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Social Learning Theories

The ultimate goal for my team is to create online training modules that incorporate principles and mechanisms consist with sound learning theory. For various reasons, our team currently is not doing this. When considering this project initially, my focus was on how to get my team to produce the quality modules. I thought that perhaps it just meant to focus on teaching them about learning theory and then applying their new understanding to our projects. However, after further discussion and reflection, I realized that the greater issue is not their lack of knowledge, but instead how we function as a team.

In light of this, I was eager to focus more on how the team can grow in its practice. Much has been written about “communities of practice.” I desired to learn more about these communities, their formation, and what to expect from them. The following questions provided the framework for my review.

Defining communities of practice

The term “community of practice” is relatively new. It finds its origins in the work of Lave and Wenger (1991) as they conducted research on situated learning. In their work, they identified learning as a fundamentally social process, “...a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice.”

Following this research, Wenger (1999) introduced a more detailed understanding of communities of practice and provided this general definition: “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

In a similar vein, Manville and Foote (1996), define a community of practice as “…a group of professionals informally bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, common pursuit of solutions, and thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge”. Their definition is the result of looking at communities of practice from a commercial perspective.

The definition that resonates with me is one provided by Seeley Brown and Gray. It not only speaks to the purpose of a community of practice, but also in the context of a corporate enterprise,

At the simplest level, they [Communities of Practice] are a small group of people who have worked together over a period of time. Not a team, not a task force, not necessarily an authorized or identified group. They are peers in the execution of ‘real work’. What holds them together is a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows. (Brown & Gray, 1998)

In a simple sense, community implies relational connection and practice implies knowledge in action (Lesser and Prusak, 1999). Despite the flavor, each of the above definitions has these three things in common:

  1. People socially connected
  2. Connection is to a common pursuit
  3. Interaction that produces knowledge

Wenger (1999) characterized a community of practice by these three descriptors. They are domain, community, and practice.

  1. Domain: defined by a shared domain of interest
  2. Community: members engage in joint activities and discussions
  3. Practice: members develop a practice made up of shared resources

Hildreth, Kimble and Wright (2000) produced a dual perspective on communities of practice when they combined Wenger and Lave’s “legitimate peripheral participation (LLP)” with Hutchins’ ideas of distributed cognition. They stated that LPP focused on social structure and the learning of new members, whereas distributed cognition focused on the how work gets done. When these two ideas are combined, we get a “functional view of the communities of practice as well as a social view.”


The Formation of Communities of Practice

To introduce his theory of communities of practice, Wenger (1999) starts with these four assumptions: We are social beings. Far from being trivially true, this fact is a central aspect of learning.

  1. Knowledge is a matter of competence with respect to valued enterprises – such as singing in tune, discovering scientific facts, fixing machines, writing poetry, being convivial, growing up as a boy or a girl, and so forth.
  2. Knowing is a matter of participating in the pursuit of such enterprises, that is, of active engagement in the world.
  3. Meaning—our ability to experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful—is ultimately what learning is to produce.
Within this framework, Wenger builds the context to discuss communities of practice in detail. He asserts that the focus of his theory is one of active social participation, where participants are “part of the practices of a social community, and therein also construct their identities.” The components of social participation are meaning, practice, community, and identity.
    A way of talking about our (changing) ability—individually and collectively—to experience our life and the world as meaningful.
    A way of talking about the shared historical and social resources, frameworks, and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action.
    A way of talking about the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation is recognizable as competence.
    A way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates person histories of becoming in the context of our communities.

It is his assertion that communities of practice exist everywhere, and that we are all participants in multiple, overlapping communities, whether they exist at work, home, school, or elsewhere in our world.

Each person actively participates in the common pursuit of an endeavor. This pursuit produces collective learning and interaction. Over time, this collective learning and interaction produces a common practice. It is this practice that reflects not only our pursuit, but also are social relationships (Wenger, 1999).

