Communities of Practice & Related Boundaries: Part 3 of 4

This post sets the tone of current practice within academics for how boundaries interact with communities of practice. Part 4 will discuss  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.

Boundaries: Understanding the Theory

Just as communities of practice can deteriorate, boundaries suggest a limitation that growth minded individuals wish to avoid. However, Wenger (2000) demonstrates the value of boundaries by stating “shared practice by its very nature creates boundaries” (p. 232). Organizational boundaries are very clear as they are created by the organization, but communities of practice experience a much more fluid boundary as members of the same interest likely comes from different organizations, industries, communication styles, self-awareness, and abilities. Wenger explains the value of boundaries being the link between various communities, providing new learning to a variety of dimensions. It is the tension between the competence and experience that causes the emerging collaboration that also maximizes learning at the boundaries. Wenger explains the way that communities and boundaries impact learning within systems (2000, p. 233).

“Communities of practice can steward a critical competence, but can also become hostage to their history … oriented to their own focus … boundaries can create divisions and be a source of separation … yet, they can also be areas of unusual learning, places where perspectives meet and new possibilities arise.”

As Wenger (2000) presented how to articulate measured progress expectations for communities of practice so that deterioration does not occur, he also presents how to assess boundary impact. Coordination is an important dimension to be assessed, which means practices that can be shared across boundaries should have enough standardization for cross-community members to apply those practices to their own community without also providing unnecessary and distracting details that do not apply across the boundaries. Transparency is another assessable dimension, which is ensuring the meaning of the practice is also understood clearly in higher taxonomies of cognitive function, such as analysis and evaluation. The last major dimension to assess is negotiability for perspectives, such as one-way or two-way connections. The ability to have voices across various communities is the power of boundaries bridging communities (Wenger, 2000, p. 234).

There three major types of bridges across boundaries, which include brokers, artifacts otherwise known as the boundary objects themselves, and interactions that occur across different communities and their participants (Wenger, 2000). Brokers are individuals that apply practices from one community into another and can occur in different modes, such as a focused boundary or sharing knowledge across a single relationship between individuals in differing communities. Another way to bridge boundaries through brokering services is to serve as a butterfly, flitting across boundaries and sharing knowledge in the process, or to serve as a bee, buzzing news into different communities. Boundary objects can be valuable for more than one community of practice, servings as artifacts, common language, and shared processes (Wenger, 2000, p. 236). The last major bridge is the boundary interactions that can be in the form of directed collaborate concerning a practice otherwise known as an encounter according to Wenger (2000). He also explains boundary interactions as a specific practice due to sustainability of the boundary. The connection process between two communities that requires consistent collaboration in order to be effective turns the boundary between those two communities into its own practice. Finally, the last boundary interaction involves introducing individuals outside of the communities of practice, understood as peripheries.

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.