The term communities of practice was first coined by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in their 1991 book Situated Learning (Cambridge University Press). The theory and philosophy shaping this view of social learning have since been fleshed out and will appear in a new book by Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. The book, excerpted below, will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press.
Being alive as human beings means that we are constantly engaged in the pursuit of enterprises of all kinds, from ensuring our physical survival to seeking the most lofty pleasures. As we define these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we interact with each other and with the world, and we tune our relations with each other and with the world accordingly. In other words, we learn.
Over time, this collective learning results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise.
It makes sense, therefore, to call these kinds of communities "communities of practice."
. . . Communities of practice are an integral part of our daily lives. They are so informal and so pervasive that they rarely come into explicit focus, but for the same reasons, they are also quite familiar. While the term may be new, the experience is not. Most communities of practice do not have a name or issue membership cards. Yet, if we care to consider our own life from that perspective for a moment, we can all construct a fairly good picture of the communities of practice we belong to now, those we belonged to in the past, those we would like to belong to in the future. We also have a pretty good idea of who belongs to our communities of practice and why, even though membership is rarely made explicit on a roster or a checklist of qualifying criteria. Furthermore, we can probably distinguish between a few communities of practice of which we are core members, and a number of others in which we have a more peripheral kind of membership.
. . . What is shared by a community of practice - what makes it a community - is its practice. The concept of practice connotes doing, but not just doing in and of itself. It is doing in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning to what we do. When I talk about practice, I am talking about social practice.
Such a concept of practice includes both the explicit and the tacit. It includes what is said and what is left unsaid; what is represented and what is assumed. It includes the language, the tools, the documents, the images, the symbols, the well-defined roles, the specified criteria, the codified procedures, the regulations, and the contracts that various practices make explicit for a variety of purposes. But it also includes all the implicit relations, the tacit conventions, the subtle cues, the untold rules of thumb, the recognizable intuitions, the specific perceptions, the well-tuned sensitivities, the embodied understandings, the underlying assumptions, the shared worldviews, which may never be articulated, though they are unmistakable signs of membership in communities of practice and are crucial to the success of their enterprises.
Of course, the tacit is what we take for granted and it tends to fade into the background. If it is not forgotten, it tends to be relegated to the individual subconscious, to what we all know instinctively, to what comes naturally. But the tacit is no more individual and natural than what we make explicit to each other. Common sense is only commonsensical because it is sense held in common. Communities of practice are the prime context in which we can work out common sense through mutual engagement. Therefore the concept of practice highlights the social and negotiated character of both the explicit and the tacit in our lives.
. . . Learning is the engine of practice, and practice is the history of that learning. As a consequence, communities of practice have life cycles that reflect such a process. They come together, they develop, they evolve, they disperse, according to the timing, the logic, the rhythms, and the social energy of their learning. As a result, unlike more formal types of organizational structures, it is not so clear where they begin and end. They do not have launching and dismissal dates. In this sense, a community of practice is a different kind of entity than, say, a task force or a team. While a task force or a team starts with an assignment and ends with it, a community of practice may not congeal for a while after an assignment has started, and it may continue in unofficial ways far beyond the original assignment. Based on joint learning rather than reified tasks that begin and end, a community of practice takes a while to come into being, and it can linger long after an official group is disbanded.
Asserting that it is learning that gives rise to communities of practice is saying that learning is a source of social structure. But the kind of structure that this refers to is not an object in itself, which can be separated from the process that gives rise to it. Rather it is an emergent structure . . . .
. . . Indeed, practice is ultimately produced by its members through the negotiation of meaning. The negotiation of meaning is an open process, with the constant potential for including new elements. It is also a recovery process, with the constant potential for continuing, rediscovering or reproducing the old in the new. - Etienne Wenger
© copyright 1997, Etienne Wenger
Wenger is a senior research scientist and founding faculty of the Knowledge Ecology University.
Community of Practice
Definitions | Issues | Best Practices | Recommended Reading | Resources for Further Learning
Back to the top
© Copyright, 2001, Community Intelligence Labs