Wenger (1998) highlights an obvious yet very compelling point that we are always learning and we are always participating in various communities from work groups to families. Therefore, learning is situated in a given context and part of that context is a given community, therefore learning is also social (Wenger, 1998). It is logical then that the concept of communities of practice emerged from situated cognition (Brown, et al., 1989), previously discussed, and Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978), that learning is enhanced through social interaction. In fact communities of practice in the work place produce significant learning and innovation (Brown & Duguid, 1991).

Specifically, Wenger et al. describe (2002, p. 4) communities of practice (CoP) as a group of people who share an interest, a craft, and/or a profession. These groups can either grow organically because of people’s interests in the same field, or they can be created with the goal of sharing and learning from each other (Wenger, et al., 2002).

Eloquently stated by Wenger (1998, p. 8): “learning is an issue of sustaining the interconnected communities of practice through which an organization knows what it knows and thus becomes effective and valuable as an organization.” Therefore, if a tool like a microblog, can help create, strengthen and sustain communities of practice it would be impacting learning and the effectiveness, or performance, of the organization. “Communities of practice are thus key to an organization’s competence and the evolution of that competence” (Wenger, 1998, p. 241). In fact, researchers state that they “have seen communities of practice improve organizational performance at companies as diverse as an international bank, a major car manufacturer, and a U.S. government agency” (Wenger & Snyder, 2000).

Wenger describes three key characteristics of communities of practice: domain, community and practice (Wenger, 2010). A domain does not equate to an area of expertise; in fact, members can have different areas of expertise within the same domain. Therefore, domain could be a field, such as education, which could have teachers, instructional designers, performance strategists all part of the same community of practice because “They value their collective competence and learn from each other…” (Wenger, 2010). Wenger (2010) goes on to elaborate in each of the three characteristics. A community is defined as a group of people who interact and learn from each other as they pursue their domain. Finally, communities of practice do in fact share a “practice”. In the example above, different people with different titles are still all practitioners in the domain of education.

“Communities develop their practice through a variety of activities. The following table provides a few typical examples:” (Wenger, 2010)

Problem solving “Can we work on this design and brainstorm some ideas; I’m stuck.”
Requests for information “Where can I find the code to connect to the server?”
Seeking experience “Has anyone dealt with a customer in this situation?”
Reusing assets “I have a proposal for a local area network I wrote for a client last year. I can send it to you and you can easily tweak it for this new client.”
Coordination and synergy “Can we combine our purchases of solvent to achieve bulk discounts?”
Discussing developments “What do you think of the new CAD system? Does it really help?”
Documentation projects “We have faced this problem five times now. Let us write it down once and for all.”
Visits “Can we come and see your after-school program? We need to establish one in our city.”
Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps “Who knows what, and what are we missing? What other groups should we connect with?”

 

Most people’s objection to participating in communities of practice is that they do not have time (Lujan & Day, 2010; McDermott, 2010), they consider participation to be something extra that they have to do, taking them away from the task at hand (Hara, 2009, p. 21). However, updating a status message on a microblog that doesn’t allow more than 140 characters makes the time it takes to update it, even several times a day, minimal. In addition, if employees found participation valuable, they would make the time. Isn’t the true goal of communities of practice to help with the task, or project at hand? Isn’t that the true just-in-time learning and performance support? It always benefits people when they accidentally come across another person who has experience and knowledge in a given area – there in lays the value.

Given that it is so easy to see what others are doing on microblogs, could it inspire people not just to reach out when they need help but also to notice if they have knowledge they can share with others? Can this notion of using Yammer to find experts and to offer expertise take off and become viral—infecting everyone, or at least many people in an organization? Can this model, if tested in an organization, demonstrate that members would find it valuable enough to keep up with Yammer to become self-sustaining community of practice?

Imagine the following scenario: An employee comes across a challenge, something he could really use some help with and his first thought becomes: to search Yammer to see if there is anyone else in his organization who can help. So he searches for a keyword and finds someone who he can speak with. He reaches out to this individual and before he knows it the two of them (or more) are helping each other and before they even realize it, they are now part of a community of practice.

This is a section of a research proposal, to read more, go to the Table of Contents

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