Evolution of Wenger's concept of community of practice

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DOI: 10.1186/1748-5908-4-11 · Source: PubMed
Abstract
In the experience of health professionals, it appears that interacting with peers in the workplace fosters learning and information sharing. Informal groups and networks present good opportunities for information exchange. Communities of practice (CoPs), which have been described by Wenger and others as a type of informal learning organization, have received increasing attention in the health care sector; however, the lack of uniform operating definitions of CoPs has resulted in considerable variation in the structure and function of these groups, making it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. To critique the evolution of the CoP concept as based on the germinal work by Wenger and colleagues published between 1991 and 2002. CoP was originally developed to provide a template for examining the learning that happens among practitioners in a social environment, but over the years there have been important divergences in the focus of the concept. Lave and Wenger's earliest publication (1991) centred on the interactions between novices and experts, and the process by which newcomers create a professional identity. In the 1998 book, the focus had shifted to personal growth and the trajectory of individuals' participation within a group (i.e., peripheral versus core participation). The focus then changed again in 2002 when CoP was applied as a managerial tool for improving an organization's competitiveness. The different interpretations of CoP make it challenging to apply the concept or to take full advantage of the benefits that CoP groups may offer. The tension between satisfying individuals' needs for personal growth and empowerment versus an organization's bottom line is perhaps the most contentious of the issues that make CoPs difficult to cultivate. Since CoP is still an evolving concept, we recommend focusing on optimizing specific characteristics of the concept, such as support for members interacting with each other, sharing knowledge, and building a sense of belonging within networks/teams/groups. Interventions that facilitate relationship building among members and that promote knowledge exchange may be useful for optimizing the function of these groups.
BioMed Central
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Implementation Science
Open Access
Debate
Evolution of Wenger's concept of community of practice
LindaCLi*
1
, Jeremy M Grimshaw
2
, Camilla Nielsen
3
, Maria Judd
4
,
Peter C Coyte
5
and Ian D Graham
6
Address:
1
Department of Physical Therapy, University of British Columbia, Arthritis Research Centre of Canada, Vancouver, Canada,
2
Ottawa
Health Research Institute, Clinical Epidemiology Program, Centre for Best Practice, Institute of Population Health, University of Ottawa, Ottawa,
Canada,
3
Centre for Health Technology Assessment, National Board of Health, Copenhagen, Denmark,
4
Canadian Health Services Research
Foundation, Ottawa, Canada,
5
Department of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto,
Canada and
6
Canadian Institutes of Health Research; School of Nursing, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada
Email: Linda C Li* - lli@arthritisresearch.ca; Jeremy M Grimshaw - jgrimshaw@ohri.ca; Camilla Nielsen - cpn@ifs.ku.dk;
Maria Judd - maria.judd@chsrf.ca; Peter C Coyte - peter.coyte@utoronto.ca; Ian D Graham - Ian.Graham@cihr.gc.ca
* Corresponding author
Abstract
Background: In the experience of health professionals, it appears that interacting with peers in
the workplace fosters learning and information sharing. Informal groups and networks present
good opportunities for information exchange. Communities of practice (CoPs), which have been
described by Wenger and others as a type of informal learning organization, have received
increasing attention in the health care sector; however, the lack of uniform operating definitions of
CoPs has resulted in considerable variation in the structure and function of these groups, making
it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness.
Objective: To critique the evolution of the CoP concept as based on the germinal work by
Wenger and colleagues published between 1991 and 2002.
Discussion: CoP was originally developed to provide a template for examining the learning that
happens among practitioners in a social environment, but over the years there have been important
divergences in the focus of the concept. Lave and Wenger's earliest publication (1991) centred on
the interactions between novices and experts, and the process by which newcomers create a
professional identity. In the 1998 book, the focus had shifted to personal growth and the trajectory
of individuals' participation within a group (i.e., peripheral versus core participation). The focus then
changed again in 2002 when CoP was applied as a managerial tool for improving an organization's
competitiveness.
