Communities of Practice

I attended a workshop on Communities of Practice (CoP) run by Etienne Wenger the other day. This was a stunningly good workshop, enabling me to re-visit the ideas behind CoP. The theory is located in a subjective dimension and is characterized by a belief that reality is a product of the individual’s social experiences in the world. I have briefly summarized my interpretation of some of the key concepts, the detailed underpinning theory can be found through Etienne’s publications.

Fundamentally we are social beings
CoP theory sees us all as fundamentally social beings and as such the interpretations that we make of the world are mediated through our social experiences in it. This is the case when we both interpret in groups or interpret in moments of quite reflection like now when I type or you read this blog entry. The social aspect of interpretation and meaning making cannot be disentangled.

Boundaries of practices
One of the most powerful interactions in creating new knowledge are those that occur at the boundaries of practices. This can be thought of as a creative tension between individuals who bring the experience of different sets of practices into a shared domain. However, if there is a too high degree of dissonance between practices then the forces attracting them together may not be strong enough to force them to interact with each other.

In naturally forming communities, the practices are constantly being developed by existing members and learned by newcomers who have chosen to accept the apprentice role. In communities that are developed ‘artificially’, the motivations on individuals both externally applied and intrinsically felt will determine the degree to which interaction occurs.

We can view this as a complex ‘dance’ between community, domain, and practice. Each of these facets can be thought of as a magnet attached to an individual that may either attract/repel them into/from social interactions. We may be drawn towards the core of the community or may drift to the extremity where old timers lurk and newcomers first make their acquaintance with the community through engaging in conversations that share the practices of the community but also create new meaning as a different set of experiences are added to the mix.

Breadth vs. depth
Should we become experts in multiple domains or is it enough to be just ‘boundary walkers’ on the periphery of communities? Etien’s view was that everyone should experience being an expert at least once. His definition was along the lines of being able to have a ‘peer’ discussion with a recognised expert in a domain, be that a baker, nuclear physicist, or a racing car driver! It is important that we understand what it is to be ‘expert’ so that when we negotiate the boundaries of other communities we understand what it is to be confident in a domain and its associated practices.

The process of reification is both one of the most powerful aspects of a communities meaning making, and also one of the most dangerous processes for the corruption of knowledge. Reification is the taking of a practice and its associated ideas and attaching them to a word or phrase that through a process of negotiation by the community. This then carries with it meaning beyond that which the simple word or words convey. For example, the term key grip in the film industry is someone who we see rolling across the credits at the end of movies. To even begin to understand what this person does I had to visit a website as I am not a part of the film community, let alone the community of grips! However, even though I now have some understanding of what the term means I don’t really have a clue as to what this person does in their practice and probably never will unless I join the film making community. This is where the danger lies as words and phrases are used out of context of the community that negotiated their meaning and this can be left behind as the reifications travel from community to community continually subject to a new negotiation of meaning. Yet without this process of reification it is impossible for communities to effectively discuss their practice as reifications are an invaluable shortcut to the collective community history and previous negotiations of meaning that they represent.

Trajectory managers
I asked Etienne about the tension between an individual’s motivation to do something and their being told to do something as one might experience in a school setting in terms of empowerment of individuals to make choices. The answer that came back was framed around the notion of a ‘trajectory manager’ who is someone tasked to help individuals make decisions by helping them to understand the consequences of their choices. This is more than a facilitator of learning in that there is a notion of the need for outside intervention to enable us to grasp the information we require to make informed decisions. Empowerment is more than the ability to chose course x rather than y, but requires us to understand the implications of choices through social interaction with our trajectory manager.


7 thoughts on “Communities of Practice

  1. Richard Millwood

    “Empowerment is more than the ability to chose course x rather than y, but requires us to understand the implications of choices through social interaction with our ‘trajectory manager’.” – Surely we need to know how one becomes such an esteemed individual, what progression (in-between states of becoming) there is to that status and whether we ever become confident enough to make life choices without them if we don attain that!? I suppose I like the critical friendship, but not the dependency this implies.

  2. Stephen Powell

    My notes maybe don’t make this clear, the response from Etienne was in a school context. So replace teacher with trajectory manager. Is it ever a good idea to make choices in a vacuum, personally think not. That’s why I like the idea that we are fundamentally social creatures and that all interpretations of the world are made in this paradigm.
    “Life coach”, good example Eve. I think as it is a term I could have used in the above notes but actually don’t really have a clue what one is or does!

  3. Stephen Powell

    Agreed, the trajectory manager does not need to be in a hierarchical relationship. Nor does the person have to remain the same or be one person even, although I suspect some continuity helps.

    However, I would argue that there is the need for the ‘hierarchy’ in an organisation/community to cultivate the conditions that make it possible for individuals to become trajectory managers. The giving of feedback to individuals so that they can make informed decisions with understood consequences isn’t an easy task. Unless the trajectory manager is well informed about relevant issues then helping someone to understand the choices they are making is very difficult.

    I suspect that is why this kind of role is often taken on by someone with experience who is likely to be in a position of power and authority. I am not saying this has to be the model, but would need convincing that taking the view that we can all fulfil the trajectory manager role is realistic in most organisations/communities without a lot of work to empower everyone to fulfil that role.

  4. Sarah Jones

    Maybe it’s me … but from what you’ve described how is a ‘trajectory manager’ different from a ‘workplace mentor’? Isn’t it just another name?

    As for life coach, my friend is one and she is called upon, usually when people are at a crossroads or in fact lost, in their life, careers etc. She helps to guide them along the path or even find the path that they want to tred.

  5. Stephen

    I am sure there is a lot of overlap between the role of a mentor and the role of a trajectory manager. I think, however, that the notion of trajectory is useful for several reasons. First is that it implies a dynamic process with changes in trajectory in response to changing circumstances. It is also a wider role than workplace mentor and may include some of the life coaching you describe.
    I agree though that there aren’t many new ideas out there and much of it is around subtle nuances or simply a different way of explaining things. I also suspect I haven’t dome justice to Etienne’s ideas:^)


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