What are communities of practice?

What Are Communities of Practice?

Communities of Practice (CoPs) sound new and exciting, but the truth is, you’ve been a part of CoPs your whole life — likely without even realizing it! 

Though humans have long gathered in CoPs, it’s only recently we’ve formally studied these communities. And, in today’s constant churn of difficult to parse, partisan information (and misinformation), finding and supporting CoPs is more important than ever. 

To help you better understand what a CoP is and how best to utilize them, let’s trace their history and look at how they work in today’s world. 

Communities of Practice in action

In short, CoPs offer a formalized method of storing and sharing knowledge. They can be as simple as a group of novice chefs sharpening their skills in an online cooking class or as complex as a group of architects attending a mega-conference on modern structural engineering.  

When a group of people interested in or passionate about learning something decides to regularly meet and share information, it opens the door to accessibility, growth and deeper understanding – and that’s exactly what a CoP is. 

What is the goal of Communities of Practice?

CoPs allow us to transfer knowledge, build skills and innovate together.  

Ideally, they democratize and preserve information that offers both personal and professional growth for current and future “community members”.  

Benefits of CoPs  

  • Encourages camaraderie, synergy and innovation  
  • Allows exposure to (and interaction with) experts in the field  
  • Breaks down departmental silos and creates a broader community through more “approachable” information 

Inclusive by nature, CoPs are built on the idea that the more we work together, share resources/information/practice with each other, the more we can benefit from the ever-changing pool of collective knowledge on specific subjects. This not only helps us find synergies and opportunities for innovation and collaboration, but it also breaks down barriers between teams and individuals, too.  

Origin of Communities of Practice

CoPs are rooted in the oldest method of passing on information—that is, storytelling. As knowledge has been gathered and cultural norms created, stories, lessons and best practices have been passed on from one generation to another, and these were all CoPs. 

However, it wasn’t until 1998 that the idea of CoPs was formalized by anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. The effort was made so that all this valuable knowledge might be passed on in a more condensed and semi-structured way. 

Once the idea of CoPs was formalized, it became much easier to spot them throughout culture – from kitchens to museums and more. 

Naturally, CoPs exist in formal learning institutions, like Lethbridge College!  

Communities of Practice impact on formal education

Lethbridge College is inherently a Community of Practice because it’s an established space where knowledge is shared through social pathways. From informal hallway chats to more formal classroom gatherings, CoPs impact education by deepening sharing and increasing levels of application for all.  

Because CoPs are organically inclusive, gathering people together from different backgrounds, cultures and departments, they vitalize institutions by fostering innovation through cross-connection.

Innovation through initiative: The key to a flourishing Community of Practice

However, we don’t need to be enrolled in a formal institution to enjoy the benefits of CoPs. Just like those first storytellers, we can create our own, wherever we are. 

Whatever area/subject you’re interested in and wish to pursue further, you can take ownership of the idea and become the catalyst that brings people together in a brand-new CoP. It’s this ownership—this initiative—that creates space, creates a community, for innovation. 

Interested in learning more about CoPs?  

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