Summary: The different interpretations of CoP make it challenging to apply the concept or to
take full advantage of the benefits that CoP groups may offer. The tension between satisfying
individuals' needs for personal growth and empowerment versus an organization's bottom line is
perhaps the most contentious of the issues that make CoPs difficult to cultivate. Since CoP is still
an evolving concept, we recommend focusing on optimizing specific characteristics of the concept,
such as support for members interacting with each other, sharing knowledge, and building a sense
of belonging within networks/teams/groups. Interventions that facilitate relationship building among
members and that promote knowledge exchange may be useful for optimizing the function of these
groups.
Published: 1 March 2009
Implementation Science 2009, 4:11 doi:10.1186/1748-5908-4-11
Received: 4 April 2008
Accepted: 1 March 2009
This article is available from: http://www.implementationscience.com/content/4/1/11
© 2009 Li et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0
),
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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Introduction
A major challenge to integrating evidence into practice is
that it involves a complex process of acquiring and con-
verting both explicit and tacit knowledge into clinical
activities. Explicit knowledge is codified information such
as peer-reviewed articles, rules, and guidelines, which can
be readily shared among people. However, to apply this
knowledge in practice, practitioners must make sense of
the concrete information in the context in which it is used.
This process of establishing meaning can be facilitated by
discussions with colleagues and mentors or by observing
how others apply the knowledge and then try it them-
selves [1-4]. As a result, we see a growing number of infor-
mal groups and networks that create opportunities for
knowledge exchange. Communities of practice[5,6]
(CoPs) (the concept itself is referred to as 'community of
practice'), which have been described as a type of informal
learning organization, are gaining popularity in the health
sector [7-10]. A recent (October 2008) Google search on
the exact phrase Health 'Communities of Practice' yielded
over 213,000 hits.
CoPs have been used in the education and business sec-
tors for over 20 years[5], but their use in the health care
field has been limited and their structures are generally
inconsistent. Some of these groups resemble informal net-
works, where the goal and structure of the group tend to
be loosely defined[5], and others are similar to support
groups, where the main goal is to enhance self-effi-
cacy[11]. Some researchers even argue that a CoP is anal-
ogous to a well-run network[12] or a multidisciplinary
team[13]. The lack of consistency in the interpretation of
the CoP concept makes it difficult to describe, develop,
and measure the effectiveness of a CoP. In this paper, we
discuss CoPs in the context of learning communities. We
trace and explain the evolution of Wenger's CoP concept
and illustrate the challenges of applying the concept given
the divergences of its central focus. Our goal is to indentify
promising directions to advance the use of the CoP con-
cept in the health care setting.
Methods
This work was conducted within a large research synthesis
project that aimed to examine how CoPs were defined and
used in the business and health sectors, and to evaluate
evidence for the effectiveness of CoPs in the health sector
in improving the uptake of best practices. The methodol-
ogy and findings of the research synthesis are reported
elsewhere[14] and are summarised in Table 1. The current
paper focuses on the authors' interpretations of Wenger's
germinal work and recommendations for future research
to advance the understanding and use of the CoP concept.
We first came across Wenger's work when one of the
authors (LL) searched the literature on knowledge transla-
tion and implementation and found an article in Harvard
Table 1: Description of communities of practice research synthesis project
Objectives: • To examine how CoPs were defined and used in the business and health sectors.
• To evaluate the evidence of CoPs in the health sector.
Search strategy: • We searched the literature published between 1991 and 2005.
• Database search: Medline, EMBASE, CINAHL, HealthSTAR, ERIC, ECONLIT, AMED, and ProQuest.
• Hand-searched Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, Medical Education, and Harvard Business Review.
Eligibility criteria • Primary studies that involved groups, teams, or learning environments that were either labelled as CoPs or were developed
using CoP and/or other related concepts (e.g., situated learning, legitimate peripheral learning) as the guiding framework.
Synthesis approach: • Meta-narrative approach
The research synthesis focused on:
The authors' interpretations of the CoP concept.
The key characteristics of CoP groups.
The common elements of CoP groups.
• Meta-analysis to assess the effectiveness of CoPs in the health sector.
Search results: • 1421 articles were obtained; of those, we found 13 primary studies from the health sector and 18 from the business sector.
Key findings: • The structure of CoP groups varied greatly, ranging from voluntary informal networks to work-supported formal education
sessions, and from apprentice training to multidisciplinary, multi-site project teams.
• Four characteristics were identified from CoP groups:
CoP members interact with each other in formal and informal settings.
CoP members share knowledge with each other.