In discussing community formation in the workplace, Stamps contends that in the context of a community of a community of practice “valuable and work-related learning and innovation occurs.” He describes the formation of a workplace community as such:

As people work together, they not only learn from doing, they develop a shared sense of what has to happen to get the job done. They develop a common way of thinking and talking about their work. Eventually, they come to share a sense of mutual identity—a single understanding of who they are and what their relationship to the larger organization is. (Stamps, 1997)

A key element of Wenger’s (1999) understanding is that these communities of practice are pervasive and “informal.” The informality of their development presents some challenges as many commercial organizations seek to create communities for their benefit. Communities cannot be created out of the blue or because an organization wants one. “They exist (and always will exist) as long as humans work together. They are the result of common work issues and the desire to learn from one another (Stamps, 1997).”

Lave and Wenger (1991) described a community of practice as “…a set of relations among persons, activity, and the world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice.'' In these communities, newcomers learn from old-timers by being allowed to participate in certain tasks relating to the practice of the community. Over time, newcomers move from peripheral to full participation in the community (Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright, 2000).

Some have applied the term “community of practice” to all sorts of groups. However, there is a distinction between a work team (with its imposed structure) and the informal nature of a community of practice (where each member progressively is accepted into full participation). This is not to say that a team cannot develop into a community of practice. It just is not so because it was ordained as one. In fact, a case study presented demonstrated that a community of practice “can evolve over time from an official grouping because of the way the members interact and work together (Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright, 2000).”

Wenger (1999) describes a community’s development as a process of negotiated meaning which is both historical and dynamic. Thus, the value it brings to the organization is that 1) it captures and transfers the historical meaning and knowledge, and 2) contributes to the dynamism of ongoing negotiated meaning with new arrivals to the community. Where organizations cannot easily capture on paper the “soft” knowledge that exists in the organization, there is a good likelihood that in a community of practice much of it is transmitted in successive generations. With each interaction, meaning is renegotiated, making it a “living, constant process (Wenger, 1998).”

Another element in the understanding of meaning is reification, or the creation and implementation of artifacts that represent a “long and diverse process” of development (Wenger, 1998). Thus, when examining communities of practice it is important to understand its informal nature and how members join. In addition, focus needs to be placed on what it does and how it reifies its activities.


Identification of Communities of Practice

In the context of a corporate work environment, communities of practice can exist within departments or across them, as well (Stamps, 1997). According to Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright (2000), the Watson Wyatt study used five metrics to indicate communities of practice. They looked for people who:

  1. Were in regular contact with colleagues/peers doing similar jobs
  2. Talk with colleagues to solve problems
  3. Share projects with other colleagues
  4. Swap anecdotes/experiences with colleagues
  5. Learn from discussions with colleagues

Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright (2000) identified a community of practice with the following features:

  1. A sense of common purpose
  2. A strong feeling of identity
  3. Uses group specific acronyms and nicknames
  4. Is an official group that evolved from a need but which is driven by the members themselves

n a study of seven companies, Lesser and Stork (2001) used this definition to identify a community of practice: “a group whose members regularly engage in sharing and learning, based on their common interests.” Table 1 below details the communities they studied. The column titled, “community activities” serves as a means to identify the types of activities that might qualify a group as a community of practice.


Table 1 reprinted from Lesser and Storck, 2001

The Institutional Value of Communities of Practice

Communities of practice have their own language where meaning is negotiated over time. Their practice includes tacit and implicit communication, whether language, tools, or symbols. This includes the “subtle cues, the untold rules of thumb, and the recognized intuitions” that make up the way the practice communicates and interacts. The communities develop a common sense that is only “commonsensical because it is a sense that is held in common (Stamps, 1997).”

This language and reified common sense brings power and capability to the organization. It facilitates the solving of problems and development of innovations. The practice that these communities develop collects learning, knowledge, and understanding (Stamps, 1997). This collection is an important asset for the success of the organization.

Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright (2000) present the distinction between “hard” and “soft” knowledge. Hard knowledge is easily articulated and captured. However, soft knowledge consists of things like experience, internalized work knowledge, and tacit knowledge, which are not so easily articulated and captured. They argue that hard knowledge is easily managed; however, to capture soft knowledge organizations need to embrace the concepts of communities of practice.

