Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Are Communities of Practice Dead?

Communities of Practice from Multi Media Vision on Vimeo.

I found this video of an interview with Etienne Wenger talking about Communities of Practice (CoPs) in organizations (thanks to Joitske Hulsebosch).

Over the last years, I've been following research in KM and TEL around CoPs. CoPs have been widely suggested as a possible way to implement the people-driven approach to KM and deal with tacit knowledge (especially between 1998 and 2004). However, I still did not come across a study that reflects a successful application of the CoP concept (I would appreciate if someone could point me to such a study). I guess the reason is that most of the CoPs are dead before people start evaluating them. Actually, the studies that I found, including this one by Richard McDermott, who co-authored the book "Cultivating Communities of Practice" together with Etienne Wenger and Bill Snyder, show that something must be wrong with CoPs and that we do need a rethinking of this concept.

In my eyes, the concept of CoP has no future. This is mainly due to the fact that CoPs are organized from the top down and thus can only work in a stable and controlled environment. CoPs cannot work within today's increasingly complex and fast-changing knowledge/learning environments. As with complex adaptive systems, self-organization and emergence should be the solution. Over the past couple of years, with the democratization of the tools of production and distribution on the Web, there is a clear shift from CoPs to networked individualism. It becomes everyday obvious that closed, bounded, structured, and hierarchical CoPs are facing slow death, giving place to open, distributed, diverse, and self-organized knowledge ecologies, that emerge naturally from the bottom-up connections of personal knowledge networks (PKN). Facebook and Twitter are good examples of this inevitable shift.

Wenger would say CoPs are everywhere and we are living at the intersection of many of them. I would say I disagree. We are not merely members of CoPs nor are we living at the intersection of many of them. Each of us is rather at the center of his or her very own PKN.

I've read about the new role of "community manager", which is supposed to be widely adopted by organizations in the coming years. In my opinion, the only thing that a "community manager" can achieve is to manage his or her PKN and, even then, only imperfectly. "Communities" or the open version of the same; i.e. networks can never be managed. Organizations do not need a "community manager", what they do actually need is to provide an open and freeform environment, conducive to networking at both external and internal/conceptual levels. That is, an environment where people can freely make connections, see patterns, reflect, (self)-criticize, detect/correct errors, inquire, and test, and thus build, extend, and restructure their PKNs.

Are CoPs really dead? I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on this.


Joitske said...

Hi Mohamed, thanks for linking to me, which is how I found your blog..

I don't think communities are dead. Due to social media the form and shaping of communities may be changing. It may be easier to lurk in more communities at the same time.. or to leave communities.

Andy Coverdale said...

Thanks for another interesting post. I have replied to this at some length on my blog:

Nancy White said...

I point to a CoP that continues to give me great value, to which I contribute and which resists cooption and top down control.

I live in a number of CoPs that are central to both my learning and my livihood. None of them are within a corporation. None of them are defined by or limited to a technological platform.

Their forms are diverse, from bounded/closed and closely defined to very distributed, networked and almost impossible to point to in a succinct matter.

But in the end, to me, they are alive and well and MATTER!

I guess it all depends on where you sit, what you see.

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Amine Chatti said...

Andy, thanks for your nice discussion. Unfortunately, I didn't come across your great blog before. I really enjoyed reading it ...

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Amine Chatti said...


I'm a fan of your great blog and work and I learned much from you. Thanks!

to answer your comment, I'll start with your last sentence "it all depends on where you sit, what you see". That's exactly the point. It's all about YOU. You're not at the intersection of different CoPs, but at the center of your PKN. You're not a member in CoPs, but selected learners/knowledge workers are nodes in your PKN. As a learner/knowledge worker, what you're doing all the time is not to contribute to the practices of CoPs as a member, but to try to sustain and widen the circle of your PKN to embrace new knowledge nodes that you believe can help you learn/work. Your PKN, and not the CoP, is your knowledge home. Many CoPs die mainly because they are none's priority. PKNs persist because it's everyone's highest priority to hold and sustain her knowledge home.

If you can point to a CoP with a url (ala ), then this confirms my claim that CoPs are closed, structured, and bounded. If you refer to a CoP as a distributed network, than it's not a CoP anymore, for such a network lacks the elements characterizing a CoP as defined by Wenger, namely mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire. Unlike CoPs, today's learning/work environments are heterogeneous and distributive. They are not organized around a shared practice and do not produce a shared lore.