CoP members collaborate with each other to create new knowledge.
CoP groups foster the development of a shared-identity among members.
• These characteristics, however, were not consistently present in all CoPs.
• There was a lack of clarity in the responsibilities of CoP facilitators and how power dynamics should be handled within a
CoP group.
• We were unable to identify any studies that used experimental, quasi-experimental, or observational designs, and
evaluated
CoPs for improving health professional performance, health care organizational performance, professional mentoring, and
patient outcome. Therefore, it was not possible to conduct a meta-analysis.
*CoPs = Communities of practice
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Business Review that described the use of CoP as a tool that
could improve an organization's capacity to develop and
share new knowledge[15]. Intrigued by the concept of
CoP, we subsequently studied Wenger's major publica-
tions:
• Lave and Wenger (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate
Peripheral Participation[16].
• Wenger (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Mean-
ing and Identity[17].
• Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002). Cultivating
Communities of Practice[5].
Discussion
Learning Communities and Communities of Practice
CoPs are considered to be a type of learning commu-
nity[5,16,17]. In order to understand the CoP concept we
must therefore first define 'community' and 'learning
community.' 'Community' generally describes groups of
people (e.g., a town, a school) connected by a common
interest and who define their identities by the roles they
play and the relationships they share in the group's activ-
ity[18]. A community can exist over time despite a change
of participants. It develops its own culture and communi-
cation methods as it matures[18].
Social learning theorists suggest that communities pro-
vide a foundation for sharing knowledge. It is believed
that individuals can learn by observing and modelling
other people. Bandura[19] emphasizes that observing
other people's behaviour allows for a safer and more effi-
cient way of acquiring complex behaviours or skills than
learning by trial and error. Social constructivists, such as
Cobb and colleagues[20,21], understand learning as an
individual's responsibility and the community is the
means by which people learn. Communities provide a
safe environment for individuals to engage in learning
through observation and interaction with experts and
through discussion with colleagues.
The term 'learning community' became popular among
educators in the 1990s [22]. Graves emphasized the
importance of social relationships between experts and
learners, and the new roles assumed by all players[22]. For
example, teachers were encouraged to step back from their
usual role of expert, and to act instead as facilitators and
co-participants who can display ignorance as well as
knowledge. The equalization of roles between teachers
and learners in a community often maximises the partici-
pation of everyone, but may also create a sense of discom-
fort and insecurity. Tension can arise among learners who
are expected to work collaboratively, but are often evalu-
ated individually, and thus competitively, on their per-
formance and their ability to master the knowledge
acquired. Some people may perceive these new roles as
risky and uncomfortable, which may subsequently lead to
less engagement. A learning community must therefore
develop a high level of trust among participants in order
to be functional[23].
Traditionally, members of a learning community reside in
the same location[22]. However, as groups migrate and
become less homogenous, configurations of 'group iden-
tity' based on geographic location become less appropri-
ate. Nowadays communities are linked less by location
and more by common interests and goals. Many new
learning communities have developed as technology
makes global communication increasingly easier and
faster. E-mail discussion lists and online information
management systems (e.g., the Blackboard [24]) have
become popular communication tools for synchronized
and asynchronized dialogues. Hence, virtual learning
communities are more fluid than traditional communi-
ties[25].
Simply labelling a group of people as a learning commu-
nity does not guarantee that it will function as one. A
number of situations can hinder relationship building
and the growth of communities. For example, tight bonds
between members can become exclusive and thus present
a major barrier to the integration of newcomers. Without
proper monitoring, this closeness can hinder the accept-
ance of external input and the development of external
collaborations[5]. A community can also become a clique
when relationships among members are so strong that
they overshadow all other concerns. There is also a risk of
group-thinking, which can constrain individual growth
and creativity if individual members are discouraged from
standing out in a community. Furthermore, failure to
accommodate change or variation can render a commu-
nity dysfunctional; a community can become dormant if
it fails to attract new members. All the above situations
can hinder exchanges of information and the develop-
ment of innovative ideas within the community. Finally,
in the case of a virtual learning community, issues regard-
ing privacy, user-friendliness of online technologies, and
the ability to access a computer can become fatal barriers
to an individual's ability to participate[25,26].
