July 30, 2018


Communities of practice (CoPs) are defined as “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“ [1].  The term was coined and popularized by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger through their development of social learning theory [2]. CoPs stemmed from studying apprenticeship learning models.  In a traditional apprenticeship, an individual learns a trade by watching a master perform their work and picking up bits of knowledge. As the apprentice becomes familiar with the techniques and processes performed by the master he or she begins to take on some of the day-to-day responsibilities allowing the apprentice to develop his or her own skills.  With enough observation and practice the apprentice gains the experience to perform the trade on their own. In turn the apprentice can contribute to the practice them self by experimenting with modified techniques, sharing successful developments with other tradespeople, and teach others entering the practice.

CoPs are typically less rigid than this traditional mentor-mentee apprenticeship model but it lent several key concepts to Lave and Wenger’s theory.  Strategies such as learning from the peripherals and picking up underlying duties before performing the overall task came from this model. However, the most critical concepts taken from apprenticeships, that members share a domain, a community, and a practice, are those that define a CoP.  More formally, the three qualifying characteristics of a CoP are:

  • Domain: Members of a CoP have a shared domain of interest and a commitment to that domain.
  • Community: Members of a CoP engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, share information, interact and learn together.
  • Practice: Members of a CoP have a shared practice.  That is, they “develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems”. [1]

There is no rulebook for forming a CoP — they can develop with intent or naturally, in person or online — which can be a challenge for groups or individuals seeking to do so.  However this also highlights an advantage of CoPs: there are no financial or organizational prerequisites. A CoP is defined by its members rather than an outside party.   It is a dynamic social structure that relies upon its members to engage with one another, share old practices and new knowledge, and incorporating new members into the community so they too can cultivate and sustain the CoP [3].  As a result, the value of each member is placed on their internal motivations and interest over all other factors. “The value of the notion communities of practice to Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Anthropology lies in the fact that it identifies a social grouping not in virtue of shared abstract characteristics (e.g. class, gender) or simple co-presence (e.g. neighborhood, workplace), but in virtue of shared practice” [4].  This is particularly true of online CoPs where abstract characteristics are shared at the discretion of the individuals and co-presence is a non-factor. By being member-defined, CoPs are not withheld to outside influences or superficial constraints. Members are free to broaden or narrow the focus, or shift it all together, to explore parts of the domain that best capture the groups interest and benefits their practice.

A second advantage of CoPs is an emphasis on socialized learning.  By the nature of community learning, this point may seem evident but it is worth highlighting as it is critical to Wenger’s theory.  In the apprenticeship model described in the introduction it can seem that the learning model is an effective way of transferring knowledge from the master to the student, similarly to a student being lectured by a professor.  However studies of the model reveal that it is in fact the complex set of social relationships that induces learning among not only novices but the competent and the experienced [1].


  1. Wenger-Trayner, E., Wenger-Trayner, B. (n.d.) (web log) Introduction to Communities of Practice. Wenger-Trayner.com. Retrieved from http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/
  2. Lave, J. and E. Wenger (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  3. Cambridge, D., Kaplan, S., & Suter, V. (2005) Community of Practice Design Guide. EduCause. Retrieved from https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2005/1/nli0531-pdf.pdf
  4. Eckert, P. (2006). Communities of practice. Encyclopedia of language and linguistics, 2(2006), 683-685.