Key concepts related to Community of Practice

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

(Activity 3.25)

There is a long list of concepts that I need to understand in relation to CoP.  So here are my notes and thoughts from Blackmore, 2010, Chaps 7 – 11

On this page – but not in this order!

boundary interactions domain professional capital
boundary objects landscapes of practice social and technical networking
brokering knowledge large-scale learning system social discipline of learning
community of practice levels of learning and learning systems trajectories
community of professionals meta-communities world design
discourses of practice practice


General concepts used across a number of chapters

there are a number of these…

community of practice

I think I like this sentence from Wenger’s website as the best short snapshot of community of practice:

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. [source E Wenger, , accessed 27 February 2011]

The TU812 Study guide also has some useful short lines:

What’s the purpose? to create, expand and exchange knowledge, and to develop individual capabilities.

What holds them together? passion commitment and identification with the group and its expertise

Who belongs? self-selection based on expertise or passion for a topic.

(Source Wenger et al, 2002, 42 reproduced in The Open University 2010, 129, Table 3.3)

Wenger (2010) describes the origins of a community of practice in an emergent way.  As participants learn together they are involved in a dual process of meaning making – both participation in social life and reification as that shared experience is built into artefacts.  These represent two different sorts of memory that build up a history.  “Over time, a history of learning becomes and informal and dynamic social structure among the participants, and this is what a community of practice is.” (Wenger, 2010 in Blackmore, 2010, 180)

Polin (2008) points out that the Lave and Wenger first proposed ‘CoP’ as an analytic model for understanding how people learn in context.  It is now popular as a theory of learning (page 165).  I think it is important to remember that CoP was coined as a way of ‘bringing forth’ a set of observations that these researchers were making about a particular way of social learning. I see CoP as been subject to reification and being treated more as a instant fix to a problem by those concerned with knowledge development.  Just because we have the concepts to understand and describe something does not mean we can treat that understanding and description like a recipe to create another one – I think it is only something we can nurture and enable, not control.  Wenger (2010) also touches on this issue and wonders whether its uninformed usage and over-application could lead to the demise of the term.  Though, for him, he likes the tension between the analytical and instrumental perspectives and sees a social discipline of learning emerging from this tension. (in Blackmore, 2010, 192/3).

A community learns (gains capacity to adopt new behaviour) because

“the practice, the knowledge base and the tools set are all open to influence and change from the co-membership or concurrent identities that members bring to the community through new ideas, new tools and artefacts.   […] As community members participate and introduce changes into the practice, they are essentially challenging the acknowledged expertise.  Lave and Wenger (2001) described this as a tension between reification (i.e. the freezing of knowledge in a concrete artefact) and participation (i.e. the variation of knowledge that arises in practice from the participation of diverse people)” (Polin, 2008 in Blackmore, 2010,175).

Snyder and Wenger (2004) point out that CoP have three basic dimensions – domain, community and practice.  “A community’s effectiveness as a social learning system depends on its strength in all three structural dimensions” (Snyder and Wenger, 2004 in Blackmore, 2010, 110).


This is the area of knowledge/knowing about which the members of a CoP have a shared passion and commitment.  What makes it different from a community of interest is that the domain is associated with taking action and members are committed to improving the action they take.


One from the study guide this time:

“The practice of the community broadly consists of the activities of its members that take account of their shared historical and social resources.  Practice-based knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to be effective in a domain are developed through regular interaction and sharing”  Open University, 2010, 127.

I also like this explanation from Polin (2008):

“practice refers, not to repetitive behaviours intended to increase memory, but to a body of practical knowledge used to accomplish work, that is, a domain or field of expertise” (in Blackmore, 2010, 165)

discourses of practice

I cannot find a specific explanation for this.  The understanding I have is that as a community of practice develops its practice it will develop a distinctive way of describing the world and communicating about it and also the practice itself.  We tend to experience this as the ‘jargon’ that alienates those not outside of the community of practice.

