Disruptive Technologies

Course site for Disruptive Technologies. Exploring identity, community, & design.

Jay Loomis – Ants, Wenger, & Communities of Practice

In the writings on communities of practice by Etienne Wenger, there were several specific characteristics that the author described that caught my attention. To start, he made a point of defining his terms: community and practice. He specified that for his purposes these ideas need to be considered has a whole: communities of practice. One of the most important defining characteristics is that these groups of people are bound together, not only by having a common goal, but also through the collaborative actions that individuals in the group undertake to achieve that goal.

The author explains three elements of a community of practice: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and common repertoire. An important aspect of “mutual engagement” is that members are not required to have similar skill sets or backgrounds; in fact, diversity is valuable and can help a community of practice to achieve their objectives. “Joint enterprise” refers to the collaboration that takes place and the accountability that is a necessary part of this system. The “shared repertoire” refers to shared expectations and experiences that accumulate from the group; after spending time acting together as a team, they know what to expect and have common references related to their objectives that help them to act effectively.

A community of practice can be described as a purposeful, intentional group of people who act together to achieve common objectives, with a variety of individual perspectives on how to approach problem solving situations.

As I read these articles by Wenger, I was thinking about some examples of this type of effective community action in nature: ants. There are many examples of the extraordinary feats that ant communities can achieve, from creating huge underground colonies, to creating the paths through perilous jungle terrain, to their singular focus on providing for and caring for their queen. For this reading on communities of practice, I found the following YouTube video of ants creating a bridge to be especially informative while thinking about effective collaboration as a community of practice.

My questions relate to the section where Wenger talks about the need to cultivate communities of practice. What are some specific ways that administrations or managers in hierarchical institutions can encourage this semi-informal yet effective style of team work? What is it about this type of collaboration that sometimes makes managers uncomfortable? What changes in perspective need to take place in hierarchical systems to help managers embrace this style of collaboration?

Fast forward to about 2:20 to see the moment when the gap is bridged.

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1 Comment

  1. Great explanations, Jay. It makes it really simple, and I appreciate the idea about the ants! I would think that instilling a sense of ownership would help lead to this type of community. For me, I have had jobs in multiple places with different levels of this type of community. I feel that the CoP ideals were more evident in places that the management and employees gave regular feedback for their coworkers.

    For instance, at one place, we had a board where you could leave positive comments about someone. If they had gone above and beyond their duties. Every couple of months, the management would randomly pick out a few cards and there would be a prize.

    If you begin to build a community based on excellence, eventually that will play into having pride in what you do. When you have that pride, then you will often work with more of Wenger’s positive theories.

    I hated leaving that place in the end, but I moved. The work ethic I learned there stays with me to today.

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