Communities of Practice LO27115

From: Don Dwiggins (
Date: 08/07/01

Replying to LO27100 --

John D Smith writes:
> I know that on this list Fred has been doing some of the heavy lifting on
> this subject, but I have to take some responsibility for the intentionally
> inflammatory statement about whether it's organizations or communities
> that learn (in

>> * One answer is that it's not organizations that learn. It's the
>> communities inside them (and around them and on their borders)
>> that really do the learning.

Actually, it sounds like John and Fred are at odds here. For example,
Fred has repeatedly spoken in this vein (taken from LO27102):

> What you describe above is what I mean by "organization" -- that lifeless,
> legal, property-owning, tax-paying entity most often known by its alias:
> the corporation. So, to be more specific, corporations do not learn,
> people do.

Two questions come to mind:
 - Do communities (of practice) learn, or is it just the individuals in
them that learn?
 - Can a community of practice be considered an organization? Is it
useful to do so?

> I did not intend to disparage organizations or any effort to improve their
> learning capacity. I do believe that the term "Learning Organization" is
> helpful in calling attention to a raft of important issues. At the same
> time, I find it helpful to look one level down at the communities that
> make up an organization and the relationships between those communities.

Another question: What (if any) would be the difference between a learning
organization and an organization that is coextensive with the union of its
communities? (Or perhaps better put, an organization that is structured
as a community of communities of practice.)

> This morning I happened to be reading something that reminded me of this
> discussion:

> "To the degree that communities of practice deepen their learning, they
> inevitably create boundaries. This is a natural outcome of joint
> learning. But to the degree that members get involved in a lot of
> interactions with other people in an effort to overcome these boundaries,
> they may loose their focus and th4 depth of their home expertise. I would
> argue that the learning potential of an organization lies in this
> balancing act between deep core practices and active boundary processes."
> -- Etienne Wenger, "Communities of Practice: The Key to Knowledge
> Strategy", Knowledge Directions: The Journal of the Institute for
> Knowledge Management, 1 (Fall 1999): 48-63. (Reprinted in Eric L. Lesser,
> et al., Knowledge and Communities (Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann,
> 2000).

By the way, the cases I referred to in "Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons"
(LO26939), where a commons was satisfactorily managed, all involved what I
think could be called "communities of practice". I think the above
paragraph probably applies nicely to such communities; in particularly,
managing the shared commons would definitely be an "active boundary

I say "I think" because I'm forming (tentative) conclusions from reading
second-hand descriptions. I'd love to see someone competent in such
things take on the task of studying actual "managed commons" to see what
the necessary structure and dynamics really are for successfully managing
a commons (along with a "failure analysis" for the situations where
well-managed commons turned into tragedies -- examples are in the
references cited in the message).


Don Dwiggins "The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA." Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail

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