Gobbi (2009) highlights that learning a profession involves learning the discourse of that practice – not just the words but non-verbal and paralinguistic communication.

As Wenger (2000) points out a common language between different communities of practice is an important boundary object. (in Blackmore, 2010, 128).

levels of learning and learning systems

It seems this is about scale on which we can apply the concept of a community of practice:

– at a simple level – a community of practice

– in an organisation – a network of different communities of practice

– within a community of professionals

– in a city or particular geographical area – civic learning systems

– at a national level

– at an international level

As Snyder and Wenger (2004) point out in their discussion on large-scale learning systems, any scaling up beyond the simple level must keep some “core elements of success – identification with a well-defined domain, close personal relationships, and direct access to practitioners for mutual learning” (in Blackmore, 2010, 120).  This can be achieved through applying a fractal structure.

landscapes of practice

“As communities of practice differentiate themselves and also interlock with each other, they constitute a complex social landscape of shared practices, boundaries, peripheries, overlaps, connections and encounters” (Wenger, 1998 in Blackmore, 2010, 130).

It is important to remember that the boundaries in this landscape of practice are not synonymous with organisational structures or boundaries.

Wenger (1998) makes a distinction between boundaries and peripheries.  Boundaries “refer to discontinuities, to lines of distinction between inside and outside” (in Blackmore, 2010, 131).  However peripheries “refer to continuities, areas of overlap and connections, to windows and meeting places, and to organised and casual possibilities for participation offered to outsiders or newcomers” (in Blackmore, 2010, 131/2).

And I like this almost poetical line “Learning can be viewed as a journey through landscapes of practice” (Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 185).

Concepts more specific to Snyder and Wenger (2004, in Blackmore, 2010, Chapter 7)

These are:

large-scale learning system

a system intended to promote large-scale civic learning.

The key elements of a small-scale community learning system that makes them successful are – “identification with a well-defined domain, close personal relationships, and direct access to practitioners for mutual learning” (Snyder and Wenger, 2004 in Blackmore 2010, 120).  Cannot lose this when you go ‘large-scale’ so need a fractal structure – a community of communities.

The three dimensions of a CoP, allow for this fractal nature:

– fractal domain: topics subdivide – by geography, into subtopics and so on

– fractal community: must have local intimacy, but also be connected.  Key is multi-membership.

– fractal practice: ideas that worked elsewhere can be adapted to new contexts

In this way key features of CoP can be maintained no matter how many people participate.

(notes from Snyder and Wenger, 2004 in Blackmore 2010, 120-121)

world design

A new discipline that Snyder and Wenger (2004) advocate for.  The discipline is envisaged as one that:

– builds from the “field of organisational design to apply similiar principles at a world level”

– “promotes the development of strategic social learning systems to steward civic practices at local, national, and global levels”

– provides a focus on our “ability to design the world as a learning system”

– would “address how the power of communities can be most full realised by aligning communities activities within a broader ecology of formal and informal structures – institutions, cultural, groups, laws and social networks”

(adapted from Snyder and Wenger, 2004 in Blackmore 2010, 123)


communities linked together at various levels to “build their own practice to support the development, effectiveness, and influence of civic communities at all levels”

(Snyder and Wenger, 2004 in Blackmore 2010, 124)

Concepts more specific to extracts from Wenger (2000) and Wenger (1998) (in Blackmore, 2010, Chapter 8.)

It is important to pay attention to boundaries between community of practice – at the boundaries you can get “an experience of being exposed to a foreign competence” (Wenger, 2000, in Blackmore, 2010, 126).  This tension can lead to learning so it is a source of opportunity.  To create the conditions for this learning to take place, you can pay attention to boundary interactions; boundary objects; and, brokering knowledge.

boundary interactions

There can be a variety of forms of “interactions among people from different communities of practice” (Wenger, 2000, in Blackmore, 2010, 128):

– encounters – visits, discussions, sabataticals

– boundary practices – if a boundary needs sustained work then it can become the topic of a practice of its own

– peripheries – steps communities take to help others connect with their practice

– boundary projects – cross-disciplinary projects not only help get the project done but also exposes practitioners to ways of working from other disciplines.  Can then ‘take it back’ to own community.