In addition to the creation of soft knowledge, communities of practice contribute to the development of social capital, which is the building block to “create, share, and apply organizational knowledge.” The social capital allows people to obtain the education, skills, and background necessary to be productive (Lesser and Prusak, 1999). Communities of practice are an “engine for the development of social capital (Lesser and Storck, 2001).”

Social capital that resides within the community of practice leads to changes in behavior, which in turn, impacts knowledge sharing and potentially has a positive influence on business performance (Lesser and Storck, 2001). Figure 1 demonstrates how communities of practice are linked to organizational performance through the dimensions of social capital (Lesser and Storck, 2001). A community of practice creates social capital, which is the result of connections, relationships, and a common context. As the figure below notes, it has a positive impact on the organization’s performance. It is the bridge that makes the informal nature of the community of practice valuable to the organization’s future.

Lesser and Storck (2001) found four areas where the ongoing activities of the communities of practice affected organizational performance:

  1. Decreasing the learning curve of new employees
  2. Responding more rapidly to customer needs and inquiries
  3. Reducing rework and preventing “reinvention of the wheel”
  4. Spawning new ideas for products and services


Figure 1 from Lesser and Storck, 2001.



What Types Of Interventions/Actions Can Be Instigated To Nurture A Community Of Practice?

While there is much debate on communities of practice (Barab, Kling and Gray, 2004), a commercial enterprise seeks to align its resources, people, and material to prosper. More and more organizations are pursuing knowledge management where the focus is on creation, codification, and sharing of knowledge towards the benefit of the organization. However, knowledge (and whatever meaning its artifacts might present) cannot be separated from the people who give meaning to it.

It is important for the organization to understand the distinction between a work team and a community of practice. For me, this distinction is important, as my focus deals with an assigned team and not necessarily a community of practice.

Communities legitimize by experience and interaction, whereas, teams legitimize by assignment and production. In addition, Lesser and Storck (2001) identify these four distinctions: formation, authority, accountability, and process.



Community legitimization

Team legitimization


Community relationships are formed around practice

Team relationships are established when the organization assigns people to be team members.


Authority relationships in a community of practice emerge through interaction around expertise.

Authority relationships within the team are organizationally determined.


Communities are only responsible to their members.

Teams have goals, which are often established by people not on the team.


Communities develop their own processes.

Teams rely on work and reporting processes that are organizationally-defined.


In a formal team, legitimacy comes from the formal structure of the group. However, in a community of practice, legitimacy comes from the social relationships that develop in the community (Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright, 2000).

Informal communities of practice act as a breeding ground for the organization’s social capital. To align itself with the communities of practice, Lesser and Prusak (1999) advocate that the organization make an investment in its social capital. Social capital refers to the “social resources individuals within a community draw upon and provide value to themselves and the organizations.” It is defined as “the sum of the actual and the potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit (Lesser and Prusak, 1999). Social capital possesses three interrelated dimensions: structural, relational, and cognitive.

  • Structural: formation of informal networks to identify and access potential resources. Individuals must perceive themselves to be part of a network. There must be a series of connections that individuals have to others.
  • Relational: interpersonal dynamics that includes trust, shared norms, values, commitments, and identity. One aspect of the relational dimension is that a sense of trust is developed across these connections.
  • Cognitive: common context and language to build connections. The members of the network must have a common interest or share a common understanding of issues facing the organization. (Lesser and Storck, 2001)

Stamps (1997) presents the following intervention as an excellent illustration that demonstrates how an organization can tap into the social connection on a team. It is rooted in informality and provides a positive impact to the organization. In 1994, Xerox committed two years to see if three distinct customer service units could be integrated into one unit. The company’s training staff calculated that it would take 52 weeks to get the staff up to speed on the functions of all three groups. Forsaking this approach, they shortened the training by taking the employees out of their isolated cubicles and putting them into shared work spaces. This allowed them to be in direct contact with one another. In this environment, the team members taught each other how to do their jobs. On top of that, there was no training period. The integrated customer service units started answering calls from day one. They were dependent on communication with one another and built a collective knowledge base (Stamps, 1997).

