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Communities of practice as a tool for Employee Training

Module by: Rebecca Hogue. E-mail the author

Summary: Provides an overview of Communities of Practice in the context of Employee Training.

Communities of Practice as a Tool for Employee Training

Communities of practice as a tool for Employee Training

Introduction

Are Communities of Practice (CoPs) a suitable tool for employee training? If they are a suitable tool, what benefits do they provide over traditional classroom based training?

For our purposes, the goals of employee training are: to provide employees with the information and skills to improve their job performance, to provide the tools to allow employees to solve problems as part of their jobs, and to provide professional development for employees.

Defining a Community of Practice

As Etienne Wegner and Jean Lave coined the term ‘Communities of Practice’ (CoPs), (Stamps, 1997) it is fitting that we begin with their definition. “Communities of Practice are 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.” (Wegner, McDermott, and Snyder, 2002, p. 4)

Communities of practice are not a new idea. They were our first knowledge-based social structures, back when we lived in caves and gathered around the fire to discuss strategies for cornering prey, the shape of arrowheads, or which roots were edible. (Wegner et al., 2002, p. 5)

If CoPs are not a new idea, then what is new about them? Today, technology enables us to form Virtual Communities of Practice (VCoP). “Virtual communities of practice are physically distributed groups of individuals who participate in activities, share knowledge and expertise, and function as an interdependent network over an extended period of time, using various technological means to communicate with one another, with the shared goal of furthering their ‘practice’ or doing their work better.” (Allen, Ure, and Evans, 2003, p. 7) In essence, they are CoPs that use virtual methods for participating in their practice.

How do you recognize a CoP? Wenger et al. argues that to be a CoP it must contain the following “… three fundamental elements: a domain of knowledge, which defines a set of issues; a community of people who care about this domain; and the shared practice that they are developing to be effective in their domain.” (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 27) The following sections contain a more detailed description of each of the three elements.

Domain

The domain is what differentiates a ‘community of people’ from a ‘community of practice’. The domain is the purpose for the existence of the CoP. This purpose includes the CoP’s goals and motivations, and it provides a guide for the community’s learning. (Wenger et al., 2002)

The most successful communities of practice thrive where the goals and needs of an organization intersect with the passions and aspirations of participants. (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 32)

Community

A community of practice is not just a Web site, a database, or a collection of best practices. It is a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships, and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment. Having others who share your overall view of the domain and yet bring their individual perspectives on any given problem creates a social learning system that goes beyond the sum of its parts. (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 34)

The promotion of social learning is a necessary part of CoPs. This involves the interaction of community members to discuss issues relative to the domain. The formation of a trusting community allows members to explore problems and find solutions in a safe environment. (Wenger et al., 2002)

A successful CoP will have a strong community element. “People who join a community because they are interested in the domain often stay because they become emotionally connected to the community.” (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 45)

Practice

“The practice is a set of frameworks, ideas, tools, information, styles, language, stories, and documents that community members share.” (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 29) As the community matures, the elements of the practice evolve. (Wenger et al., 2002)

“As organizations have expanded and become more global in nature, CoPs have also expanded to include distributed members who rarely, if ever, engage in face-to-face communication.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 6) This has created a demand for tools that enhance the distributed CoP experience. A Web search demonstrates a variety of tools available to support CoPs. For example, Tomoye’s Simplify™ (www.tomoye.com) and iCohere’s Web Communities Plus (www.icohere.com) each provide an environment to support the practice aspect of CoPs.

With the support of online tools, the distinction between CoP and VCoP is fading. Even when the participants are in the same location, the communities often use electronic means for communication. As a result, we will use both terms interchangeably.

Constructivism—Workplace Learning Theory

Research on how people learn in the workplace demonstrates that what is taking place is constructivist, situated learning, often through cognitive apprenticeship. (Kerka, 1997)

Generally, constructivist theory suggests the following conditions assist in learning:

  1. Embed learning in complex, realistic, and relevant environment.
  2. Provide for social negotiation as an integral part of learning.
  3. Support multiple perspectives and the use of multiple modes of representation.
  4. Encourage ownership in learning.
  5. Nurture self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.

(Driscoll, 2000, p. 382-3)

CoPs provide an opportunity for employees to discuss their jobs, share specific experiences, and work together to solve problems specifically related to their jobs. (Wegner et al., 2002; Allen et al., 2003) Learning that results from a CoP is a result of complex, realistic and relevant problem solving discussions.

