Knowledge Management for Development Journal, Vol 13, No 3 (2017)

Learning In Communities: Understanding Communities Of Practice In The Development Sector

Aditi Sethi

Abstract


It is widely agreed that knowledge sharing between professionals plays an integral role in making social development work more efficient and more effective. Development agencies are increasingly investing in spaces where knowledge can be documented and exchanged, and terms of reference for projects often request that information be shared with stakeholders. One way to capture and facilitate knowledge sharing is through communities of practice. By understanding how learning occurs through communities of practice, their operations can become more effective and their use can become more formalized and widespread.

This research paper seeks to examine the theory behind learning through communities of practice, to apply the theory to real-life virtual communities of practice, and to thereby distill best-practices for creating vibrant virtual communities of practice that are situated in the development sector. An examination of the theory behind communities reveals that a “community of practice” exists only insofar as the members are learning from one another to improve their common practice. Operationally, a virtual community of practice can remove many barriers to participation; however, virtual and off-line communities face similar challenges in motivating learning exchange between members. The paper combines interviews with four facilitators of communities of practices with extensive literature research to extract five practices for building successful online communities of practice in the development sector:

• Develop stakeholder alignment to ensure that all parties have the same understanding of the community goals and interests.
• Create a structure that promotes local variations and global connections by establishing facilitators for the community who demonstrate expertise.
• Ensure frequent communication is possible and encouraged through appropriate technology and open channels.
• Create a balance between practice and reification by building incentives for reviewing interactions and creating learning products.
• Measure growth and successes using monitoring tools to track the development and interests of the community.

These five practices can encourage learning through communities of practice, thereby maintaining their vibrancy. The findings of this research paper are constrained by a small number of communities that were examined. Further research could focus more keenly on qualitative analyses of community archives to better understand the behavior of participants.

Full Text: PDF