In the April Core E-Forum, participants were asked to discuss Communities of Practice (CoP), consider how a CoP could/should function, and how it might be useful to apply at organizations with distributed personnel. While many participants had little experience with CoPs prior to the e-forum, a wide variety of aspects of CoPs were discussed, including membership, organizational structure, and motivation for forming a CoP. These discussions also identiﬁed key areas for continued investigation, including how CoPs differ from other working or interest groups, the decision-making power of CoPs, and the balance between formality and ﬂexibility in creating and sustaining the community.
In discussing CoP membership, e-forum participants agreed that enthusiastic support is essential to ensure the long-term success of the community. Some participants observed that engagement suffers when members are inactive or roles are unclear; similarly, respondents also noted that simply providing a shared time, location, and topic of shared interest, or intentionally recruiting individuals believed to be most excited about the topic, maybe insufﬁcient for the long-term success of the CoP. In fact, coordinators need to actively work on retention of members, such as by identifying barriers to participation in order to provide alternate channels to engage with the CoP. This is not to say that a CoP with limited engagement is a failure, though; instead, limited participation could indicate a more complex problem, such as cultural readiness or a lack of organizational ﬂexibility to accommodate such a group. Regardless of the issues, though, the goal for CoP facilitators is to attempt to meet the community where it is: if unprepared, tabling the CoP for a later time might be more beneﬁcial, otherwise, momentum may be lost, the community might become unsustainable, and could leave lingering hostilities in community participants.
Creating low barriers for involvement, beyond attending meetings or listening to peer presentations, provides a greater chance for broader engagement and meaningful contributions from community members. The idea was posed that, perhaps CoPs have an advantage in their amorphous nature: due to their organic and spontaneous nature, CoPs can take advance of ﬂuid membership, with individuals rolling on and off as their interests and capacity changes; they can be more nimble, adapting and pivoting based on community needs; and they can model an empathetic and inclusive culture by truly building a sense of community and being supportive of one another, especially during the early stages.
CoPs defy single organizational rules, as they are not restricted to a single deﬁnition or implementation. Speciﬁcations vary from one CoP to another, as do the scopes of practice. Sometimes this looks like a narrowly deﬁned scope, such as the nuances of music cataloging, or are broad and inclusive, like the topic of library instruction. Similarly, CoPs can be constructed around varying degrees of formality– some beneﬁt from ambiguity, while others require a deﬁned structure and clearly articulated roles. One critical component of CoPs that emerged is the potential for shifting from conversations to action. Discussions can morph into clarity of purpose, which can, in turn, result in taking action by those members truly committed or interested in the topic.
Future discussions around CoPs, especially when transitioning from theory to practice in libraries, could explore issues raised in this e-forum. This includes understanding how CoPs differ from other informal and formal groups, and when a CoP might be preferred to overtask forces and committees. For example, given the need for cross-training and sharing of skills in libraries, understanding how CoPs could potentially be a solution to that or a complement to professional networks, would be beneﬁcial to librarians writ large.
Another area of discussion was the need for clarity around the decision-making power available to a given CoP. While this will likely differ from institution to institution, use cases and conversations about participants’ perceptions of the policy-making power of the CoP, the CoP’s actual power, and methods of advocacy (e.g., securing support from upper-level administrators and establishing clear expectations for the CoP) would be valuable contributions to this discussion.
Finally, while CoPs beneﬁt from ﬂexibility, there is additional room to investigate how leaders and members of the community can strike the right balance between structure and adaptability. For example, some CoPs might beneﬁt from the absence of a speciﬁc charge, in order to learn, grow, and invite discussion, while others might beneﬁt from a highly formalized structure with clear delineated goals. The exact balance will likely differ for many CoPs– but articulations for how to ﬁnd the right balance would be of beneﬁtto the profession.
The authors invite responses to this brief summary–are there critical readings missing from the selected bibliography? Are there ﬁndings you disagree with or wish to discuss more?
Bettiol, Marco, and Silvia R. Sedita. “The Role of Community of Practice in Developing Creative Industry Projects.” International Journal of Project Management, vol. 29, no. 4, 2011, pp. 468-479.
Blackmore, Chris. Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. London: Springer, 2010.
Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium, (ERLC). “Creating Communities of Practice.”
Erik Andriessen, J. H. Archetypes of Knowledge Communities. Edited by Peter Van Den Besselaar, et al., Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, 2005.
Kimmel, Sue, Elizabeth Burns, and Jeffrey Discala. “Community at a Distance: Employing a Community of Practice Framework in Online Learning for Rural Students. “Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, vol. 60, no. 4, 2019, pp. 265-284.
Smith, Sue, Steve Kempster, and Etienne Wenger-Trayner.”Developing a Program Community of Practice for Leadership Development.” Journal of Management Education, vol. 43, no. 1, 2019, pp. 62-88, doi:10.1177/1052562918812143.
Wenger, E. Conceptual Tools for CoPs as Social Learning Systems: Boundaries, Identity, Trajectories, and Participation. , 2010, doi:10.1007/978-1-84996-133-2_8.
Wenger, Etienne, and William Snyder. “Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier.” Harvard Business Review, vol. 78, no. 1, 2000, pp. 139-145.
Wenger-Traynor, Beverly and Wenger-Traynor, Etienne. “Introduction to Community of Practice.”
– Peggy Griesinger, Mikala Narlock, and Laura Sill, e-Forum moderators
Core e-Forums are two-day, moderated, electronic discussion forums that provide an opportunity for librarians and library professionals to discuss matters of interest on an email discussion list. These discussions are free of charge and available to anyone who wishes to subscribe to the email list.