(Wenger, 2000, in Blackmore, 2010, 129-30)

boundary objects

These are objects that support connections between practices.  Can take a number of forms:

– artifacts – tools, documents, models

– discourses – common language so that can communicate and negotiate across boundaries.

– processes – business planning that allows different communities to contribute

(Wenger, 2000, in Blackmore, 2010, 128-9)

brokering knowledge

This is a practice that is engaged in by people who act as brokers between communities – “introducing elements of one practice into another” (Wenger, 2000, in Blackmore, 2010, 128).  It is not easy.  Need legitimacy.  Also enough distance so it is something new.  Often means you don’t really belong anywhere so value you bring is often overlooked.

Important to value people who are brokering knowledge as part of a social learning system and pay attention to building this.

(Wenger, 2000, in Blackmore, 2010, 128)


Trajectories are important in the discussion of identity because “we define who we are by where we have been and where we are going” (Wenger, 1998, in Blackmore, 2010, 133).  In fact, our “identities incorporate the past and the future in the very process of negotiating the present” (Wenger, 1998, in Blackmore, 2010, 133)

To Wenger, “the term trajectory suggests not a path that can be foreseen or charted but a continuous motion – one that has a momentum of its own in addition to a field of influences.  It has a coherence through time that connects the past, the present and the future” (Wenger, 1998, in Blackmore, 2010, 134)

Our individual trajectories mean we move between and within different communities of practice – sometimes skirting the edge and sometimes getting in there.  Being part of a particular community could be short-term or long-term.  Even within a community there is still a sense of trajectory as improvements to that practice happen.  Throughout this we are continually negotiating our identity – this identity and our sense of trajectory provide a context for what we see as significant to our future – particularly what it is important to learn.

The trajectories of people in a community of practice, particularly the ones who are more experienced practitioners, provide a set of examples of what trajectories others may take – a set of possibilities.  These are referred to as paradigmatic trajectories.  In a sense then a community of practice is a “field of possible trajectories and thus the proposal of an identity” (Wenger, 1998, in Blackmore, 2010, 135).

(sourced from Wenger, 1998, in Blackmore, 2010, 133-137)

Concepts more specific to Gobbi (2009, in Blackmore, 2010, Chapter 9)

Two here…

communities of professionals

Gobbi (2009) highlights how a profession can be thought of as a “contained community with a larger society” (Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 149).  The community will have a particular identity which maintains its relationship with the wider community.  Often becoming part of a profession requires extensive socialisation and “develop a distinctive epistemology – their shared way of knowing about the world” (Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 149). This is an important aspect of professional capital.

Communities overlap so the distinction between communities of professionals and communities of practice are likely to be fluid. (Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 160).

Gobbi (2009) highlights that to her situated learning associated with communities of practice is not sufficient to explain workplace learning within professions such as nursing.  “Learning among professionals operating in groups in the workplace needs to take account of the way they generate, disseminate and acquire professional capital within their community of professionals” (in Blackmore, 2010, 160).

professional capital

Is linked with two different explanations:

– economic explanation: a dimension of human capital.  “Refers to the skills and knowledge,[…] necessary for the economic  growth and development of the profession” (Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 148).  (Note to self – sounds a bit as it is protecting the interests of the ‘profession’ and those who practice it).  The “economic perspective of professional capital includes both professional knowing and doing and the embodiment of professional practice” (Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 148).

– non-economic explanation:  More about personal professional capital.  Associated with self-concept of the individual (Note to self – this sounds very similar to Wenger’s discussion around identity).  Might include “the connections, relationships of trust and mutual obligation and common language that are characteristic of a professional community” ((Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 149).

