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What is a Community of Practice?

Have you ever heard of the term Community of Practice (CoP)? Do you know what it is? In truth, most of you reading this will probably never have heard of it! It may seem like a completely new phenomenon but in truth, the term has been around for many years now. It was first introduced by Lave and Wenger in 1991 in their book “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation” when they studied apprenticeship as a learning model. They defined a community of practice as a group of people who share a common concern or passion and learn how to do it better through regular interaction. The members of a community of practice are practitioners in their field and through physical or online interaction, they share best practices, experiences, stories, tools, etc. that help them to perform the practice better.

There are many definitions out there which you can find to describe communities of practice, each varying and focusing on a different element of the community. There are a number of different types of communities of practice along with other communities which bare many similarities to communities of practice and these include: communities of interest, communities of place, professional learning communities, knowledge-building communities, and communities of competence, network communities and many more. But what is the difference between each of these communities and a community of practice? What makes a community of practice just that? How does one define it? This is a process which we are currently undertaking as we look to gather as many definitions as possible from the literature and through the process of thematic analysis, we will identify the key terms and phrases in the literature to form a broad definition of communities of practice which can be applied to all communities of practice across any sector, industry or region.

The three main characteristics of any community of practice include: Domain, Community and Practice. The development of a community of practice characteristic matrix will further define the characteristics which are unique to every community of practice, expanding on the three mentioned above. To support this matrix, we will map three or four local communities against it and decide whether or not they are a community of practice. They may look like one from the outside but following further analysis and evaluation of it, does it actually act as a community of practice and have the characteristics of one? This will be carried out through a process involving quantitative research (i.e. survey) and qualitative research (i.e. semi-structured interviews, observational studies and focus groups).

On completion we will have established a broad definition of communities of practice, characteristics which are unique to all communities of practice no matter what sector, industry or region they belong too and we will have evaluated a number of communities of practice to determine if they are just that. We will look to disseminate the results of this case study to either the CSCW or the ECSCW conferences next year.