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What are communities of practice? A comparative review of four seminal works

By A.M. Cox


This paper is a comparative review of four seminal works on communities of practice. It is argued that the ambiguities of the terms community and practice are a source of the concept's reusability allowing it to be reappropriated for different purposes, academic and practical. However, it is potentially confusing that the works differ so markedly in their conceptualizations of community, learning, power and change, diversity and informality. The three earlier works are underpinned by a common epistemological view, but Lave and Wenger's 1991 short monograph is often read as primarily about the socialization of newcomers into knowledge by a form of apprenticeship, while the focus in Brown and Duguid's article of the same year is, in contrast, on improvising new knowledge in an interstitial group that forms in resistance to management. Wenger's 1998 book treats communities of practice as the informal relations and understandings that develop in mutual engagement on an appropriated joint enterprise, but his focus is the impact on individual identity. The applicability of the concept to the heavily individualized and tightly managed work of the twenty-first century is questionable. The most recent work by Wenger – this time with McDermott and Snyder as coauthors – marks a distinct shift towards a managerialist stance. The proposition that managers should foster informal horizontal groups across organizational boundaries is in fact a fundamental redefinition of the concept. However it does identify a plausible, if limited, knowledge management (KM) tool. This paper discusses different interpretations of the idea of 'co-ordinating' communities of practice as a management ideology of empowerment. \ud \u

Publisher: Sage
Year: 2005
OAI identifier:

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