A strong learning community fosters interactions and rela-
tionships based on mutual respect and trust[6,15]. It cre-
ates a social structure for individuals to share ideas and
artefacts (e.g., stories, documents, recordings) that sup-
port community activities and help individuals make
sense of new knowledge. Newcomers in particular can
benefit from having access to the archived material in
addition to the experience of and mentoring from experts.
These conditions provide a rich environment for individ-
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uals to share information and ways to apply new knowl-
edge in practice.
Evolution of the Germinal Work on Community of Practice
The elements of a learning community formed the basis
for the development of the CoP concept in the early
1990s. Initially the concept aimed to provide a template
for examining the learning that occurs among practition-
ers in a social environment[16], but the focus of the con-
cept has diverged during subsequent years[27]. To
understand CoP and to appreciate its various interpreta-
tions, one needs to revisit the evolution of the concept.
We focus here on the major publications by Wenger et al.
and other relevant articles published around the same
period to explain the background of CoP.
Lave and Wenger (1991)
In their earliest work, Lave and Wenger suggested that
most of the learning for practitioners occurs in social rela-
tionships at the workplace rather than in a classroom set-
ting, a concept known as 'situated learning'[16]. The
central themes of this book are the interactions between
novices and experts, and the process by which newcomers
create a professional identity. To illustrate these themes,
Lave and Wenger used the example of how midwives,
meat cutters, and tailors learned their skills onsite in the
environment where these skills were used. Much of the
learning happened during informal gatherings where pro-
fessionals interacted with each other and shared stories
about their experience, and where novices consulted
openly with experts. Through this process, gaps in the
practice were identified and solutions were developed.
The informal interactions eventually became the means
for practitioners to improve practice and generate new
ways to address recurrent problems[16].
The similarities between Lave and Wenger's viewpoint
and the apprenticeship model of learning in the work-
place are obvious. The challenges discussed in this publi-
cation are similar to those experienced by members in a
learning community, including the tension and conflicts
between novices and experts. In this book, CoP is loosely
defined as people from the same discipline improving
their skills by working alongside experts and being
involved in increasingly complicated tasks. The journey
from being a newcomer to becoming an expert is captured
in the concept of 'legitimate peripheral learning,' in which
newcomers are given opportunities to learn by engaging
in simple tasks. Those who eventually master the skills
become experts and subsequently assume the responsibil-
ity of mentoring other newcomers. In this context, CoPs
can be viewed as a system for people to acquire and polish
existing skills rather than to create new ways to complete
a task[27].
A few issues were left unresolved in this work, however.
Although the hierarchy of power between experts and
novices is relatively clear, Lave and Wenger offered little
insight into the potential for conflicts among experts or
among novices[27]. Furthermore, although they stressed
that CoPs cannot be purposefully formed by organiza-
tions, apprenticeship programs and clinical placements
can be formally developed for mentoring new health pro-
fessionals and trainees. It is unclear whether these pro-
grams still fit within the concept of CoP.
The view of 'learning on the job' is supported by Brown
and Duguid's[28] 1991 publication, but in a slightly dif-
ferent way. They argued that all canonical (abstracted,
orthodox, managerial) accounts of work were inflexible,
impractical, and flawed, and that 'local understanding' of
a problem was required to solve a problem and complete
a task. As such, they used the CoP concept to describe how
workers engage in informal groups both at work and off
the job to share information and to develop new solutions
for job-related problems. The latter deviated from Lave
and Wenger's focus on existing skills, and moved on to the
creation of new knowledge.
Brown and Duguid also focused on the close relationships
among working, learning, and innovating for workers,
and stressed the importance of the social environment in
advancing practitioners' skills and knowledge in organiza-
tions. They encouraged interaction of workers across dif-
ferent communities within and outside of their own
organisation, a concept known as 'community-of-com-
munities' [28]. The underlying assumption of this work is
that everyone involved is viewed as equal. However, in
reality the dynamics among individuals are likely more
complex, especially when one community has power over
another (e.g., a manager community versus a technician
community in the same organization), or when they are
in direct competition. Furthermore, communities may
have different goals, cultures, and politics, all of which
may pose challenges for individuals who attempt to bal-
ance their participation across different communities[29].
Despite these issues, Brown and Duguid downplayed the
potential conflicts, and their interpretation of the CoP
concept might therefore have been overly optimistic.
