Communities of Practice, Learning as a social system (Wenger, 1998)

We frequently say that people are an organization’s most important resource. Yet we seldom understand this truism in terms of the communities through which individuals develop and share the capacity to create and use knowledge.

CoP: Best Practices, Etienne Wenger, “Systems Thinker”, June 1998

I came across Wenger’s 1998 paper titled Communities of Practice, Learning as a social system. Very thought provoking and structured, Wenger traces the rationale for CoPs and gives them formal definition distinguishing them from interest groups, business/functional units, teams and networks (which he deems as a set of relationships).

He then proceeds to look at the role and relations of CoPs to the organization. What is really interesting is that he has identified the possible stages of evolution of a CoP – Potential, Coalescing, Active, Dispersed and Memorable as in the chart below.

He also draws out some of the key relationships of the CoP to the organization which include relationships such as Unrecognized (invisible to the organization), Legitimized and Transformative. While drawing out the importance of CoPs in an organization, Wenger provides a blueprint for some of the roles that can exist internal leadership of the CoP, which he believes are key to its development.

# The inspirational leadership provided by thought leaders and recognized experts
# The day-to-day leadership provided by those who organize activities
# The classificatory leadership provided by those who collect and organize information in order to document practices
# The interpersonal leadership provided by those who weave the community’s social fabric
# The boundary leadership provided by those who connect the community to other communities
# The institutional leadership provided by those who maintain links with other organizational constituencies, in particular the official hierarchy
# The cutting-edge leadership provided by those who shepherd “out-of-the-box” initiatives.

CoP: Best Practices

This is of special relevance as networks and social learning concepts are enabled by technology and best practices within organizations. As I have stated in an earlier post, the roles in Learning and Development divisions of organizations (and also business as a whole) need to evolve to encompass these additional internal leadership roles.

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