179-198 in Blackmore, 2010)
“In organizations in the private and public sectors, communities of practice have provided a vehicle for peer-to-peer learning among practitioners. It enables them to develop the portfolio of capabilities necessary for the organization to achieve its mission. Communities of practice have always been there, of course. But having the concept makes the process discussable and then potentially more intentional.

In education, communities of practice are increasingly used for professional development, but they also offer a fresh perspective on learning and education more generally. This is starting to influence new thinking about the role of educational institutions and the design of learning opportunities.

In international development, cultivating horizontal communities of practice among local practitioners presents an attractive alternative to the traditional view of the vertical transmission of knowledge from north to south.

In healthcare, communities of practice offer the potential of new learning partnerships that are not hostage to professional silos. The potential even extends to patients who are increasingly forming their own communities.

New technologies, in particular the rise of social media, have triggered much interest in communities of practice. Indeed, these technologies are well aligned with the peer-to-peer learning processes typical of communities of practice.”

A common critique is that CoPs do not engage with issues of power. However Wenger (2010) argues that CoPs are inherently about power in that accountability and identity in a CoP is a social process of negotiation, conflict, mutuality, constant alignment and non-alignment. Power and learning are always intertwined when learning is understood as a social process and requires participation.

CoP theory has also been criticised for being anachronistic (does not have chronological consistency) however Wenger (2010) argues that it places history in the context of social practice therefore it is anchored in dynamic time.

Another criticism is that the CoP concept is a catchphrase to represent any kind of group work or social learning without having any analytical rigour, “the term is too often employed as a slogan rather than as an analytical category,” (Barab et al., 2012).  However, to address this criticism, Barab et al., (2012) have generated a set of criteria that can be used to guide an evaluation of a CoP experience by accentuating the opportunities for social interactions to develop a sense of collective endeavour where there is mutual interdependence.  They propose that there are six central aspects of CoP and they provide three statements (criteria), that operationally define each one.

As a whole, these six characteristics and eighteen criteria can be used to consider the extent to which a particular CoP has those aspects.  They stress that the criteria are not intended to to guide a CoP design, as when CoP emerge they can be supported and encouraged:

“We can design “for” them, but we cannot design them.”

The Six Characteristics of CoP (Barab et al) and Associated Criteria are:

1. A Common practice and shared enterprise – Political sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues originally conceived of a community as “a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision making, and who share certain practices that both define the community and are nurtured by it” (Bellah, Madson, Sullivan,Swidler, and Tipton, 1985, p. 333).  This common practice or mutual enterprise is what binds the community as something larger than the individual.

The criteria associated with this characteristic are:

  • The group exhibits observable activities and interactions that reflect common practices or mutual enterprises.
  • Group members identify themselves as sharing common practices or mutual enterprises.
  • The group has produced artifacts that detail common practices ormutual enterprises.

2. Opportunities for interaction and participation – Because activity and participation are at the core of the idea of a CoP (Barab andDuffy, 2000; Lave and Wegner, 1991), it seems evident that providing opportunities for interactivity, as in “acting” with others, and participation is essential to any CoP and environment designed to support a CoP in the service of learning.  Unless there are tools and opportunities to share the mutually defined practices, beliefs, and understandings, that common pursuit of a shared enterprise is not possible.

The criteria associated with this characteristic are:

  • The context provides meaningful opportunities for social, which is human–to-human, interaction in which “newcomers” and “old-timers”are in fact engaged.
  • The context provides opportunities for “newcomers” and “old-timers” to meaningfully participate.
  • The interaction and participation opportunities are structured in a way that directly refers to the common practice of the group.

