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Communities of Practice

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Prominent academic and social learning theory expert Professor Etienne Wenger was the Distinguished Speaker for the Tote Board Social Capital Lecture Series held on 5 March 2015 at the Social Service Institute. He shared on the concept of communities of practice (CoP), and their application to organisations in the non-profit sector. Prof Wenger has vast experience in this field, authoring seminal articles and books on the topic, and actually coining the term “community of practice”. 

What is the concept of CoP?

In a CoP learning model, people learn from each other in real time, in social contexts, and among other people who can act as learning partners. Meaning drives the learning, instead of the learning leading to knowledge that may or may not have some meaning later on. This is markedly different from the traditional way of learning, most commonly associated with a formal classroom or training centre. This horizontal approach sees colleagues coming together to share and discuss their experiences, as opposed to a vertical approach with experts and superiors taking charge of teaching.

These CoPs, Prof Wenger explained, are as ancient as humankind itself. It was only given a name in the 1980s, when academics in the US got together to rethink learning and education. “People have been forming such communities ever since humans lived in caves sitting around a fire, scratching their heads and asking ‘Why did this bear escape? What should we do differently next time?’” Prof Wenger humourously illustrated. 

More modern examples of CoPs can also be found in global organisations such as the World Bank, which have communities that deal with water and sanitation issues, among others. This is a sea change for the World Bank, which has traditionally favoured a top down approach. In the non-profit sector, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is trying to build communities among grantees to find out how to use the model to multiply the effects of funding across projects.

Throughout the lecture, the audience eyes lit up as they realised that without knowing it, many of their organisations have been using CoPs for learning, and in fact, some of them were actually leading one! For example, one attendee led a group involving a doctor and a nun to discuss how to use art to treat patients, while another is part of a community of non-profit leaders from different realms which seeks to influence policy makers. Many shared their experiences and sought Prof Wenger’s advice on how they could improve their CoPs.

Prof Wenger highlighted that he merely gave the model a name and developed an explicit language for its use, hoping to help organisations become more intentional in utilising and learning knowledge gained from CoPs. Prof Wenger also warned that not all communities succeed. Group social dynamics, differences in culture and lack of leadership can all break down the efficacy of CoP.  It takes a lot of effort to make a CoP work, and many people in these communities do precious work to enable their organisations to function well, while largely being invisible contributors. Prof Wenger hopes that through his work, due recognition can be given to them.

“If, with my little life, I’ve created a language that allows these people to be recognised for what they do, I think I can die happy,” Prof Wenger concluded the lecture with a smile.