III: Social knowledge management in action: Some empirical studies in rural India

Cultivating online communities of practice to facilitate practice-oriented rural–urban knowledge exchange through collaborative learning spaces


The earlier part of this book, after tracing the evolution of knowledge management practices and technical architecture, furthered a conceptualization of our social knowledge management framework. The effectivity of social knowledge management, in relation to former knowledge management versions, rests in its capability to implement social technology to establish widespread collaborations among diverse social agents. It is social technology-supported social knowledge management that has the potential to facilitate unhindered multidirectional knowledge exchange. The concluding chapter of the preceding section bears reference to our conceptualization of social knowledge management and its credibility in facilitating holistic rural empowerment. Part III of the book discusses the utilization of social knowledge management framework in creating different forms of virtual communities, which would eventually enhance knowledge capabilities of rural producers by bridging rural—urban knowledge divide. In this part we have articulated the conceptual and imple- mentational dynamics of our social knowledge management platform, which has been designed to facilitate different types of community formation between rural—urban agents: a practical way to realize the potential of our devised social knowledge management framework.

We will highlight the effectivity of social knowledge management framework by showing how its collaborative premise is conducive to cultivating different communities, both within rural members and across rural—urban members. Part III of this book spells out the effectivity of social knowledge management in terms of cultivating three types of community: community of practice, community of purpose and community of circumstance. While community of purpose and circumstance will be dealt with in detail in subsequent chapters, we have reserved this chapter to discuss how our proposed framework supports the formation of community of practice.

Community of practice refers to a group of people who share a particular practice. Collaborations among the members of community of practice, or practitioners in other words, result in collective learning, which makes community of practice a collaborative learning space. This chapter is dedicated to spelling out the conceptual framework of community of practice and its practical credibility in achieving holistic empowerment of rural marginalized


The chapter is divided into five sections:

  • • It begins by articulating what community of practice is, the reason behind its inception and its credential in facilitating knowledge collaborations among its members.
  • • The second segment gives a historical account of how collaborative learning spaces have enabled inter- and intra-generational knowledge transmission for some time, long before such spaces were formally identified as community of practice.
  • • The third segment highlights how the idea of community of practice and the knowledge collaboration among members, which it supports, gradually gained ground. With the passage of time, this section bears reference as to how this concept is influenced by several other concepts like the Japanese concept of ba, which has been conceptualized as a shared space of learning, crucial to boosting organizational performance.
  • • The fourth section expands on the relational study between ba and community of practice, as presented in the third section, to highlight the importance community of practice has in organizational context. The section provides examples of companies that have attempted, by cultivating community of practice, to facilitate knowledge exchange among its members, thereby attempting to boost overall organizational performance through such exchange.
  • • The final section highlights the importance of cultivating community of practice in context of rural empowerment. By providing first-hand field insights, the section concludes with how cultivating community of practice using social technologies creates a collaborative learning environment, which has the potential to justly manage social knowledge.

Conceptualizing community of practice

Social actors are continuously — either spontaneously, or in a more organized way or both — trying to build relationships with each other to pave the path for opportunities facilitating collaborative learning. Collaborative learning can act as a potential driver in improving awareness level and current practices of social actors. This collective learning results in practices, which is property of a kind of community, created over time by the sustained pursuit of shared enterprise. Wenger calls this community of practice. He defines communities of practice (CoP) as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better” (Wenger, 1997). Community of practice can evolve naturally because of members’ common interest in a particular domain or can be created and cultivated deliberately with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field (Wenger et al., 2002). According to Wenger et ah, communities of practice are like “gardens” that “benefit from cultivation”. There is a growing interest within organizations to cultivate communities of practice in order to benefit from shared knowledge that may lead to higher productivity (Wenger et ah, 2002; Wenger et ah, 2000). Communities of practice are now viewed by many organizations as a means to capturing tacit knowledge, the knowledge that is not so easily articulated. It is through the process of sharing knowledge that members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

The origin and primary use of community of practice has been in learning theory. It started with Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who coined the term community of practice while studying apprenticeship as a learning model. They studied the relationship between student and master and concluded that, instead of being a simple relationship, the master-student relationship involves complex sets of social relationships through which learning takes place (Lave &c Wenger, 1991). Their research let them look at how apprenticeships help people learn. Initially, newcomers in an organization learn and watch the activities of older members to get familiar with the operational dynamics of the particular organization. It is through this process of socialization that learning becomes a participatory practice, which Lave and Wenger named “situated learning” (Lave &C Wenger, 1991). This proves that, since its very inception, community of practice has been intrinsically linked to the concept of collaborative or networked learning (Cummings Sc van Zee, 2005).

In order to facilitate geographically distributed work practices, the concept of virtual communities of practices (VCoPs) has evolved that supports online interactions among members through the use of internet-enabled social technologies (Dube et al., 2005). With pervasive penetration of mobile technologies, the concept of “mobile communities of practice” (MCoP) (Kietzmann et al., 2013) is also emerging, where members communicate with one another via smartphones and participate in community work on the go. These virtual communities enhance innovative and productive growth of the community members as well as the communities as collective entities beyond the degree of formal organizational structures (Wartburg et al., 2006).

Two viewpoints characterize community of practice (Hoadley, 2012): the feature-based view and the the process-based view.

