What is Community of Practice?

Safeer Ullah Khan

Development Professional

community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a craft or a profession. The concept was first proposed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning (Lave & Wenger 1991). A CoP can evolve naturally because of the members’ common interest in a particular domain or area, or some practitioners may create one deliberately with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field.

CoPs can exist in physical settings, for example, a lunchroom at work, a community space (chaupal or hujra), or a common room at an office. However, it may not necessarily be a physical space, and members may not necessarily meet in person. Modern technology has made it possible to form virtual communities of practice (VCoP). The members of a community of practice interact in the virtual world through online platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, or any other web based forum.

It is important to note that this idea is not new. It existed in an informal setting in various communities since long. Community spaces like Hujra, Chaupal, or Autaq are a few examples. Such spaces are in existence for centuries, and people share their experiences with their friends and trade partners gathered at such community spaces. Famers would share their tricks on how they got a bumper crop, or avoided losses in case of a pest attack. Truck drivers in Pakistan use roadside restaurants (popularly known as truck hotels) as community of practice space, and share information with other truck drivers about road conditions, shorter routes, and toll payments. Nobody forms these communities. They just grow up as the need arises; they are informal in nature.  

A Chaupal in village in Punjab

However, in recent years, people from various interest groups or trades including development professionals have started establishing formal Communities of Practice. People with similar interests meet regularly or create online experience sharing spaces to learn from one another. These communities of practice do not grow up naturally, but someone or the other would establish such a community with clear mandate, a simple structure, and terms of reference.

It would be pertinent to mention here that Community of Practice is neither a training workshop, nor a lessons learnt conference. The participants share their experiences, and tell one another what worked and what did not work. Sharing failures is as important as sharing successes. Similarly, sharing process is also an important aspect of Community of Practice.

Similarly, it is important to understand that every participant of the Community of Practice is a teacher as well as a learner. Everybody has something to learn from the CoP, and everybody has something to teach. It does not have a pre-set target. It focuses on exclusively on sharing experiences, tricks and tips for successfully implementing projects, and bringing about a change in the lives of the target communities.

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