Communities of Practice & Related Boundaries: Part 1 of 4

This post sets the theoretical background of communities of practice necessary to understand in order to really engage the dynamics of communities and their related boundaries. Part 2 will discuss empirical studies developed in formalized learning settings. Parts 3 and 4 will discuss the theory and subsequently empirical studies in different disciplines of boundaries and boundary objects. These posts are draft writing snippets of a systems thesis for adult education I am developing in my doctoral work.

Communities of Practice: Understanding the Theory

Identities within communities of practice are crucial to how one engages and transforms personal learning experience through communication that involves critical thinking and reflection. A strong trend seen throughout many of the articles studying communities of practice is the awareness and necessity of identity for participants within the community. Wenger (2000) explains that the need for identity within any social learning system is because of the following three reasons (p. 239).

“First, our identities combine competence and experience into a way of knowing … deciding what matters and what does not … Second, our ability to deal productively with boundaries depends on our ability to engage and suspend our identities … Third, our identities are the living vessels in which communities and boundaries become realized as an experience of the world.”

Self-awareness for personal identity within a community of practice is the driving force for a healthy community that is sustainable. Wenger (2000) explains that the measurability of identity lies within the ability to socially connect and have a mode of belonging. Another method to measure a healthy identity is through one’s ability to cross boundaries and not simply rely on the single community. A final measurability is one’s effectiveness as Wenger states “a healthy identity is socially empowering rather than marginalizing” (p. 240).

The concept of identity is not merely a concept, but a representation of a person’s experience and subsequent belonging within a community. Wenger (2000) notes three modes of belonging in any social learning system, which includes engagement, imagination, and alignment (p. 227). Engagement is understood as collaboration and imagination is essentially the personal position within the system perceived; something of which is critical to continual growth within a community of practice. Alignment is simply ensuring that the interests of all the participants have meaningful connection or attainable goals of mastery concerning a specific field. A process of developing mastery goals promotes motivation and collaboration, resulting in a sustainably community. Communities of practice are a specific social learning system that balances modes of belonging efficiently.

Although communities of practice can deteriorate into cults and witch hunts, they are also the essential core of social learning systems because they represent very honed competencies (Wenger, 2002). Competency in this context is a combination of joint enterprise, mutual norms and relationships, and shared repertoire of resources (Wenger, 1998). It is the emergence from competence and experience that develops the effective collaboration. However, in order to avoid deterioration of before-mentioned cults and witch hunts, measured progress is necessary. As such, Wenger articulates progress expectations within each element of competency below (2000, p. 230).

  • Joint enterprise: the level of learning energy.
  • Mutual norms and relationships: the depth of social capital.
  • Shared repertoire of resources: the degree of self-awareness.

Growth towards these competencies requires more than just simply organizational skills, but also connecting people effectively that address specific needs. While enough membership is necessary for forward motion, too many members can involve identity loss following by position insecurity. It is the confidence of strong identities and position within the community of practice that allow critical collaboration directed towards a specific expectancy. Learning goals are essential to promote commitment and knowledge exploration. Having incremental goals towards mastery provides a better sense of motivation and purpose. Finally, competency growth also relies on the production of tangible artifacts that can include everything from static resources to tools to stories (Wenger, 2000).

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.