Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reading :: Communities of Practice

Originally posted: Tue, 22 Aug 2006 20:18:14

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity

by Etienne Wenger

This is my second time to read Etienne Wenger's book Communities of Practice, a well cited study of claims processing at an insurance company. Wenger's after a better understanding of how people form communities in work, how they learn and teach each other, and how they cope with changing organizations and practices. As he puts it in the introduction:

If we proceed without reflecting on our fundamental assumptions about the nature of learning, we run an increasing risk that our conceptions will have misleading ramifications. In a world that is changing and becoming more complexly interconnected at an accelerating pace, concerns about learning are certainly justified. But perhaps more than learning itself, it is our conception of learning that needs urgent attention when we choose to meddle with it on the scale on which we do today. ... As we become more ambitious in attempts to organize our lives and our environment, the implications of our perspectives, theories and beliefs extend further.

Wenger is talking in part about the move toward knowledge work, although I don't think he ever uses that term. Work is "becoming more complexly interconnected" indeed, as Wenger illustrates in his study, and conceptions of learning and apprenticeship have not kept up. We constantly read exhortations for knowledge workers to engage in "lifelong learning," but few have actually attempted to figure out exactly how lifelong learning is supposed to work -- and how the different pace and character of interconnected work affects traditional learning. Wenger really rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on this problem, and that's what makes this book so valuable.

In particular, Wenger highlights the differences between formal training and the constant contingencies that workers encounter in his study (p.36). "Living," he suggests, "is a constant process of negotiating meaning" (p.53). And most of the book involves developing the concepts and terms that allow us to understand this negotiation.

The conceptual apparatus becomes fairly interesting in Chapter 4, in which Wenger leverages the notion of boundary objects and uses it as a starting point for an extended discussion of boundaries, overlaps, peripheries, boundary practices, and boundary encounters. I can see how this work has influenced third-generation activity theory in particular. It's certainly important as we begin studying more networked, interpenetrated organizations.

In the coda that comes between chapters 5 and 6, Wenger discusses "regimes of competence": "a community of practice acts as a locally negotiated regime of competence," he argues, referring to the mutuality of engagement, the accountability to the enterprise, and the negotiability of the repertoire in a given community of practice (p.137). Such regimes are important to conceptualize and study in knowledge work, where different standards of competence clash and merge.

So there's a lot of good in this book. The subject matter is gripping. Unfortunately, the style is not. In particular, the narrative sections attempt to tell stories from this workplace in an engaging style modeled after fiction -- but this style is hard to carry off, and the sections read like a "young adult" novel. In these segments, Wenger throws in superfluous details, speculates about the thoughts of his informants without much basis, and uses adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors with abandon. Here's the end of a long, impossibly and unnecessarily detailed account of one informant's workday.

The freeway is already a bit slow. Toward the city, Ariel looks at the brownish haze of smog hanging over the hills: the sky looks like it has dragged the hem of its bright evening gown in the dust. The thing is, it only seems to be getting worse. Pollution really worries her. What about cancer? There was that old lady whose husband was dying of cancer and who called her three times to ask the same question about hospital deductibles. What is going to happen? Ariel would even pay a bit more for gas if she knew it would help. But it would probably go into someone's pocket. As she turns on the radio and starts tapping the beat on her steering wheel, she thinks of the computer system she uses, of the new one to be installed soon that is supposed to do so much more, of the elevator that talks to you. Pollution? "Well, I'm sure they'll figure out something."

Brrr. Apart from the style, it's impossible to determine how much of this is wholly fictionalized and how much actually came out of an interview. But the overall portrayal is not complementary to Ariel, who comes off as thinking very shallowly about an issue that concerns her. This portrayal may or may not be accurate, but I doubt that an informant's depth of thinking about an issue can be measured through interviews and observations regarding an entirely different phenomenon.


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