Wenger (1998)
Wenger used situated learning as his building block to
expand the concept of the CoP in his 1998 book. He bor-
rowed theoretical aspects from education, sociology, and
social theory to refine the CoP concept, with a focus on
socialization and learning, and the individual's identity
development. His discussion was based on a case study of
how medical claims processing clerks interact with each
other and share information for doing routine office
work. Instead of expanding the concept based on the nov-
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ice-expert relationship, this book described CoP as an
entity bounded by three interrelated dimensions: mutual
engagement, joint enterprise, and a shared repertoire.
'Mutual engagement' represents the interaction between
individuals that leads to the creation of shared meaning
on issues or a problem. 'Joint enterprise' is the process in
which people are engaged and working together toward a
common goal. Finally, 'shared repertoire' refers to the
common resources and jargons that members use to nego-
tiate meaning and facilitate learning within the group. The
three dimensions attempt to outline the process of indi-
viduals' interactions within CoP groups, but it is not clear
what distinguishes them from other group structures. For
example, members of a multidisciplinary care team work
together to improve the health of their patients (i.e., joint
enterprise), communicate with each other about patient
care (i.e., mutual engagement), and develop ways and
resources to adapt practice guidelines in their work (i.e.,
shared repertoires). In this case, it would not be unreason-
able to argue that a multidisciplinary team that operates
on these three axes is a CoPs[30]. However, it is less clear
if the team is still a CoP if its internal communications are
less than frequent, if team members rarely socialise with
each other, and if half of the members do not use the
available resources to improve practice.
Wenger's 1998 publication contains his first discussion of
the importance of trajectories through different levels of
participation within a group, and the tension of individu-
als belonging to multiple groups that are collaborating or
competing, or have no relations with each other. In addi-
tion to the three dimensions, he also proposed 14 indica-
tors for detecting the presence of a CoP, although most of
them are rather abstract. These indicators are presented in
Table 2 with our interpretation of the representative
dimensions. Interestingly, most of these indicators focus
on 'mutual engagement' and 'shared repertoire,' and only
two (#2 and #7) appear to address the process of people
working toward a common goal (i.e., joint enterprise).
Attempts have been made to apply these indicators for the
purpose of measurement, but because no validated meas-
ure has been used, the results are difficult to interpret[31].
The 1998 work also raised controversies about the use of
the term 'community.' Contu and Willmott[32] pointed
out that members of a CoP usually come together to
address a problem or concern, but in reality not all com-
munities are developed with a purpose. In this sense, the
term 'community' could lead people to think that any
group structure can be regarded as a CoP, which was not
Wenger's intent. Overall, the depiction of the CoP in the
1998 publication is prone to a variety of interpretations
and is challenging to apply.
In the late 1990s, reports about groups labelled as 'com-
munities of practice' began to emerge in the literature. For
example, Orr's ethnographic study, Talking about Machine,
documented an example involving Xerox technicians who
discovered specific trends of machine malfunctions
through their frequent informal discussions and storytell-
ing[33]. They eventually invented new ways to service the
machines. Interestingly, instead of the term 'community
of practice' Orr used 'occupational community,' which
suggests a focus on the workers' ability to meet the com-
Table 2: Wenger's indicators for the presence of community of practice and the proposed domains
Wenger's indicators CoP domains
1. Sustained mutual relationships – harmonious or conflictual Mutual engagement
2. Shared ways of engaging in doing things together Mutual engagement
Joint enterprise
3. The rapid flow of information and propagation of innovation Mutual engagement
4. Absence of introductory preambles, as if conversations and interactions were merely the continuation of an ongoing
process
Mutual engagement
Shared repertoire
5. Very quick setup of a problem to be discussed Mutual engagement
Shared repertoire
6. Substantial overlap in participants' descriptions of who belongs Mutual engagement
7. Knowing what others know, what they can do, and how they can contribute to an enterprise Mutual engagement
Joint enterprise
Shared repertoire
8. Mutually defining identities Mutual engagement
9. The ability to assess the appropriateness of actions and products Shared repertoire
10. Specific tools, representations, and other artefacts Shared repertoire
11. Local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing laughter Shared repertoire
12. Jargon and shortcuts to communication as well as the ease of producing new ones Shared repertoire
Mutual engagement
13. Certain styles recognized as displaying membership Mutual engagement
14. A shared discourse reflecting a certain perspective on the world Mutual engagement
* From: Wenger E. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1998, pg. 125.
