Tuesday, May 10, 2011

PL 15/11: Communities of practice

Filed under: 1bib, debate — plinius @ 7:51 pm

Tomorrow, Etienne Wenger is giving a discussion oriented seminar at Oslo University College.

Wenger [Wp] is known for his work on communities of practice. I have signed up for his small group seminar from 12 to 4 pm. I can not attend his introductory lecture at 10, so I am browsing his web stuff instead. I like his approach, which is very much in line with the networks and groups I have been in touch with since the late sixties.

What I recognize in Wenger is the “non-governmental spirit”:  relaxed,  egalitarian and friendly, but also professional, dedicated and problem-oriented. I am thinking of the peace researchers in IPRA and the buddhists in INEB; the documentalists in HURIDOCS and the social futurists in WFSF. And many, many more.

Today, my personal communities of practice belong to the library field – and blogging is one of the main tools for weaving individuals into a community of practitioners.

The history of concepts

Murillo (20911) says:

Even as the concept reaches the two decade milestone, it still lacks a widely accepted definition. The literature displays considerable confusion, failing to distinguish communities of practice from other social structures concerned with knowledge and learning, such as occupational communities, organizational subcultures, networks of practice and epistemic cultures. Moreover, both academics and practitioners have interpreted and adapted the concept in many different ways, for which the ambiguity of the seminal studies is mostly responsible.

Concepts are tools for thinking. People who work with words are constantly struggling to have their favorites recognized. They criticize competing concepts – and hope to push them out of the particular game (field, discipline, profession) they are playing.

Expressions like authoritarian personality, repressive tolerance, public sphere (Bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit), action research, scientific revolution, paradigms and global village appeared in the period 1945-1975.  Some have kept their vitality – while others feel a bit outdated. The social realities they point to have not disappeared, but the context of discourse has changed.

Words like context and discourse belong to the period after 1975, of course …

Semantic fields

The verbal tools we use to map, define and grasp our shared world – words, concepts, paradigmatic cases –  constitute a moving semantic field. We all try to move it our way.  In this competitive environment concepts must be deepened, integrated and developed to survive. The ongoing work of Habermas shows this constant concern for concepts.

When people struggle with concepts, they tend to ask for definitions. If we could just find the right definition – which everone can agree on – the problem would be solved.

That puts the cart before the horse. Concepts are theories in miniature. They make the world they seem to describe. Words are “momentary gods” (Usener). Struggles about concepts come from different worldly interests – theoretical and practical – rather than from lack of clarity.

Silence, habitus and power

I like community of practice because it emphasizes practice rather than talk and collaboration rather than pontification. In my own organization, Oslo University College, this choice has practical implications, which I have discussed in many other blog posts. It was, for instance, a reason to support the fusion of the two university colleges (Oslo and Akershus), rather than university status for OUC by itself.

What the concept needs is a richer setting. People who want change must cope with silence, habitus and power.  The corresponding theorists might be Habermas, Bourdieu and Foucault.


Levels of reading

Wenger’s big project at the moment is Learning for a small planet. I like the stepwise approach to inforamtion about the project.

On this page you can access the following documents

  • Executive summary: a one-page summary of the project
  • Prospectus: a 4-page description of the project for partners and funders
  • Project overview: a 14-page Word document that includes the executive summary and an overall project description
  • Full research agenda: a 55-page Word document that includes the executive summary and the project overview mentioned above, as well as four appendices covering aspects of the research: the theory, the study of trends, the study of implications, and methodology.


  •  IPRA (International Peace Research Association)
  •  INEB (International Network of Engaged Buddhists)
  • HURIDOCS (Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems, International)
  • WFSF (World Future Studies Federation)



  • Introduction. As it approaches the two decade milestone, the concept of community of practice faces what can be described as a midlife crisis. It has achieved wide diffusion, but users have adapted it to suit their needs, leading to a proliferation of diverging interpretations. Recent critiques lament that the concept is losing its coherence and analytical power.
  • Method. This review uses Benders and van Veen’s model of a management fashion to account for the popularity of the concept of communities of practice in the business and organization studies literature and for the current crisis.
  • Results. The literature displays considerable confusion between communities of practice and other social structures concerned with knowledge and learning, although recent typologies are helping to clarify concepts. Researchers have accepted the concept as an enduring element in the knowledge-based view of the firm, but practitioners have mostly used it in fashionable management discourse, specifically as a knowledge management tool, resulting in numerous publications based on pragmatic interpretations of the concept. By now, the fashion is fading in the practitioner literature, but the researcher community displays renewed interest in the form of several in-depth critiques and a resurgence of theory-grounded studies.
  • Conclusions. The review predicts that the concept will successfully mature out of its current crisis through a new period, already started, of theory development grounded in rigorous studies conducted in organizations.

Murillo, Enrique (2011).


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