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Communities of practice

The community of practice (CoP) concept has been largely attributed to Etienne Wenger, but it is not a new idea. In fact, Wenger argues that it has been around since human beings chose to group together and form societies. Wenger’s definition of a CoP is ‘a model of situational learning, based on collaboration among peers, where individuals work to a common purpose, defined by knowledge rather than task’ (Wenger, 1996). Wenger’s work on the development of the CoP illustrates how learning occurs through a social network and the importance of this.

In simpler terms, a community of practice can be described as a group of people who work together to achieve a common goal. The process of working together and sharing knowledge and resources can lead to an enriched learning experience as people are exposed to new ways of thinking and problem solving. 

In the clinical workplace, a CoP could be a healthcare team assigned to a particular patient. That team has been charged with the task of providing appropriate healthcare management and could include in its membership: specialists, consultants, surgeons, nurses, medical students, nursing students, healthcare assistants and administrative staff. Each brings to the CoP their own set of skills and knowledge, and through consultation, discussion and general interaction with one another provide a substantial body of knowledge and skills on which they can all draw.

A community of practice has specific criteria which makes it so. There are differences between a CoP and, say, an informal network or committee. Communities of practice share three specific domains.

  1. Knowledge – a common body of knowledge within the community.
  2. Community – commitment to forming a group for networking.
  3. Shared practice – sharing of ideas, resources and strategies.

The table in the Teachers’ toolkit, distinctions between communities of practice and other structures (Wenger et al., 2002), defines some of the groups that exist in a work environment.

Thinking point

  • Can you think of examples in your own environment and how they differ from each other?



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