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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 also situated in a 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. Table 3 provides a few typical examples:” (Wenger, 2010)

Table 3: Examples of CoP Activities

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 post on a microblog, even if several times a day, can be done in a matter of minutes, and is therefore a minimal time investment. 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 can connect with another person who has experience and knowledge in a given area – there in lays the value.

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

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Hutchins’ (1995) definition of distributed cognition, simply put, is the notion that cognition is not confined by what is inside one person’s brain. Instead, it is distributed across many things, such as other people, artifacts and the environment. Meaning, we don’t just learn in our heads, we talk to others, experience things in our environment, and use tools such as a paper and pencil to write out a math problem. A great example of distributed cognition, as described by Hutchins (1995), is the navigation of a large ship–many people and systems come together to navigate collectively. Not one person alone could navigate the ship–you really need the collective.

In any organization, it is the collective driving it forward. Even though there may be individual contributors, no one person alone can help a company, for example, meet its revenue goals. Again, it has to be the collective. It is the “informal communication channels that make work proceed smoothly, synchronized among a group of workers without the need for direct verbal communication” (Norman, 1993, p. 153). In Norman’s (1993) examples this non-verbal communication is observed in person. However, with today’s knowledge workforce being distributed across many locations, observation takes on different forms, like reading Yammer posts. In addition, in many cases, the work doesn’t have to be as closely synchronized as employees would need to be to operate a ship. Yet, at the end of the day, the work product is still that of the collective.

Microblogs offer just this capability: the possibility of “observing” each other’s actions without actually being there, without working closely together. In fact answering the question: “What are you working on?” produces work activity update posts in real time during the day. “…knowing and context are irreducibly co-constituted, and learning is fundamentally connected with and constitutive of the contextual particulars through which it occurs (S. A. Barab & Kirshner, 2001; Cobb & Yackel, 1996)” (Sasha A Barab & Plucker, 2002).

Distributed cognition provides a framework, or lens through which to analyze cognition that focuses (unit of analysis) on the system, rather than the individual (Hutchins, 1995). Cognition is not just distributed within (Minsky, 1986) but also between learners and the objects they use to solve problems (Schwartz, 2008). Therefore, when researching microblogs, focus will be placed on the interaction between individuals and the tool as well as between individuals and other individuals.

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

Theories

As mentioned previously, microblogs offer something that is not normally easy to acquire, information as to what employees are doing real time through status updates. Therefore, the link between microblogs and performance support, learning and ultimately, performance improvement becomes clear. It follows that the theories influencing this research include situated cognition which considers learning and performance improvement in context, and distributed cognition, which also focuses on context and encourages a view of microblogs as a system, and finally communities of practice which can account for the groups that may emerge through microblogging.

Situated Cognition

Learning is an ongoing, real time process, as opposed to separate events (Moon, 2004, p. 11). Situated cognition theory, as described by Brown et al. (1989, pp. 32-42), explains that knowing is inseparable from doing. Skills are acquired through continuous authentic activity in authentic contexts and by communicating with peers and experts about those activities in those contexts (Herrington & Oliver, 1995). Microblogs offer the ability for employees to communicate with peers while participating in authentic activity, their daily work.

Lave and Wenger (1991) propose that the most accounts of learning ignore its social nature. Yet researchers agree that knowledge is the result of collaborative construction in a situated cognition environment (Ahmad, 2009; Bransford, Vye, Kinzer, & Risko, 1990). Everything human beings conceive of and think about is adapted to the environment, that is, situated, because what people perceive, how they conceive of what they are doing (or working on) and the physical activity of working on it, all develop together (Clancy, 1997). “In situated cognition, knowledge is created or negotiated through the interactions of the individual with others and the environment. Individuals acquire knowledge through activities rather than obtaining information in discreet packages organized by instructors or a system” (Ahmad, 2009). Tyre and von Hippel (1997, p. 71) found that “traditional, decontextualized theories of adaptive learning and of collaboration could be improved by taking into account that learning occurs through people interacting in context.” It follows that through continuous, authentic, situated, collaborative activity, people can improve their performance (Brown, et al., 1989).

As microblogs help uncover what people are doing, their day-to-day tasks, and provide this visibility into what others in the organization are doing. People can use it to create opportunities for informal connections and collaboration with others in ways we did not have the ability to do previously. Using a tool like a microblog, where one can read the updates of colleagues real time, one may be able to create connectedness and engagement leading to sharing and ultimately just-in-time, or point-of-need learning—a performance support environment that uses people as conduits versus the technology-centered performance support and knowledge management systems of yesterday. “Learning is that which enables you to participate successfully in life, at work, and in the groups that matter to you. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs” (Cross, 2007, p. 15).

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

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