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Communities of Practice
Lave and Wegner (1991) first introduced the concept of communities of practice (CoP) and suggested a process of "legitimate peripheral participation" be engaged with in an attempt to create and share knowledge. Managerial thinking on CoP's and their benefits differs significantly and this essay will outline some of the reasons for this. In addition I will suggest exactly how CoP's can provide significant benefits to organisations and will back this up with examples before concluding how managers might best support these CoP's to ensure their contribution continues.
CoP's are defined as "groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Baker et al, 2008, P.1). To be termed a CoP a group must possess the following three elements; a domain, a community and a practice. The identity of a CoP can be defined by its domain, by belonging to a CoP the members are expressing their commitment to, and their interest in, this domain. The element of community surrounds the relationships that build up amongst members so that they are able to "learn from each other through engaging in joint activities, discussions and information sharing" (Baker, et al, 2008, P.1). The element of practice is concerned with the work that members engage with.
CoP's are often formed without members appreciating that this is what they are engaging in. Individuals participating in regular but informal discussions about their work over lunch in an organisations canteen could potentially be a CoP. Conversely some
CoP's are formed purposely and with intent to gain knowledge in a specific field, or solve a problem in a certain area. CoP's also vary greatly in size from a small group, right up to a large and globally dispersed group. The vague definition of CoP's and the limited boundaries in terms of classification means it is difficult to ascertain whether or not a group really is a CoP.
The literature on CoP's has expanded since Lave and Wegner first coined the term in 1991. Brown and Duguid (1991) were writing simultaneously on the subject, but their focus was on learning from a community perspective which is closer to how we understand CoP's today. More recently, the literature on CoP's has taken a managerial perspective and begins to discuss the importance of CoP's to organisations and how these can best be managed (Wegner et al, 2002).
Contribution of CoP's
CoP's are making more of an appearance in organisations as their contributions are being more widely realised. Nonaka (1994)
puts forward one of the greatest benefits of CoP's by addressing the fact that they allow for the "generation and dissemination of tacit knowledge" (Maurer et al, 2005, P.686) which is by its nature, difficult to share, but at the same time arguably the most valuable type of knowledge. CoP's are also not restrained by geographic boundaries meaning they can incorporate some of the best expertise from around the globe, obviously, this ultimately leads not only to a competitive advantage in terms of the knowledge possessed by a company, but also knowledge from a global perspective.
The contributions of CoP's is best understood through examples which help to establish the broad variety of areas that CoP's can help to benefit, and in some cases can help organisations to gain a competitive advantage. Firstly, they can help to drive strategy as has been shown by the World Bank who actively encourage, and fund, the growth and development of CoP's. There have been "significant increases in the number of organisation wide communities and in the intensity of participation" (Wegner and
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