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pany's goals (i.e., to service the machines) rather than the
individuals' goals (e.g., professional growth and develop-
ment)[27]. Other examples of CoPs include the commu-
nity of automobile engineers at the Chrysler
Corporation[34], the multidisciplinary community at the
World Bank[5], and the multi-site online community at
Caterpillar Inc[35]. CoPs are also widely used in the edu-
cation[36,37] and information science[38,39] sectors. For
example, Palincsar et al[36] described the process of
developing an online CoP for science teachers in Michi-
gan to share their knowledge of and experience in teach-
ing kindergarten through Grade 5. A number of other
online CoPs have also appeared in recent years [40-43],
including the CP Square http://www.cpsquare.org
, which
is a 'CoP of CoPs' hosted by Wenger and colleagues.
Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002)
In 2002 Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder authored Culti-
vating Communities of Practice[5]. In this book, the authors
shifted their focus from individuals' learning and identity
development on to providing a tool for organizations to
manage 'knowledge workers.' In a marked departure from
the previous publications, which suggested that CoP
groups emerge spontaneously, this work suggested that
organizations can engineer and cultivate CoPs to enhance
their competitiveness[5,44]. Here CoP was vaguely
defined as 'groups of people who share a concern, a set of
problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen
their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting
on an ongoing basis' (p. 4)[5]. This definition is even
vaguer than the 14 indicators in Wenger's 1998 book, and
although it does not limit CoP to groups within a com-
pany, the examples given are mainly from the business
sector. Rather than centring on the performance of daily
office work, this book portrayed CoP as the means to fos-
ter innovation and creative problem solving. Although the
organization does not impose rules and regulations
within a CoP, it can certainly influence the agenda and the
composition of members.
To enable organizations to use CoP as a management
tool, Wenger et al. revised the three characteristics of CoP
and named them 'domain,' 'community,' and 'prac-
tice'[5,15,45]. The domain creates the common ground
(i.e., the minimal competence that differentiates mem-
bers from non-members) and outlines the boundaries
that enable members to decide what is worth sharing and
how to present their ideas. The community creates the
social structure that facilitates learning through interac-
tions and relationships with others. The practice is a set of
shared repertoires of resources that include documents,
ideas, experiences, information, and ways of addressing
recurring problems. In essence, the practice is the specific
knowledge the community shares, develops, and main-
tains. The authors claimed that CoPs can optimise the cre-
ation and dissemination of knowledge when the three
elements work well together in a mature CoP; however, it
was less clear on how to foster the three elements at the
early stage.
Wenger et al. also introduced the roles of leaders/champi-
ons and facilitators[5]. Typically, the leader/champion is
someone who is well respected within an organization,
and often holds a leadership position. He/she is responsi-
ble for spreading the word about the group, recruiting
members, and providing resources for group activities.
The facilitator, on the other hand, is responsible for the
group's day-to-day activities. This role is usually assumed
by a senior manager who understands the overall mission
of the organization, is resourceful, and is well connected
with members and potential members of the CoP.
The involvement of a facilitator is perhaps one of the most
frequently observed features in the subsequent studies of
CoPs, some of which link the success or failure of the
group to this role[7,13,35,46-53]. However, the actual
responsibilities and the organizational support provided
for this role vary across studies. For example, some facili-
tators play a distinct role from that of the leader and con-
duct their activities under the direction of the group and/
or the leader[13,46,52], while other groups merge the role
of the leader and facilitator[47,48]. The choice of manage-
ment structure appears to depend on the size of the group
and the availability of human resources. Which model
best suits which type of organisation is unclear, but facili-
tator fatigue has been mentioned as something that can
lead to the breakdown of CoP groups[47].