The feature-based view of community of practice emphasizes the principle of sharing: a community that shares practices (Hoadley, 2012). According to this viewpoint, learning was not a property of individuals and the representations in their heads (the cognitive view), but rather a more relational property of individuals in context and in interaction with one another (the situated view).

The process-based view of community of practice emphasizes the process of knowledge generation, application and reproduction through community participation. Through participation, learners enter a community and gradually take up its practices. In fact, a primary focus of Wenger’s more recent work is on learning as social participation, where an individual constructs his/her identity through active participation in these communities (Wenger et al., 2002).

Factors leading to the cultivation of community of practice

After the joint work with Lave, Wenger embarked on the journey to give a theoretical and practical base to the devised concept of community of practice. He identified seven factors as leading to the cultivation of community of practice (Wenger, 1997):

  • • The community should be designed in a way so that it evolves naturally. It should be flexibly designed to incorporate shift in focus with changing surrounding conditions.
  • • The created community must facilitate open dialogue within and with outside perspectives.
  • • The community must welcome and allow different levels of participation among members.
  • • The community should accommodate both private and public spaces within the practice to adequately enable shared context on a wide range.
  • • The community should put special emphasis on the value of the community.
  • • The community should provide opportunities to members to shape their learning experience through collective brainstorming sessions.
  • • The community should facilitate a thriving cycle of activities and events that motivates the members to regularly meet, reflect and evolve.

Components of community of practice

After articulating the prerequisites in the process of cultivating community of practice, Wenger goes on to articulate the three components of community of practice (Wenger, 1997): Domain — Community of practice has an identity defined by a shareddomain of interest. • Community — Within the shared domain of interest, members engage injoint activity and discussions, help each other and share relevant information and knowledge. This collaborative learning environment leads to theformation of community. • Practice — Community of practice is not just a community of interest. A keyparadigm is the fact that members of community of practice are practitioners, who enliven the community through their active participation. Theshared practice enables the members to develop a shared repertoire ofresources, such as experience, stories and tools.

Structure of community of practice

Based on the components of community of practice, Wenger proceeded to produce a formal structurization of community of practice. Wenger postulated that the structure of community of practice consists of three inter-related terms (Wenger, 1997, p. 72-73):

  • • Mutual engagement. In community of practice, through participation, members establish norms and build collaborative relationships, which have been identified as mutual engagement. These collaborative relationships bind the members of community together as a social entity and enhance both bridging and bonding social capital.
  • • Joint enterprise. Through interactions, the members create shared understandings of what binds them together. This is referred to as joint enterprise. Joint enterprise can be referred to as the “domain” of the community.
  • • Shared repertoire. As a part of shared practice, community produces a set of communal resources. These communal resources have been identified as shared repertoire and are derivative of the common practice that integrates the members of community of practice.

Factors determining sustainability of community of practice

It is the simultaneous and sustained cultivation of the above-mentioned aspects that contribute to formation of community of practice. The sustenance of community of practice is thought to be dependent on three factors (Battistella, 2015):

  • • Social presence: Communicating with others in community of practice includes creation of social presence. Tu (2002) defines social presence in terms of degree of salience of another person in an interaction and consequent salience of an inter-personal relationship. Social presence affects the likelihood of an individual’s participation in community of practice.
  • • Motivation: Motivation of members to share knowledge is critical in sustaining community of practice (Ardichvilli et al., 2003).
  • • Collaboration: Effective networking between members accounts to be both the necessary and sufficient condition for thriving community of practice.

The above descriptions reaffirm the potential community of practice has in enabling democratic knowledge exchange, where one and all is accredited with the potential to contribute to the collective knowledge pool. By connecting individuals with other relevant social actors, community of practice not only enables formation of a dynamic knowledge repository but also facilitates discussion forums through expert connect, enlivened by voluntary collaboration between communitarian members. While community of practice can be formed physically, contemporary social technology and its connecting spirit has promising prospects to offer in the domain of cultivating such practice-oriented communities in virtual space. Optimal cultivation of online community of practice can be achieved both through synchronous (live online interactions, such as video conferencing) and asynchronous (offline interactions, such as instant online messaging and discussion forums) mode. Such a setup transcends providing communitarian members access to relevant knowledge resources. Through effective exchange, community of practice thereby successfully cultivates knowledge-operating capacities or knowledge capability of communitarian members.

As Figure 11.1 highlights, online community of practice can act as a facilitator to create knowledge repository, initiate discussion forums, provide access to experts and promote relevant exchange over synchronous and asynchronous mode of operations. Only such an optimal facilitation through creation of practice-oriented community offers the potential to simultaneously cultivate

Community of practice

Figure 11.1 Community of practice: A conceptual framework social capital and knowledge capability of communitarian members through the creation of collaborative learning spaces. The multi-dimensional credentials of community of practice in enabling democratic knowledge exchange are increasingly marking its importance in academic, developmental and business domains.

However, it needs to be remembered that, although the formal inception of the concept can be traced to recent times, collaborative learning space, which happens to be the premise of community of practice, is not a new activity. Historically people have been learning and sharing knowledge and experience through the act of storytelling. It is through such informal knowledge exchange within community - long before formal association with community of practice — that collaborative learning spaces have evolved and facilitated inter- and intra-generational knowledge transmission. In the following section we will focus on collaborative learning spaces of early society to draw a continuum between these informal collaborations of early society and the one recently formulated as community of practice.

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