Posted on November 11, 2009 · Posted in SF Fellow

I talk a lot about communities of practice (CoP) in my work around Siyavula and the concept is key to the strategy and sustainability. Before talking about why we chose Connexions, our community strategy or the impact of the recent announcement by the Minister of Basic Education I need to make sure we’ve got a definition of CoPs handy. I would like to emphasise what CoPs are, their benefits and what they are not.

Communities of Practice

CoP research was pioneered by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave and Etienne has a nice, succinct definiton on his CoP page which I’ll reproduce here:

Communities of practice are 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.

CoPs have:

  • a domain or area in which all members share an interest,
  • members engage in discussion and activities, helping each other and sharing information and
  • members who are practitioners and develop a shared set of resources, knowledge, experience, tool and techniques.

In working with teachers there is ample opportunity to support the formation of communities of practice. Teachers have a common domain, they can benefit from discussion and sharing information and their shared experience, tools and techniques will improve classroom practice. In fact, it has been shown (see for example: Zaslavsky, O., & Leikin, R. (2004)  Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 7, 5 – 32 and Graven, M. (2005) Pythagoras, 61, 2 – 10) that participating in communities of practice is a powerful form of professional development for teachers.

There has been a lot written on CoPs and I’m not going to delve into it here, what I do want to mention are a few anecdotes related to what communities of practice are not.

Forced Groups

I often suggest that people consider working together with the hope that a community of practice will emerge and this is often met with the standard refrain “One person ends up doing all the work!”. My own experience is similar. When forced to work in a group for projects one person often ended up doing all the work (I’m not even going to pretend it was me).

However, forced group-work failing is not a counter-argument to CoPs being useful. It is merely an illustration that you can’t force people to be a community. My own feeling about forced group-work is that nobody wants to be there, the group dynamics haven’t ironed themselves out yet, nobody feels comfortable and the pressure builds up until someone just wants out. After a while this behaviour is reinforced sufficiently that someone takes on the task as soon as the group forms and none of the group workings are ever sorted out.

Rapid Deployment

CoPs are communities, no matter which group development process you favour, all teams or communities grow and this takes time. The Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing process, proposed by Bruce Tuckman, is one well known example of how the process has been categorised. What is important is that there is an organic process a group of people have to experience before they perform (i.e. they are a community, never mind a community of practice).

The challenge here is that even if an organisation has bought into the idea of communities, they take time to evolve and not all are successful. It is impossible to include communities as deliverables on a timeline. The harder you try the more frustrated you are likely to become.


Communities consist of people, it’d be much easier, if much more boring, to manage them if they didn’t, but they do. So, assuming we get some people together and they overcome their group dynamics, achieve the ability to communicate effectively, share ideas, information and even criticism, they still need a purpose to bring them together to be community of practice. The thing about people is that they want to be able to choose.

If people are going to find the time and energy to participate, to overcome the group dynamics, accept and give criticism, then they need to resonate with the purpose of community. The easiest way to achieve this is to allow the communities to decide their own purpose. You will probably also have to accept that their purpose isn’t going to be identical to the one you’d like them to have.

Forcing a group together to immediately work on something they’re not interested in is clearly going to be a disaster. For success we have to rectify all the mistakes in that process, not just one of them. So if we’re somehow going to use CoPs in our work we need to keep this and much, much more in mind. With a lot of help from Hélène Smit, Layo Seriki and Judith Haupt,  I do try but I’ll save the details for another blog post.

About the Author

Mark Horner is the CEO of Siyavula Education, a social enterprise working in the school sector in South Africa. While working as the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow for Open and Collaborative Resources, Mark was able to transform the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, which he co-founded, into Siyavula Education. In this process, openly-licensed, collaboratively authored textbooks have been printed and distributed nationally in South Africa. Working at the intersection of community, openness and technology; Mark intends to leverage this success to make Siyavula an innovative, technology provider in education that works effectively as part of the education community to ensure better learning opportunities for all. A recent notable event being the delivery of Siyavula's textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. Mark has a PhD in physics from the University of Cape Town and conducted his research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California on the results from the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. His work is carried out in the belief that the liberation of information and support of education in South Africa will lead to a peaceful and prosperous future for all South Africans.