(sourced from Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 148-149)

Professional capital is derived from an interaction between personal membership of community by individuals; nexus of internal relationships; and a formal dimension relating to the regulation of the profession.

(sourced from Gobbi, 2009 in Blackmore, 2010, 156/7)

Concepts more specific to Polin (2008, in Blackmore, 2010, Chapter 10)

Just the one:

social and technical networking

Although Polin (2008) uses this term, I can not see a definition or even get clarity on whether she means (social and technical)(networking) OR social networking and technical networking.

The sense I get from reading her Chapter is that she is using the term generically to apply to the tools (particularly) web-based that enable people to collaborate either through social interaction or through sharing files, tools and resources.

(sourced from Polin, 2008 in Blackmore, 2010, 168/9)

Concepts more specific to Wenger (2010, in Blackmore, 2010, Chapter 11)

and finally…

social discipline of learning

In considering this, I had to touch base with the way Wenger uses the word ‘discipline’.  I was sure it was not in the sense of punishment!  I am assuming it is in the sense of “branch of knowledge or teaching” (source The Free Dictionary, accessed 5 March 2011).

This discipline is one which has its “primary focus on understanding and enhancing learning capability in social systems” (Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 193).  So it includes both analytical perspectives for ‘understanding’ and instrumental ones for ‘enhancing’.  It needs to draw from and build on the work on communities of practice, systems perspectives, networks, communities processes, power and also take critiques seriously.

The concept of a community of practice is a good starting place because it is the simplest social learning system.  It works as an analytical concept but can also be instrumental in considering a learning partnership.  “Its learning capability is anchored in a mutual recognition as potential learning partners” (Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 193/4).

Networks emphasise connectivity (as opposed to the emphasis on identity evoked by use of the word community).  Network and community are not separate units of social structure, they are combined in the same structures. (Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 191)  I suppose what we are saying is that looking at a structure and thinking “what will I learn about this if I think of it as if it is a network” will bring forth a different set of understandings (and ideas for action) if you think “what will I learn about this if I think of it as if it is a community”.  Both are valid questions and both have their value.

In re-framing to a ‘learning partnership’ approach, questions of governance arise.  Any governance has to support development of social learning capability.  Wenger (2010) brings attention to two different forms of governance – stewarding governance (“a concerted effort to move a social system in a given direction” Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 195) and emergent governance (“bubbles up from a distributed system of interactions involving local decisions” Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 195).

With respect to power, it is important to recognise the strength of horizontal accountability as well as the more traditionally used forms of vertical accountability.  It is also important to work out how horizontal and vertical accountability structures interplay with each other rather than to consider them completely separately.

The final perspective of the social discipline of learning that Wenger (2010) talks about relates to the role of the individual within a learning social system.  For it to all work, each individual has to take personal responsibility for their participation.  Wenger (2010) introduces the concept of ‘learning citizenship’ which “refers to the ethics of how we invest our identities as we travel through the landscape” (Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 196).  It has an ethical dimension because “our identity, and the unique perspective it carries, is our gift to the world” (Wenger, 2010, in Blackmore, 2010, 197)

(sourced from Wenger, 2010 in Blackmore, 2010, 193-7)


Open University (2010) TU812 Managing Systemic Change: inquiry, action and interaction: Study Guide, The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Snyder, W.M. and Wenger, E. (2004) Our world as a learning system: a communities-of-practice approach in Blackmore (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

Wenger, E. (2000) and Wenger, E. (1998) Conceptual Tools for CoPs as Social Learning Systems: Boundaries, Identity, Trajectories and Participation in Blackmore (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

Gobbi, M. (2009) Learning Nursing in the workplace community: the generation of professional capital in Blackmore (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

Polin, L.G. (2008) Graduate Professional Education from a Community of Practice Perspective: The role of social and technical networking in Blackmore (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

Wenger (2010) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the career of a concept in Blackmore (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

Share what you think...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.