To be or not to be a part of Community of Practice (CoP) isn’t the question anymore. If you want to gain maximum leverage out of your e-learning course then it would be safe to say that being a part of a CoP is a must. Worldwide CoPs are gaining traction as they help e-learners successfully manage the knowledge gained from online courses and training programs and maneuver the rough and tumble of the real world without much being lost in translation. So what is a Community of Practice (CoP)? In simple terms as per Etienne Wenger, educational theorist and practitioner, CoPs 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. Wenger along with cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave was the first to use this term in 1991.
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The fast-moving virtual economy doesn’t tend to wait for slow-moving traditional hierarchy (as per Heather Smith) and thus it is important that e-learners get solutions to their practical problems in real time. Members of CoPs help each other by way of giving insights during problem-solving, answering each others requests for local and global information, sharing stories about unique or unforeseen situation a member might have been in, giving each other a sense of belonging, reusing the company’s assets smartly and minimizing costs since mistakes are avoided when a member/s learn from another. They also tend to figure out gaps in knowledge quicker than an individual can do on his/her own.
In his book on CoPs, Wenger very carefully suggests that just about any community or coming together of people based on a common interest can’t qualify as a CoP. That would be a team or a Community of Interest (CoI). To figure out the difference between a CoP and a team see this link (http://www.innovativelearning.com/teaching/communities_of_practice.html. )
Wenger lists three main qualifiers, and they are :
a)The domain: People should come together based on an interest in a particular domain . In his words, Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people.
b)The Community: The people in this community come together with the aim of helping each other in a semi-formal manner. Neither total chaos nor a tight structure during discussions is encouraged in such communities.
c)The Practice: Now that we have defined the Who and the what, let us explain the how. One might learn courses in isolation, but the practical application of the knowledge thus gained almost always happens in teams and is aimed at improving the lives of the individual, his organization and the customers. So, CoPs give you an idea as to how your knowledge might be perceived in the real world. Again In Wenger’s words, Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems in short, a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction.
A very famous example of CoP that is often cited: Brown and Duguid (2000). They describe a CoP developed around the Xerox customer service representatives who repaired the machines in the field. These reps would come back to office and would share the tips and tricks they learnt on field informally. However, soon lot of people started taking interest in these field stories and the Xerox management finally formalized the process, so that their sales reps globally could benefit from these tips and tricks. Soon a lot of interaction was happening and it became known popularly as the Eureka project (very aptly named, wouldn’t you say?) Guess what, as per records this project saved the company an enormous amount of money (nearly $ 100 million) since the reps easily learnt from each other. Google and Apple are currently the global forerunners when it comes to having a strong CoP, but other organizations aren’t much far behind. In India, Max Life Insurance and Forbes India etc have successfully used the CoP model. However, it is not necessary that a CoP should consist of members of a particular organization only, e-learners can build CoPs based on their courses as well.