Communities of Practice (CoP) by Lave and Wenger (1991) are a well-recognised theoretical construct about expertise and learning. But it is built around individuals in an unconstrained space, and this is now less and less the reality. In CoPs learning paths and expertise building assume individual drivers and freedom in decision making or participation. Here are four reasons why this needs to be reviewed again:
1) CoP peripherality versus team skill models
CoP theory states that people gradually develop expertise and move along a learning path from the periphery toward the centre as they develop their expertise and membership in the community. The more central a person is in the community, the more expertise they possess. However, in collaborative situations, each member of a CoP typically works in their own sphere. This maybe based on their personal strength or dictated by circumstances (human resource requirements). Belbin’s team role model distinguishes 3 categories of roles, oriented towards actions, people, or thoughts, with three levels each. If your role in the team is ‘resource investigator’ you will develop a different expertise than as a ‘specialist’ or a ‘monitor/evaluator’.
Team working is most effective when the team composition is based on complementarity. Expertise then lies in the right connection and chemistry, not in the individual. A teacher plus an IT expert together may be more central to a CoP in e-learning then each of them individually.
3) Social recognition
It has to be said that expertise is not easily attributable to popularity in a network. Social recognition may mostly be based on personal marketing skills and efforts rather than domain knowledge or expertise. Additionally, certain domain standards (e.g. number of publications) may actually distract from expertise. A common pattern is the expectation that members of CoPs simply fall in line and “play the game” and, therefore, become accepted experts. This may lead to the phenomenon of mutually enforcing recognition leading to a false hype. …hey, and everyone in TEL is on Facebook now!
4) Participation does not equate to expertise
Likewise, social currency of expertise cannot be measured by verboseness of people in a community, but should take into account demand and requests from others. Despite of the Twitter phenomenon that the more nonsense you publish the more followers you will have, I don’t think this is a learning path to follow.