The 2002 book also attempted to compare the character-
istics of CoP groups with other structures, although some
components outlined by the authors are vague and con-
tradictory. For example, they suggested that CoP groups
are different from project teams because members of CoPs
are self-selected and participation is voluntary. However,
people from the same discipline or workplace automati-
cally belong to the same CoP. Wenger et al. also said that
CoPs are different from communities of interest, but oth-
ers, like Fisher, argued that the latter can be a variation on
a CoP since both can be identified by their domain, com-
munity, and practice[54]. The differences between the two
types of communities are sufficiently vague for Fischer to
claim that a CoP is a 'homogeneous community' consist-
ing of members from a single discipline (e.g., physicians,
researchers, or health care administrators), whereas a
community of interest is a 'heterogeneous community' or
'community-of-communities' that mirrors a multidiscipli-
nary team[54].
Other interpretations of CoP groups have emerged since
the publication of this book. For example, Saint-Onge and
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Wallace described CoPs with three different components:
'people' (who is involved), 'practice' (what members do),
and 'capabilities' (the ability to leverage competitive
advantage in the business sector)[44]. Furthermore, they
proposed three levels of CoPs based on the organizational
structure and governance: 'informal groups' that aim to
provide a forum for discussion among practitioners who
are interested in a topic, 'supported groups' that are spon-
sored by the management and aim to build knowledge
and skills for a given competency area, and 'structured
groups' that are developed and managed by an organiza-
tion and aim to advance the organization's business strat-
egy[44]. The different interpretations of CoP make it
challenging for people to apply this concept or to take full
advantage of the benefits that CoP groups may offer. It is
also difficult to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of
these groups as there is no consensus on what is, or is not,
a true CoP group.
Conclusion
CoP is gaining popularity in health care, but the research
in this area is relatively new and limited. Although the
term began to surface in the literature in the mid-1990s,
most primary studies were not published until 2000 or
later. It should be noted that CoP was originally devel-
oped as a learning theory that promotes self-empower-
ment and professional development, but as the theory
evolved, it became a management tool for improving an
organization's competitiveness. The tension between sat-
isfying individuals' needs for personal growth versus the
organization's bottom line is perhaps the most conten-
tious of the issues that make the CoP theory challenging
to apply. Furthermore, as the definition broadens, it
becomes more difficult to characterise what is and is not a
CoP group. This potentially limits our ability to study
CoPs as a strategy to improve clinical practice.
Because CoP is an evolving concept, it may be premature
to set concrete boundaries to differentiate CoPs from
other types of group structure. Nonetheless, the CoP con-
cept can be used to provide some guidance for the devel-
opment of groups, teams, and networks. Our analysis of
the germinal literature highlighted several key characteris-
tics of the CoP concepts, such as the support for formal
and informal interaction between novices and experts, the
emphasis on learning and sharing knowledge, and the
investment to foster the sense of belonging among mem-
bers. Hence, research in CoP may be more productive if
we endeavor to develop and refine interventions that opti-
mise these characteristics. Examples of promising inter-
ventions may include using a facilitator to promote
network/group activities and enhance interaction among
members[47], using information technology to facilitate
communication of individuals in distributed networks/
groups[52], or providing organizational infrastructures
that promote the uptake of new knowledge in health care
settings[55]. Furthermore, we believe that the functions of
these network/groups may be optimized by improving the
understanding of the process of negotiating boundaries of
emerging CoPs, and the roles and responsibilities of CoP
members.
Competing interests
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Authors' contributions
LCL, JMG, IDG developed the concept for the manuscript.
LCL drafted the manuscript. All authors provided com-
ments and approved the final version.
Acknowledgements
The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support provided by the
Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Funding Reference Number: KSY-
73930).
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    • "No theoretical framework currently exists that can readily be used for studying the effectiveness of NES (as one type of CoP) in building M&E capacity. To identify factors that may influence NES' performance in capacity building, we have found inspiration in the relatively scarce literature on COP's effectiveness (see Li et al. 2009a; Ranmuthugala et al. 2011a Ranmuthugala et al. , 2011b), the organisational performance literature (including resource mobilisation theory, see e.g. Edwards & Mc Carthy 2004; and political opportunity structure theory, see e.g. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Background: Over the years, Communities of Practice have gained popularity as a capacity-building method among Monitoring and Evaluation practitioners. Yet, thus far, relatively little is known about their effectiveness.Objectives: This article focuses on National Evaluation Societies as Communities of Practice that aim to contribute to the monitoring and evaluation capacity building of their members.Method: Drawing upon a survey of 35 National Evaluation Societies in 33 low- and middle-income countries, we explore to what extent capacity building efforts have been successful and what factors explain the relative success or failure in capacity building. We rely upon Qualitative Comparative Analysis as we are particularly interested in different pathways to ensure successful National Evaluation Societies.Results: Our findings highlight that regular face-to-face contact is a particularly important element. This does not entirely come as a surprise, as monitoring and evaluation capacity building often implies tacit knowledge that is most effectively shared face-to-face. Furthermore, capacity building in conducting and, particularly, using evaluations entails building networks among the monitoring and evaluation supply and demand side which can most easily be done through regular face-to-face interaction.Conclusion: Our findings are not only theoretically interesting, they are also policy relevant; they hint at the fact that in an era of quick advances in technology, investing in face-to-face contact among members remains important.
