Communities of Interest, Communities of Practice
Communities of Interest, Communities of Practice
A community of interest, or a CoI, is described as a network of people who share the same interests, knowledge, and understanding of the best practices for any given subject matter. A community of interest can be either a live “actual” community of individuals who meet to discuss and exchange information, or it can be a virtual community that meets, discusses, and exchanges information via the Internet and various messaging tools.
A community of practice, or a CoP, generally refers to the communal use and understanding of a specific interest and knowledge of its best practices. In other words, a community of practice can be the very community of interest as described above, or it can be a loosely organized group that simply shares and practices the same understanding and methodology on a given subject matter. The term “community of practice” was originally coined to describe the type of community atmosphere created by apprenticing and mastering a trade. Now, a community of practice can refer to any loose or structured learning environment or situation where mentoring and
the fostering of knowledge of a specific trade or specialized practice or genre of knowledge occurs. As described by authority Etienne Wenger, a community of practice is a communal or joint enterprise; as such, it is consistently progressing as is best for the delivery of information that is important to the community. Engagement in the community is defined by continual negotiation and renegotiation of what the community stands for and the definition and redefinition of the community's resources, vocabulary, philosophies, and anything else which defines the group and the body of information important to its members.
The mission of a community of practice is to hone skills on both a personal as well as communal level. An additional mission for most communities of practice is to further the study and understanding of a given subject matter or theme that all members of the community have a common interest in or passion for. What defines a community of practice and makes it distinct from a common club or simple group of friends is the constant stewardship of new and old data as well as the level of education, competency, and experience of each of a community's members. Members of the community of practice do just that—they practice and are active practitioners of a subject via the sharing of data in the form of facts, stories, problem-solving techniques, and tools of the trade.
COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE FOR ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING AND KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
One of the most important advents of communities of practice has been the creation and honing of organizational learning and knowledge management. A community of practice allows for the close proximity of teachers and students (masters and apprentices) in a given field of study. Organizational learning is the practice of learning where the established rules of a trade come to be acknowledged and followed. Additionally, organizational learning begins and follows the process of adapting the established rules and practices to the changing environment in which a given trade is practiced. Organizational learning must be both active and reactive to given environments and circumstances as well as regional, cultural, geographic, and other differences. As a concept, it can truly only be actualized when there is a community to create, use, recreate, and revolutionize the various processes that make up an actual practice, trade, or organized body of information.
Organizational learning within a community of interest or community of practice has been the primary source for the “standard operating procedures” (SOPs) of hundreds of practices, making it perhaps the most important platform for establishing best practices so far.
Knowledge management has been another important innovation created and utilized by communities of practice. Communities of practice, especially those that use the Internet to communicate virtually and constantly, create a place where information can be gathered, stored, challenged, and rethought over and over. In this process, ideas and ways of doing things within a trade can be openly questioned and changed if the occasion arises that the best practice differs from current practice. The management of this collective knowledge in a single place begins to have patterns, and basic, universal principles about best practices can begin to form. A database that is consistently managed because it is vitally important to the members of its community of practice begins to morph from simple information into what is true about the subject matter at hand as well as the community that practices it.
According to Gene Bellinger, author of the 2004 article Knowledge Management: Emerging Perspectives, “Information, knowledge, and wisdom are more than simply collections. Rather, the whole represents more than the sum of its parts and has a synergy of its own.” Bellinger adds that it is important to remember what knowledge is and why it is important before anyone hurries to categorize and manage it. He and other experts in the field of knowledge management break data down into groups of information, knowledge, and wisdom. The relationship between these three types of data can help users to manage and categorize thoughts. Prioritizing data in this way allows for better management of whole communities of practice and helps determine what is important and why. In addition, a community of interest endeavoring to make use of particular data can do so in a much more effective fashion if the ideas and strategies are created based on information from various perspectives. Putting these new ideas into practice and using them for a time will allow important figures in a given field to establish thoughts and opinions, which will turn into the common wisdom necessary for the progression of the trade or field of study.
ADVANTAGES OF A COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE
Etienne Wenger, author of “Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System,” breaks communities of practice down in terms of their advantages to users and explains why they are effective. Wenger notes that for a community to keep information organized and for data to be maintained effectively, one consistent practice and organizational style are imperative. Ideas and information are not effective or valuable if the ways of discovery compromise the meaning, or if the data itself cannot be used in practice by the community. Wenger emphasizes
the importance of reification : the process by which esoteric ideals and unformed ideas become concrete, empirical data that the community can learn and put to use. Wenger discusses the importance of reifying information before it is presented to a group, team, or community so that the contents of the data are not misunderstood or presented in a manner that renders the facts useless. Understanding the more general meaning of new data and learning how to apply new information as new or to existing processes is the main goal of the reification process.
Wenger also emphasizes the importance of participation in the community. Participating in all of the community processes will ensure that all parties involved—and their opinions and perspectives—are represented in the shaping of new information. Wenger notes that participation is also a social practice, and it is therefore important to the cohesiveness of the community and fostering a level of trust amongst its members. Additionally, Wenger explains that reifying abstract ideas and information cannot be truly accomplished without a participative group of members taking part in the process. In short, participation within the community of practice is crucial to the survival of its core as well as to new data that enters and reshapes the patterns and ideals of the group itself.
PROPER CARE AND FEEDING OF A COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE
In order to function properly and to grow, a community of practice needs a common interest, a place to meet, and a means by which to practice and access tools that make that practice possible. The common interest of the group must be defined, and the group must be made up of and maintained by people who have a high level of experience and at least some level of expertise with the subject that is the common interest. The community of practice must be able to engage in activities pertaining to their interest. A true community of practice will allow users to act singularly as well as in group formats to create new ideas and methods of best practices, and to improve and help progress the field of study. Having the place and the means to engage in these activities are crucial to the upkeep of a community of practice and allow for important problem solving, discussions, use of pertinent tools and information, and development of new data into information and wisdom.
THE FUTURE OF COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AND INTEREST
Like many other things, today's community of practice is headed the way of the World Wide Web and will rely heavily on the Internet, wireless communication, and mobile devices more and more with each passing day. New ways of communicating more rapidly and from distances farther away allow for larger and more seasoned communities of practice to be developed. Just several decades ago, those with similar interests and practitioners of the same trades would have to live in the same geographic region in order to be a part of the same community of interest. In the twenty-first century, chat rooms, online bulletins, Web sites, and instant messenger systems have all created a virtual atmosphere that makes it possible to be a member of a community regardless of where—or when—that member practices.
Beck, Klaus. “Organizational Learning.” Available from: http://www.sfb504.uni-mannheim.de/glossary/orglearn.htm.
Hughes, Jason. Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives London: Routledge Press, 2007.
Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.” Available from: http://www.ewenger.com/theory/.
Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System.” Available from: http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml.
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