In the aforementioned case, we see that the learning happened, not in a classroom environment that many said felt “disconnected” but instead in a social context, where the employees possessing a common pursuit, participated together, and created the language required to be successful. The case study also noted that many organizations realize the need to recognize that people need to be involved. Which means the organization needs to stand back, let them grow, allow others to interact, and do not document or formalize the process (Stamps, 1997).

In a case study examining multinational communities of practice, it was noted that the group met twice-yearly face-to-face and maintained regular electronic communication. “The members of the group felt that during the face-to-face meetings they managed to get a lot of work done and develop much more quickly the relationships with their colleagues. During the periods of communication by e-media, they felt that the momentum gradually slowed until a physical meeting picked it up again (Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright, 2000).”

One of the key observations was that the face-to-face encounters allowed the relationships to develop in a positive manner contributing to issues of identity and confidence in working with one another. Another area of interest was the creation of a shared document, which involved a number of iterations and interactions with various team members. The authors note the “stimulative quality” of the document as it helped the team discuss issues, solving of problems, and future collaboration (Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright, 2000).

Organizations need to recognize the informal nature of communities of practice and the role they play in the organization. They exist and play a major role in the organization’s daily activities. They also help build the social capital that is so important to the organization’s success. The key is not to try to create a community. Instead, it is important to recognize those that “influence critical goals within the organization” and make an investment in their development. It is important that members be given the opportunity to develop stronger social relationships. An organization can provide the means to have face-to-face contact. In a similar sense, the organization can provide the tools and technology that allow members to maintain contact with existing members, and the opportunity to identify new members. It is important to identify the “key experts” in the communities and “enable them to provide support to the larger group (Lesser and Prusak, 1999).”

In the study of communities of practice in seven companies, Lesser and Storck (2001) identified some activities the companies used to help nurture the communities of practice:

  • Used face-to-face meetings to build ties between disconnected employees who were similar yet unfamiliar with one another
  • Sponsored brown bags lunches to attract individuals with similar interests
  • Used technology to create a database repository of “experts” in various disciplines that could be as a resource; also created a forum where “experts” within the community could reveal themselves by answering questions (this also identifies those who were willing to actively participate)
  • Developed taxonomies and language as groups contributed and shared artifacts

esser and Storck (2000) identified ongoing challenges in determining how to best utilize the social capital made available through the communities of practice. The first challenge involved “manager actions.” Managers need to provide opportunities for individuals to make connections by allowing for face-to-face connections or providing access to appropriate technologies. As can be expected, this might prove to be cost prohibitive.


Threats to Communities of Practice

The past few years have seen many organizations cut costs, down size, and out source in order to remain competitive. The irony is that much of the innovation and action that makes an organization competitive is tethered to its employees. As organizations take these actions, they lose valuable knowledge and disrupt communities of practice (Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright, 2000).

Typical actions that inhibit the formation of communities of practice are keeping employees isolated in cubicles or email communication; creation of elaborate policies, processes, or instructions; manufactured training programs to instigate learning environments rather than commitment to the social nature of learning; and trying to codify the processes of those communities that do function well. In addition, some organizations confuse communities of practice with competencies and thus try to “catalogue the skill sets and maybe even enshrine those skills in the corporate knowledge base (Stamps, 1997).”

When members of the community are not located together, they miss informal encounters with other members, while those who do work together are able to benefit from them. The challenge is in the sharing of “soft knowledge.” In addition, it is also difficult to facilitate the evolution of the group and development of future relationships (Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright, 2000).

“Teams are tightly integrated units driven by deliverables, defined by managerially allocated tasks, and bound together by a collective commitment to results or goals (O'Donnell et al, 2003), whereas, a community of practice “shares experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems (Wenger and Snyder, 2000).”

The challenge for today’s organization is to create an environment that fosters communities of practice. The benefit is increased social capital and an enterprise of perpetual energy that seeks to continually “foster new approaches” to problem solving.



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