Communities of Practice, by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William S. Snyder.
Communities of practice have existed for millennia. These are groups of people who deepen their knowledge and expertise in a particular area through ongoing personal interaction. In recent decades, such groups have seen a renaissance as the so-called information society, or “new economy”, has led to an increased emphasis on the rôle of knowledge in production, consumption, and leisure. This leads to the need for organisations to “become more intentional and systematic about managing knowledge”.
While this is an entirely secular book, it has aroused great interest in the Church, which in many ways may be viewed as a community of practice.
Cultivating Communities of Practice defines communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis”. In terms of this basic definition, therefore, such communities are not necessarily bound through organisational or formal ties, but their focus is on a particular area of knowledge and expertise. The benefits of such communities are many – among them quicker answers to questions, wider perspectives, a more ready ability to implement strategic plans, value for the company, and greater personal satisfaction, to name but a few.
Is the mere archiving of information adequate in managing knowledge?
The management of knowledge and expertise is not as simple as pooling or archiving information – it is also a “social structure”. This is a basic theme of the book – together with how one might cultivate communities of practice. In recent decades, the mere pooling or archiving of information has not worked in practice. Many companies have discovered that they have created “digital junkyards” which are largely disused. Above all, what makes the mere pooling or archiving of information inadequate is the nature of knowledge and expertise – or “the nature of knowing”. Knowledge and expertise are not one and the same with mere information, for the following reasons:
Information in itself does not necessarily incorporate the experience which is necessary for applying that information.
“Pieces” of information do not necessarily fall into place naturally in the organic whole which represents true knowledge (that is, tacit knowledge is required as well as explicit knowledge).
Knowledge has a social aspect or social structure, in that it is distributed – not existing completely in any one mind.
Knowldege is dynamic, and is often rapidly developing and adapting.
The obvious application for the Church is that the Church is not merely a repository of Biblical, theological, or historical knowledge, but its knowledge is in an important sense a “social structure”. It needs to be a living embodiment and practice of knowledge that resides in the whole Church fellowship. In many respects this knowledge cannot truly be understood, and cannot truly benefit the Body, without becoming a living practice.
How are communities of practice cultivated?
The authors use three structural elements as a practical model for defining the character, dynamics, and development of communities of practice. These are domain, community, and practice. While at any phase in the development of a community of practice, the balance between these three will shift, the cultivation of a successful community depends largely on a good balance between the three. This occupies a large part of the book, and can be dealt with only briefly here.
“Domain” refers to the “common ground” of the community, and how they define this. “Community” refers to the relationships and interactions in the community, which, for the community to succeed, are based largely on trust, equality, and receptivity. “Practice” is the various forms in which the community shares knowledge and resources, and develops and maintains the same. In many communities, a co-ordinator “shepherds” the dynamics of these structural elements, and with this the community itself.
On the basis of these three structural elements, the authors outline five phases in the development of communities of practice (Chapters 4 and 5). Some key (selected) features of the five stages are as follows:
In the Potential Stage, a key domain issue for the community is to define the scope of the domain.
In the Coalescing Stage, a “paramount” community issue is the development of trust among members.
In the Maturing Stage, a key practice issue is the stewardship of information.
In the Stewardship Stage, all three structural elements become the focus of maintaining the momentum of the community.
Finally, in the Transformation Stage, communities may transform or die, particularly if major changes take place in the domain or practice of the community.
The obvious application for the Church is that clear parallels exist between the develomental phases of communities of practice and many congregations. In order for a Church to be sound, it will need to find a good balance between its domain (its common ground, or core beliefs and purpose), its community (the development of relationships of trust and equality), and its practice (mutual encouragement, enrichment, and support, both locally and globally). Furthermore, it will be the purpose of a gifted “co-ordinator” to shepherd these dynamics.
How may one assess the value of communities of practice?
Assuming that value is defined in terms of the monetary or strategic value to a company, this is not easily assessed in conventional ways. A community of practice typically creates value through creativity, sharing, and self-initiative, and these are not easily quantified. Therefore the measuring of value creation is as much an art as it is a science. However, quantifying the benefits of communities of practice is important to their continuation and raison d’etre.
The authors propose that the best way to measure value creation is through “stories”, since it is people’s stories which are best able to capture the causal links between a community’s activity and value creation. At the same time, however, it is possible to gather such stories through “a systematic effort” of documentation – which might further include qualitative indicators from surveys and reports.
However, even then, one further needs to factor in the subjective nature of stories. The authors suggest a simple equation which factors in the storyteller’s assessment as to how much value is attributable to their participation in a community, and their degree of certainty with regard to this perception. This produces “conservative” calculations which engender greater trust in the assessments put forward.
The obvious application for the Church is that the “success” of a Church may not easily be measured in quantifiable terms, but rather through stories. Further, in the same way as such stories are used in communities of practice to highlight the value of the community, so the Church may benefit greatly by publicly tracing the benefits derived by members and groups through their involvement in the Church. These contribute greatly to the raison d’etre of the Church.
This book was not an easy read – but it was well worthwhile.
The parallels between the Church and communities of practice can only be taken so far, of course, since the Church is far more than a community of practice – it has its focus in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore has a crucial aspect of transcendence.
However, the authors shared rich experience in a well organised, well documented, non-prescriptive way, using an accessible style. Much may be learned from their expertise. The book achieved its purpose in describing communities of practice, their purposes, their pitfalls, and the ways in which they may be cultivated.
CITATION OF REFERENCES
Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William M. Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Thomas Scarborough is the minister of an Evangelical Congregational Church near the centre of Cape Town. During 2004, he was the world’s most widely published electronics writer. He is currently studying for an M.A. in Global Leadership through Fuller Theological Seminary. He may be contacted at