What is a Community of Practice?

Mary McMahon

A community of practice is a group of individuals who cooperate together to share knowledge and experiences. Members learn through their interactions with other members and develop new skills and abilities as a result. Belonging to a community of practice can enrich the way people interact with the world in addition to improving professional skills. Many people belong to numerous communities of practice and interact with them to varying degrees.

A community of practice may use online social networking to share experiences.
A community of practice may use online social networking to share experiences.

There are three facets to a community of practice, identified by researchers Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in a series of studies in the 1990s. The first is a domain, an area of common interest, skill, or training. The second is a community, a group of individuals who engage in interactions with each other on the basis of their shared domain. Finally, there must be a practice, or something productive that arises from the community, such as learning among the members.

Some groups are highly organized, while others are more informal. Humans have been cooperating with each other to achieve common goals for thousands of years. While the term “community of practice” is relatively new, the underlying concept is not. Studying the way groups of people with similar interests, skills, and experiences interact can provide valuable information about how people learn, work with others, and develop skills that can help them navigate the world more successfully. Belonging to such communities has value for the members, even people who are primarily on the periphery.

The rise of the Internet has created many venues for people with a common domain to connect with each other and create communities. These vary from closed bulletin boards to social networking sites. Shared experiences online can be used for everything from professional advancement to improved ability to navigate video games. Researchers who examine online communities note that cooperating on tasks tends to increase the feeling of connection and community between the members.

A community of practice does not need to be based online. Groups of people can meet in a variety of settings for both formal and informal exchanges of knowledge. Some workplaces actively encourage and facilitate the formation of employee groups to pool skills and resources, because such groups tend to benefit both the company and the employees. Companies that promote employee innovation and invention tend to experience better employee retention in addition to being able to use the ideas developed by employee groups to create new products and services.

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