The following is the first of a series of short articles I plan to write about Communities of Practice sparked off by reading Etienne Wenger’s book: Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1998. There are many very stimulating ideas in the book that I suspect could readily help people understand a lot about learning and about communiites and about practice if they could be put in a short, accessible form.
Communities of practice have boundaries that are defined by the practices of the community. For example, the way a particular job is done by members of the community singles them out from other people or their shared understanding of certain terms distinguishes them from people not in the community. When new people seek to join the community they have to progressively learn these distinctions. Boundaries of communities can also be marked out by artefacts created by the community as part of defining their practice. Such artefacts include things like texts about their activities, but they could also be a flag or a mark on the wall that has special significance to members.
The periphery of a community of practice is situated at the limit where a community is in contact with the world around and with other communities of practice. Unlike boundaries, which define limits, peripheries are places of contact and exchange. In terms of learning, peripheries are rich places. In the contact with the world around and with other communities, new practices are born and with it the community and its members learn. It is at the periphery that most innovation begins. Some people are naturally good at bridging the space between communities. These key people, with one foot in and one foot outside, need to maintain a delicate balance between belonging and not belonging especially if their community of practice lies partly or wholly within an institution. Those who succeed greatly favour the learning of communities and the development of new practices.
Institutions also have boundaries, which are often formal and rigid, but these boundaries do not necessarily correspond to those of communities of practice. There are often overlaps. There are also boundaries within institutions due to communities of practice that are not reflected by institutional structures. In the management of change in institutions, much harm is done by the failure to recognise the importance of the boundaries of communities of practice and more importantly the work that takes place at peripheries of such communities and its contribution to learning and innovation. For example, two teams work in the same office space on different but related projects. The two leaders of the teams have worked together in the past. Their informal exchanges bring added sense and meaning to the work of their separate teams and enhance the outcomes for the institution and provide satisfaction and motivation for participants. However, the teams belong to different units. So when reorganisation is discussed and it is suggested it would be more rational to have all members of each unit together, the two teams are separated on different floors of the building. The proximity that made peripheral learning so easy is done away with and the richness lost in the name of a change that only considers institutional boundaries.
Managers and change
Managers often fail to understand the role of those people who work at the periphery of communities of practice. Managers see them as threats or as undermining the institution because such people are not entirely anchored in the institution. Managers often reproach such people with failing loyalty, with putting their energy elsewhere. They do not realise how valuable such a role is to innovation and learning in the institution and to the good relations between the institution and other institutions.
If managers were more aware of the existence of communities of practice and of their role in producing learning, in sparking innovation, in developing ways of working, in creating coherence, in favouring communication, in maintaining motivation and in raising job satisfaction, we might limit much of the damage done by a purely institutional approach to management that thinks change in terms of institutional boundaries expressed as institutional units and hierarchies as privileged channels of communication.