    Full-text · Article · Jun 2016
    • "However it has been criticized (e.g. Barton & Tusting, 2005; Li et al., 2009; Hughes et al., 2013) as vague, overly abstract, and failing to satisfactorily account for individual agency, power relationships and the role of discourse within an established community of practice. In short, the application of the legitimate peripheral participation and dualities frameworks to experienced newcomers' entry, legitimizing processes and transitions to knowledge practices has not been adequately addressed. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: In the situated learning literature the apprenticeship-model based legitimate peripheral participation process has been widely adopted to explain the entry of novices to existing knowledge practices. To date however, little has been established about the role of legitimizing processes in experienced newcomers' entry transitions to existing knowledge practices. This paper reports two qualitative studies where more arduous and challenging transitions emerged for experienced newcomers than for novices, in legitimizing processes, relations with others and professional identity contextualization. The research finds that experienced newcomers' entry transitions are more complex than the legitimate peripheral participation process suggests, and that while Wenger's (1998) dualities model provides additional explanatory power, more is needed to understand experienced workers' entry transitions. An expanded model is suggested incorporating these complexities. The paper addresses a gap in the literature and establishes the contribution of legitimizing processes for experienced newcomers' progression to full participation in an existing workgroup.
    Article · Jun 2016
    • "Multi-disciplinary communities of practice have been found to transform research evidence through interaction and collective sense making, such that other forms of knowledge (e.g., practice know how) become privileged [44,45] . Whilst communities of practice are intuitively appealing, there is little empirical research to support claims that they actually increase knowledge uptake in health services [46][47][48] . There is evidence to suggest that communities of practice show promise as a means of creating and sharing knowledge that has meaning for practitioners [49], however little is known about the mechanisms by which this may occur. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Background: Increasingly, it is being suggested that translational gaps might be eradicated or narrowed by bringing research users and producers closer together, a theory that is largely untested. This paper reports a national study to fill a gap in the evidence about the conditions, processes and outcomes related to collaboration and implementation. Methods: A longitudinal realist evaluation using multiple qualitative methods case studies was conducted with three Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research in Care (England). Data were collected over four rounds of theory development, refinement and testing. Over 200 participants were involved in semi-structured interviews, non-participant observations of events and meetings, and stakeholder engagement. A combined inductive and deductive data analysis process was focused on proposition refinement and testing iteratively over data collection rounds. Results: The quality of existing relationships between higher education and local health service, and views about whether implementation was a collaborative act, created a path dependency. Where implementation was perceived to be removed from service and there was a lack of organisational connections, this resulted in a focus on knowledge production and transfer, rather than co-production. The collaborations’ architectures were counterproductive because they did not facilitate connectivity and had emphasised professional and epistemic boundaries. More distributed leadership was associated with greater potential for engagement. The creation of boundary spanning roles was the most visible investment in implementation, and credible individuals in these roles resulted in cross-boundary work, in facilitation and in direct impacts. The academic-practice divide played out strongly as a context for motivation to engage, in that ‘what’s in it for me’ resulted in variable levels of engagement along a co-operation-collaboration continuum. Learning within and across collaborations was patchy depending on attention to evaluation. Conclusions: These collaborations did not emerge from a vacuum, and they needed time to learn and develop. Their life cycle started with their position on collaboration, knowledge and implementation. More impactful attempts at collective action in implementation might be determined by the deliberate alignment of a number of features, including foundational relationships, vision, values, structures and processes and views about the nature of the collaboration and implementation.
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