Social negotiation occurs when people collaborate to provide a solution to a problem. Allen et al. (2003) describe how social negotiation in CoPs provide learning opportunities for community members: “The social negotiation that occurs in communities of practice fosters increased learning opportunities for CoP members. As CoP members search for answers within their communities, they co-construct knowledge and in turn increase their skills, enabling them to perform better on the job.” (p. 14)

Typically, CoPs contain a diverse group of people. As a result, they provide opportunities for information to be viewed from multiple perspectives. “CoP provides a place where learners can view a situation or problem from multiple perspectives.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 15)

A CoP will be successful only if the community members take ownership for the community. As a result: “Members of CoPs help one another discover knowledge and solve problems by taking responsibility for their own and others’ knowledge.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 16)

The final condition is nurturing a self-awareness of the knowledge construction process—in other words, ‘learning how to learn’. CoPs support this condition by actively seeking solutions to problems that are posed to the community. (Allen et al., 2003)

“In addition to being practical, CoPs are theoretically valid methods of learning to improve performance because they satisfy the conditions for learning to occur according to constructivism. CoPs provide the necessary interaction and perspectives that increase employees’ skills and knowledge.” (Allen et el, 2003, p. 17)

Using CoP for Employee Training

Research has shown that, “Nearly 70 percent of all workplace learning takes place outside of the classroom…” (Goldwasser, 2001) Providing infrastructure for CoPs promotes an informal training environment. In a report done by the BYU Research team on VCoP as Learning Networks, they found “… that informal learning environments such as cognitive apprenticeships, peer-to-peer mentoring relationships, and communities of practice often greatly impact employee learning.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 11)

Due to the limitations of formal training, informal training alternatives are gradually replacing formal classroom training in workplace environments. Allen et al. (2003) list the following limitations of formal training:

  • The cost associated with developing, delivering, and maintain formal training
  • The volume of time that formal training programs require to develop and deliver
  • The lack of transfer from training programs to on-the-job performance
  • The information overload that can result from formal training programs

(p. 11)

When builders of VCoPs were asked how the VCoP helped employees learn, their responses are summarized as:

  • Situating learning in the workplace
  • Providing just-in-time learning and content-specific solutions to problems
  • Increasing employee interaction

(Allen et al., 2003, p.19)

The costs associated with formal training go beyond just the development time. There is also the cost of the employee’s time to attend formal training, and the potential cost of travel. One benefit of VCoPs is that they provide employees with the ability to learn while they work (Allen et al., 2003) without the need to be away from their workplace.

An additional motivation to move towards VCoPs is the advantage of just-in-time learning. “‘Work is moving faster and faster, and people can’t keep up,’ says Nancy Forbes, a market research manager for IBM Corp., Armonk, N. Y. Workers must continually update their skills and knowledge to keep the business competitive, but sometimes there simply isn’t time for formal or structured training.” (Goldwasser, 2001) VCoPs capture knowledge and make it available to employees when they need it. “… Employees turn to a particular virtual community often to receive immediate answers to their problems.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 20)

Formal training programs provide a lot of information in a short period of time. One result of this is cognitive overload and the removal of context in classroom settings. As a result, “… employees often fail to transfer training in formal settings to on-the-job performance.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 21-2)

VCoPs also provide interaction opportunities for employees. Discussions that are open to the community allow for multiple perspectives on a problem, which in turn stimulates creativity in problem solving. “The group structure of VCoPs allows members to share information and engage in learning activities with peers.” (Allen et el, 2003, p. 20)

Some of the methods that VCoPs use to support creativity and learning are:

  • Asking and answering questions
  • Chatting with experts
  • Problem solving
  • Resource and information sharing
  • Connecting with other VCoPs
  • Creating sub communities around special interest topics
  • Participating in presentations
  • Networking
  • Establishing a knowledge baseline
  • Collaborating
  • Sharing best practice

(Allen et al., 2003)

Builders of virtual communities across various organizations agree that VCoPs support the learning processes of community participants by situating learning in the workplace,

providing just-in-time solutions to problems, and increasing interactions among employees. (Allen et el, 2003, p. 20-21)

Participating in a VCoP also allows employees to network with other professionals. “VCoP members consider networking with other professionals to be the most significant reason for being involved in a VCoP because developing professional relationship with other VCoP members is a key step in transferring knowledge among members.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 26)

Reflection

“Communities of practice vary widely in both name and style in different organizations.” (Wenger et al., 2002. p. 24) Another term widely used is ‘learning community’. For example, the Royal Roads MADL program is a learning community. Using Wenger’s methodology the MADL program is also a CoP. It contains a domain, community and practice. For the MADL program:

  • The domain is the facilitation of certificate or degree in Distributed Learning.
  • The community is cohort of learners and the course facilitators. The community is dynamic from one semester to the next. The core members of the cohort stay the same. New members enter the community as course facilitators and new learners in the certificate programs.
  • The practice includes the Royal Roads Learning Management System and the contents in each learners view. Also parts of the practice are the discussions and assignments.

