Communities of practice: what these groups are and how they operate

There are many methods of group work in order to expand knowledge on a specific topic.

Communities of practice are one of the most powerful. Through the following points we can get a general idea of ​​how these systems work and what their strengths are compared to other different methodologies.

    What are communities of practice?

    Communities of practice are groups of people who join together with the common goal of expanding knowledge and practice on a given topic. In this community, everyone’s practical experiences are shared and reflected. In this way, everyone benefits from mutual work and also experiences a strengthening of relationships between the members of this group.

    Researchers Étienne Wenger and Jean Renteu were the first to discuss this methodology in 1991. Since then, the popularity of communities of practice has increased, referring to them in more and more articles. Other authors, such as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, explain how one of the first communities of practice arose naturally at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

    In this case, they found that the operators in charge of repairing the printers, in many cases, did not use the technical manuals that had been provided, but preferred to take the breaks and breaks to discuss with their colleagues the different incidents in which they had faced and what had been the path by which they had managed to find the solution. Others exposed the outages they were handling and sought advice.

    Without realizing it, this group of workers had inaugurated a very powerful and effective methodology, That of communities of practice. Thanks to this, each technician was able to share his experience with the rest of the teammates and in turn benefit from the case studies that each of the others had lived and that he now shared with the group in question.

    Some researchers point out that communities of practice could be an evolution of the classic brainstorm method, seen through a practical rather than a theoretical prism.

    Characteristics of communities of practice

    Communities of practice should have a number of characteristics which we will describe below.

    1. Shared leadership

    the community it is made up of a homogeneous group of participants. In other words, they are all in the same position. There is no leader figure who shares knowledge while others listen, but all members teach with their experience and at the same time learn from others, to be on an equal footing.

    If there can be a figure of coordinator, responsible for connecting the different members and organizing meetings or events, suggesting the debate on different issues and promoting the active participation of all members of the group, so that all contribute equally and benefit the rest.

    2. Field of knowledge

    The common link between all members of the community of practice must be a concrete field of knowledge. This article will be what it will provide the feeling of group, being the element shared by all members of that society. Each member wants to become an expert in the field and at the same time collaborate so that everyone is too.

    3. Practice

    The activity or practice on this shared knowledge will drive the community, as it is the activity that generates the experiences that can then be shared to make sense of the group and allow all members to learn from it. activity of others as if they had done it themselves.

    4. Sense of community

    When communities of practice are implemented, a sense of identity is generated, facilitated by all of the above, so that all members want to help others, by sharing anything that can be useful and also using the information provided by others. It would be a sort of hive in which they would all be bees pursuing a common goal, which would be the success of themselves and their peers.

    This might be the case for people who approach the community solely for the purpose of gathering information and experience from members, but not to share their own practice with others. In this case, this person would not be an active member of the community, because he would not meet the criterion of reciprocity. Instead, it would be a peripheral member, assuming that at some point it is making a contribution, or it could even be an external participant.

      Virtual communities of practice

      The emergence of new technologies, in particular the Internet and social networks, has led to the evolution of communities of practice in their virtual form. today it is not necessary to meet in person with a group of people to share knowledgeCertainly not. We don’t even need to be geographically close.

      In contrast, digital media allow people from different parts of the world to connect via an online platform with people interested in the same area of ​​knowledge and thus be able to share their experiences and learn from those of others.

      As generally on these platforms (forums, Facebook, WhatsApp groups, etc.) the contributions of each person are reflected in writing, it is not even necessary that all members are logged in at the same time or belong to the same time zone. A person can ask a question as they arise and will receive responses as members access the message and compose their response.

      Having a written record of all publications also makes it easier to find the author of a particular contribution. and also the ability to provide information in an organized manner when new members arrive in different communities of practice.

      Obviously, not everyone has the same knowledge or the same practice, so there will be people who can participate more actively and share more comprehensive or useful information. They will be the reference members of the group, but little by little a homogenization will take place, because the others also learn and can bring a greater quantity of experiences which enrich even the most active members.

      While we anticipated that communities of practice do not have a leader who provides data while other members passively receive it, they do. there may be a moderator or presenter, especially in these virtual communities. This figure would be responsible for encouraging this reciprocal participation of all members.

      How to create such a group?

      We already know what the characteristics of these groups are and what makes them so useful. The next thing we might ask is how to create a community of practice. To do this, Wenger offers a system of seven principles to follow to build one. They are the ones we are going to see.

      1. Ease of evolution

      The community of practice it must behave like a living organism. To do this, we have laid the foundations that allow it to grow and evolve according to the interests and needs of the members of the group.

      2. Permeability

      It is important that members’ opinions are taken into account and therefore penetrate the community. But sometimes it’s just as important to consider ideas that come from outside our community of practice, as they can be rewarding and generate growth.

      3. Levels of participation

      We must encourage participation, by counting on a group of very active members who will energize the rest, Peripherals, so that they bring more and more knowledge to the group. There will also be people from outside the community who, although not participating, may also benefit from the knowledge provided. Ideally, these people should also be contributing, but in many cases this will not happen.

      4. Public and private spaces

      Communities of practice work like many other social interactions. Sometimes they will be given publicly where all the members can participate while other times, two or more participants will prefer to have a private conversation or to resolve some particular doubts without the others knowing about it. There must be a balance between the two situations for the health of the community to be guaranteed..

      5. Add value

      What makes a community of practice valuable is the interest that members have in this particular topic. If the community provides valuable data for these people, We will facilitate the continuity of the group.

      6. Closeness and emotion

      What differentiates a community of practice from a working group is that there is no such pressure to achieve goals and in addition we have a motivation towards the subject, which facilitates to generate a climate of proximity and pleasant emotions between the members of the association.

      7. Take care of the rhythm

      To finish, it will be important to measure the rate at which the community is progressing. Like everything in life, virtue is in the medium term, because if the community of practice barely advances and no one provides interesting information, people are more likely to lose interest, whereas if we bombard with an endless cascade of data and experiences, we can also overwhelm members and run the risk of leaving them.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Fernández, MR, Valverde, J. (2014). Communities of practice: an intervention model resulting from collaborative learning in virtual environments. Communicate: Ibero-American scientific journal of communication and education.
      • Sanz, S. (2005). Virtual communities of practice: access and use of content. Journal of the University and the Knowledge Society.
      • Wenger, E. (2002). Communities of practice. Learning, meaning and identity. Cognition and human development. Paidós.

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