3. Mutual interdependence – Communities are more than a collection of individuals; through interconnections between context, processes, or resources individuals can become a part of something larger, which helps provide a sense of shared purpose as well as an identity for the individual and the larger community (Barab and Duffy, 2000).Communities, whether face-to-face or on-line, are drawn together through the principles of “commonality” and “interdependence.” Commonality involves a process of working together in common areas and interests and, in the process, forming a bond or identity with one another and with the group as a whole.Interdependence implies depending on one another for information, knowledge organisation, or shared problem solving.  A desirable feature of a CoP is that varying demands and expertise exist at different levels of competency where participants can scaffold one another through the sharing of information and abilities.  It is mutual interdependence that defines community, not hierarchy.

The criteria associated with this characteristic are:

  • The group includes members who have diverse expertise and knowledge.
  • Members depend on one another for participation, shared problem solving, and completion of group tasks.
  • The group functions within a broader societal role that gives it, and the practices of the group members, meaning and purpose.

4. Overlapping histories, practices, and understandings among members – Communities are more than the simple coming together of people for a particular moment in response to a specific need or for a class.  Successful communities have an overlapping cultural and historical heritage that, in part, captures their socially negotiated meanings.  This includes shared goals, understandings, and practices.  These overlapping meanings, while being continually negotiated anew, are also inherited from previous community members’ experiences in which they were hypothesized, tested, practiced, and socially agreed upon.  “The negotiation of meaning is a productive process, but negotiating meaning is not constructing it from scratch.  Meaning is not pre-existing, but neither is it simply made up. Negotiated meaning is at once historical and dynamic, con-textual and unique” (Wenger, 1998, p. 54).  The learner has access to and functions in the context of this history of previous negotiations as well as responsiveness from the current context on the functional value of a particular meaning.

The criteria associated with this characteristic are:

  • There are mechanisms for the development of new, socially agreed upon goals, practices, and understandings.
  • There is a core knowledge base that defines what practices and meanings are associated with the group.
  • Members of the group know each other or about each other, and about those contributions that other members have made.

5. Mechanisms for reproduction – A community is constantly reproducing itself so that new members contribute, support, and eventually lead the community into the future, but do so in the context of the existing agreed upon practices, goals, and understandings.  In this manner, communities are continually replicating themselves with new members moving from peripheral participant to core member through a process of enculturation (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

The criteria associated with this characteristic are:

  • The group contains both newcomers and more experienced experts.
  • The group has a history that has continued beyond the completion of a particular problem or task.
  • The group passes through multiple cycles, with newcomers becoming old-timers.

6. Respect for diverse perspectives and minority views – To build a healthy CoP, it is important that the design for the CoP reflect the rich cultural diversity of the community’s population and increase an equal communication among members with various histories, interest, priorities, and concerns.  Diversity creates opportunities for character development by teaching tolerance and respect for people and by encouraging concern for equity.

The criteria associated with this characteristic are:

  • The environment provides even and fair opportunities for members from different backgrounds to participate in and make contributions to the group practice.
  • Members show politeness toward diverse and minority perspectives in the group.
  • Members are satisfied that their individual perspectives have been fully understood and respected.

Content sources and for further information 

Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Wenger, E., R. McDermott, and W. Snyder. 2002. Cultivating Communities Of Practice: A Guide To Managing Knowledge. Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Website:

UDOL Academic Conference 2014 – Communities of Practice: Theories and Current Thinking.  Dr Etienne Wenger-Traynor discusses concepts of social theories of learning and how they relate to communities of practice and learning in the landscapes of practice. Published on Oct 20, 2014 by University of Derby Online Learning  UDOL Academic Conference 2014 – Communities of Practice: Theories and Current Thinking.  Published on Oct 20, 2014 by University of Derby Online Learning.  Dr Etienne Wenger-Traynor discusses concepts of social theories of learning and how they relate to communities of practice and learning in the landscapes of practice.  Social learning – a framework.  Published on Feb 23, 2015 by Wenger and Traynor.  Planning, implementing and evaluating social learning projects.

Barab, S., Warren, S., Del Valle, R., Fang, F.  2012.  Coming to Terms with Communities of Practice: A definition and operational criteria.