Good CoPs, Bad CoPs

On his excellent blog, Mohamed Amine Chatti asks ‘Are Communities of Practice Dead?’ I would suggest, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that death in this case may have been greatly exaggerated.

I think a key issue here is that the concept of Communities of Practice (CoPs) has become so widely adapted and translated – particularly within the Knowledge Management (KM) field – that in a sense, the term has become almost meaningless. It is equally important to re-emphasise Etienne Wenger’s early ideas (especially those developed from his original work with anthropologist Jean Lave) which appear to have been either lost or re-imagined in some discourses.

For an excellent account of the ambiguity in CoPs literature read Kimble (2006). Of course, as Kimble acknowledges, theoretical models naturally evolve, and systematic approaches help formulate empirical study and practice; a process in which Wenger himself has been most active as a consultant, of sorts. But for Kimble, this has been “not a linear progression but a dislocation” (p.230). Some interpretations have seemingly disregarded the original complexities and tensions between practice, participation and membership, to present overtly positive and consensual views of organisational CoPs. Citing Mutch (2003), Kimble argues that whilst “we can use familiar concepts in new ways, or take concepts from one context to another and play with them” we must also “pay careful attention to our sources, making sure that we give due care to the consequences that the use of a concept brings with it” (p.231).

Perhaps Mohamed’s reading of CoPs literature has been largely limited to the KM field, as his claim that “CoPs are organised from the top down” would seem to conflict with many of its original principles. Wenger (1998) stresses that CoPs develop naturally through emergent, bottom up processes, coordinated by the community members themselves. What he has increasingly developed over time is the idea that CoPs can be guided or nurtured in some way by one or several significant individuals, which has become manifest in the notion of stewardship.

Mohamed eloquently describes how social media and open resources have brought about a fundamental shift in how many of us increasingly configure and articulate the way we study and work. This shift from community-based structures to a more open and distributed networked individualism has been well documented in the wider socio-technical field by people like Manuel Castells and Barry Wellman. To me, as a PhD student who is currently engaged in negotiating a workable model for analysis, how we conceptualise this shift is a fundamental methodological challenge, and one that I believe lies at the heart of how we should be studying current Web-based learning.

Despite the attraction of personalised and self-directed approaches to learning, we cannot deny our natural inclination to actively form, participate in, and seek recognition in communities. To take a predominantly network-based approach (such as Siemen’s connectivism) runs the risk of recognising such formations purely as clusters or hubs, and such approaches frequently seem to confuse groups – which may be highly structured and institutionalised – with communities. Perhaps Dave Cormier’s upcoming book chapter suggests a way forward in the network vs. community debate.

My gut feeling is that concepts like CoPs and Activity Theory (CHAT) are effective in ‘humanising’ social structures, emphasising the inherent link between practice and identity formation, whilst recognising forms of technological reification and power relations. A key problem seems to be that models such as these are limited by the fact they were initially formalised around the study of essentially ‘bounded’ domains (Mohamed himself highlights this in a discussion on CHAT in an earlier post). Wenger has always asserted the concept of multi-membership – indeed in his latest book, Digital Habitats (co-authored with Nancy White and John D Smith), the notion of ‘extreme multi-membership’ is introduced. Engestrom has been developing his concept of ‘knotworking’ to extend his well-used Activity Systems model, whist Actor Network Theory (ANT) offers further possibilities.

My quest goes on…


Kimble, C. (2006). Communities of Practice: Never Knowingly Undersold. E. Tomadaki & P. Scott (Eds.), Innovative Approaches for Learning and Knowledge Sharing, EC-TEL 2006 Workshops Proceedings. 218-234.

Mutch, A. (2003). Communities of Practice and Habitus: A Critique. Organization Studies, 24(3), 383-401.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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6 Responses to “Good CoPs, Bad CoPs”

  1. dave cormier Says:

    Communities of Practice exist as they always have… it is a description of what happens, not a new strategy for accomplishing knowledge actions.

    I’m not sure my publisher will be encouraged if he ever finds your reference to my ‘blog post’ where i specifically included TWO references to the fact that it was an excerpt from a book. The reference is at the top of the post 🙂

    up to you… but i’m trying to encourage paper people that me republishing my work online will extend the reach of their publications.

  2. Andy Coverdale Says:

    No problem – changed. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Nancy White Says:

    Andy, I’m glad we bumped into each other in cyberspace because I’m enjoying reading your blog. Nice response to Chatti’s blog post.

    This is an old story but one we need to keep retelling as context changes. Thanks

  4. virginia Yonkers Says:

    I have three recommended readings for you to answer some of the issues you bring up. The first is by Contu and Willmont (2003), Re-embedding situatedness: The importance of power relations in learning theory, Organization Science, vol. 14, 3. P. 283-296 (they are both British). They bring up the fact that many have lost the original point of communities and situated learning that Lave and Wenger laid out in their initial research. They focus on the power relations that affect organizational learning. I think this is one aspect that is missing in connectivism and overlooked by many in defining “networks” as opposed to “communities”. The deeper a relationship or affiliation to a group, the more power relations play in interaction within the group and the more a group may be considered a community which may have practices.

    Related to this is France Henri 1, Béatrice Pudelko 1 (2003)Understanding and analysing activity and learning in virtual communities, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 19 (2003) 474-487 In this article, Henri and Pudelko identify 4 different types of virtual communities and the different needs and level of “community” due to the differences in goals. This framework fits both formal and informal learning, short term and long term communities.

    Finally, you might want to look at social identity theory. Many of the ideas you spoke of fits Skitka’s model of social identity theory. In this article she explains how an individual moves between personal, group, and community values depending on the situation. Skitka, L. (2003). Of different minds: An accessible identity model of justice reasoning. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7(4), 286-297.

    I also have not had a chance to read an article, but I think it fits into what you are discussing. It discusses ways in which knowledge is created in groups and communities of practice. Boland, R. & Ramkirishnan, V. (1995). Perceptive making and perspective taking in communities of knowing. Organization Science. Vol. 6 (4), July/Aug. p. 350.

  5. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks Virginia. I already have the Henri and Pudelko paper and you recommended Skitka’s work on a previous occasion (which presents an interesting approach to understanding identity formation). The other two are new to me and I will check them out.

  6. Good CoPs, Bad CoPs | blogging4education Says:

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