Communities of Practice

by Steve Borgatti

This a notion developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, and further elaborated by Wenger in an influential book called Communities of Practice. In the book, he reports on an ethnographic study he did of a claims processing unit of an insurance company. 

[Please read the vignette drawn from that book in the course packet.]

Wenger views the claims processing unit as a community of practice. A community of practice is a set of interacting people engaged in a common practice. Practice refers to the work people do, but also to the ideas behind it -- the shared understandings and the activities.  Practice does not exist in the abstract -- it exists because people are engaged in actions whose meanings they create and negotiate with each other.  Practice is not in the books or tools or forms, though it may involve all these artifacts.

Communities of practice are a basic way that humans accomplish work. There are three key dimensions here:

  1. mutual engagement
  2. joint enterprise
  3. shared repertoire

Mutual engagement refers to the amount and pattern of interaction among the members of the community.  Through their interactions, they shape the group's culture and it's practices. No matter how well-specified their work might appear, in fact when you examine what happens is a result of their interactions. It just emerges.

Membership is more than just being declared a member or being born with a characteristic -- interaction is also necessary. Typically this means that geographic proximity is also necessary, or at least helpful.

Three important aspects of mutual engagement are

Joint enterprise refers to the common purpose that binds the people together and provides a unifying goal and coherence for their actions. Three important aspects to attend to:

Shared repertoire refers to the continual development and maintenance of a shared repertoire of procedures, techniques, shortcuts, jargon, tools, forms, symbols, mental categories, actions, concepts, etc. This is the most obvious outcome of a community of practice.

Three aspects of shared repertoire are worth noting.

Copyright 1998-2004 by Steve Borgatti MB 119 Home page