Thursday, July 10, 2008

communities of practice

Having spent Saturday morning with Etienne Wenger, I can see that there are areas of compatibility and difference with actor-network theory.
This post identifies some relevant to the 'community of practice' I am involved with in my doctoral studies; a youth telephone counselling agency utilising text messaging.

There are compatibilities.
Shaping of people, identity formation happens in relationship.
Maintaining a community of practice takes work.
A community of practice is 'most interesting' when confounded.

There are also substantive differences:
There is no consideration given to non human actors. Semiotic relationality is limited to shaping people and does not consider the influence of non human entities whether technological, or of place.
The theory regarding community of practice is restricted to the learning environment rather than all assemblies that shape. In assembling the social, there is so much more learning that happens in hap hazard ways.

I recall reading of communities of practice when doing my Masters thesis (A Philosophical analysis of community care)and at that time was hit by the rosy glow effusing; a saturation of warmth emanated from such communities, and at the time this was far from my experience of community (where an absence of care seemed to be in ascendance politically, though I acknowledge my analysis is contestable).
Etienne openly acknowledging the validity of earlier critique identifying that communities are not necessarily warm or embracing places.
He also engaged in discussing a dissertation he had recently been involved with where the notion of community of practice for learning was argued as being amoral. This evolved into a discussion of identity formation. How we might be influenced or shaped also occurs in choosing to distance oneself from a community. How free we are to choose being an interesting debate that reminded me of Sartre's philosophical questions. Latour I imagine would respond that the influence needs to be tangible, connections, even if fleeting or via secondary sources still needs to connect, need to be traceable.

More recently I had read Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, w. (2002) Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
I enjoyed the way they describe how knowledge 'sticks' to practice in unexpected ways (p152). That knowledge can have difficulties crossing boundaries of practice even within an organisation. The tendency for practitioners to stick to their own kind- and the resulting 'stickiness' of knowledge itself, apparently explains why knowledge brokers are so important in organisations that depend on combining knowledge from different domains (p.251).
However, I am not convinced that 'knowledge brokers' are not just another morphing of the notions of change theory where people are seen as holding stable attributions such as being an early adopter etc. They cite a reference on this from Hargadon and Sutton, 1997, Technology Brokering and innovation in a product development firm (Administrative Science Quarterly 42, no 4; 716-749.) The language of innovation from E. M. Rogers is pervasive.
I like how they name knowledge as sticking in unexpected ways. I agree. I'm just not convinced that its because of any inherent stickiness of knowledge. (As with technology, so too with knowledge, neither have their own trajectory.)
I would argue that practices or performances do stick, but there are assemblages that make it more or less likely that these are sustained.

They also describe knowledge as 'leaky' where it flows easily within a practice, even interorganisationally. Again, I think Latour and Law and others, nail this in assembling the social, assemblages make it more or less likely.

The community of practice argument is that boundary crossing can be a scene of deep learning. Radically new insights and developments often arise at the boundaries between communities. Something very creative can take place in the meeting. Extending on the idea put forward that boundaries are learning assets in their own right as argued by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (p. 153) I suggest this is because the assemblage is altered. Things can always be / always are different.

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