Typically, the term ‘learning community’ is used within the academic world and the term ‘Community of Practice’ is used within the corporate sector. However, there are exceptions, for example “at HP it is known as a ‘learning community.’” (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 24)

One subtle distinction between the two terms is the goal of the community. Typically, the goal of a ‘learning community’ is to educate the community members. In the corporate sector, the true goal of a CoP is to make the corporation more productive and successful. The side benefit of CoPs is that they provide professional development opportunities to employees.

We are an ‘information society’. The half-life of technical degrees is getting shorter and shorter. As a result, professionals need to stay current in order to stay employed. CoPs provide a mechanism for professionals to communicate, collaborate, and learn. The time commitment to the CoP is not trivial; however, it can be scheduled in reasonable chunks at the convenience of the participant.

CoPs are a suitable means of providing internal employee training; however, they will only work with the right tools and right encouragement. There are good tools available today, and there are companies actively innovating new tools to support further levels of collaboration.

CoPs need facilitation to be successful. Without facilitation they can become a dumping ground for useless information. For example,

A nationwide community of administrators had opened a Web site, which was to become one of the main vehicles for member connection. They let it be a repository for anything members wanted to post. Soon, however, it became merely a convenient place to put

things. A lot of material was not directly related to the practice, and the design of the repository did not help clarify the content or its application to the practice. As a result, practitioners stopped using the Web site as a resource. It contained an impressive collection of stuff, but it was too disparate and disorganized. It ceased to be useful because it had accumulated material beyond anyone’s ability to make sense of it. (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 148)

Part of the value of CoPs is the sorting of information. In a successful CoP, participants are able to gather then information they need easily and quickly.

Conclusion

CoP and VCoP are suitable tools for employee training. They provide an informal environment where employees can collaborate, solve problems, obtain information, and learn what is necessary to successfully complete their jobs. “…virtual communities of practice are effective informal workplace learning environments because they situate learning in the workplace, provide just-in-time learning and content-specific solutions to problems, and capitalize on employee interaction. They overcome the limits of formal training, satisfy critical conditions for learning, and help employees learn and solve problems so that they can perform better on the job by providing the necessary interaction and perspectives to increase their skills and knowledge.” (Allen et al., 2003, p. 46)

CoPs support the necessary conditions of constructivist learning theory. Employees are able to discuss problems and collaborate on solutions that are directly applicable their jobs. The resulting learning is in-context. The social nature of CoPs promotes collaboration and creativity.

VCoPs have an additional advantage in that they do not require the employee to leave their workplace in order to participate. As a result, this reduces the cost of training for companies with personnel that are geographically distributed.

References

Allen, S., Ure, D., & Evans, S. (2003). Virtual Communities of Practice as Learning Networks Executive Summary. MASIE Center Elearning Consortium. Retrieved December 8, 2003, from http://www.masie.com/researchgrants/2003/BY_Exec_Summary.pdf

Bitter-Rijpkema, M., Sloep, P., & Jansen, D. (2003). Learning to change: The Virtual Business Learning approach to professional workplace learning. Educational Technology & Society, 6(1), 18-25.

Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (2nd Ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon

Eraut, M. (2002). Conceptual Analysis and Research Questions: Do the concepts of ‘learning community’ and ‘community of practice’ provide added value? (ED466030). Brighton, UK: University of Sussex. Retrieved December 5, 2003, from ERIC database.

Goldwasser, D. (2001). Me a Trainer? Training, 38(4) (pp. 60-66). Retrieved December 5, 2003, from ABI/INFORM Global database.

Kerka, S. (1997). Constructivism, Workplace Learning, and Vocational Education. ERIC Digest No. 181. Retrieved December 9, 2003, from http://ericacve.org/docs/diges181.htm.

Kimble, C., Hildreth, P., & Wright, P. (2001). Chapter XIII: Communities of Practice: Going Virtual. In Knowledge Management and Business Model Innovation (pp. 220 – 234). London: Idea Group. Retrieved December 11, 2003, from http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~kimble/research/13kimble.pdf

Stamps, D. (1997). Communities of practice. Learning is Social. Training is Irrelevant? Training, 34(2) (pp. 34-42). Retrieved December 5, 2003, from ABI/INFORM Global database.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

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