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Learning communities at the workplace: a community of practice

Learning is a process that modifies behaviour starting from experiences and the meaning attributed to one’s doing within the social context.

Learning comminuties

Learning as a social process: collaborative learning methods

When we encounter a problem at work, our points of reference are those who know more about it than we do, or who, in any case, have a wealth of experience superior to our own and are willing to share it: likely, the solution proposed by our colleagues (which has been verified to be correct) will be learnt more quickly, since it is linked to a real, contingent situation already faced. This solution will be the best way to tackle the problem, making implicit knowledge explicit.

In fact, referring to Bruner’s theories (1990) on learning as a social process, the most effective, most meaningful knowledge arises from a process of social construction, from sharing objectives, practices, and collective identity. Bruner emphasises that learning is a constructive process based on processing information, using strategies and testing hypotheses, in a context that cannot do without collaboration between participants. Collaborative learning methods improve problem-solving strategies as learners can confront various interpretations and perspectives of a situation.

Communities of Practice in the workspace

In this sense, we can learn a lot in our workplaces when we create Communities of Practice (CoPs): these are informal groups of people who share the same interests or work tasks (thus with a strong social cohesion), and who arise, often spontaneously, to exchange experiences, advice, or daily work practices.

New technologies, in particular web 2.0 and its tools, have facilitated the emergence of such communities of practice in the virtual sphere, multiplying the opportunities for sharing knowledge, experiences, and practices, as well as remote collaboration. The Virtual Professional Community (VPC) is a virtual place for workers to exchange information for continuous learning and growth. By exploiting the informational and participatory dimensions, using a virtual space, the VPC becomes a tool for discussion, professional development, exchange of experiences and best practices.

Types of Communities of Practice

Two types of communities of practice can be defined:

  • the first one evolves from a learning community regarding a group of newly trained people who continue the collaborative experience (in person or virtual) even after the end of the training course;
  • the second one arises from the need to share experiences between professionals in different work areas (Wenger, 1999).

In the first case, this almost natural evolution is favoured by the common experience of participating in a training process that had already seen them as a “group” and by the desire to maintain contact between participants. Here, the goal is concretising them in self-help and support in practicing what has been learnt, socialising problems and, even better, strategies and solutions for using new knowledge. In the second case, professional communities are established mainly for the competitive advantage deriving from sharing experiences and tacit knowledge, seen as an opportunity for collective growth and enrichment of the store of knowledge and skills.

In both cases, new repertoires of knowledge are created through the group’s continuous interactions and relationships. People even geographically distant from each other but close from an experiential, cognitive and professional viewpoint and with a strong sense of belonging constantly share and pool their skills. In this way, they can solve not routine problems that can be overcome perhaps by consulting a database, but completely new, unexpected problems, consequently generating new knowledge that can be exported to the organisation’s standardised knowledge repertoires.

Main elements of Communities of Practice

To sum up, the structural elements that characterise participants in a CoP are:

  • desire to share daily experiences and working practices
  • ability to work collaboratively and cooperatively around a common task
  • strong group identity
  • autonomous spirit of action
  • self-management of processes (metacompetences)
  • predisposition for peer-assisted self-learning (peer to peer). 

Three elements characterise learning in CoP from a methodological viewpoint: 

  1. the focus must be on the learner: knowledge can be acquired only through active construction of the subject;
  2. knowledge is closely linked to the context of application; 
  3. how knowledge is created, expressed and modified: learning is a social process in which emotional and motivational aspects play an important role; therefore, interaction with other subjects is the most effective “tool” for the formation and transfer of knowledge 


Learners as community members

Learning originates in the path that the individual takes to be identified as a community member: this coincides not only with the ability to know how to perform an activity appropriately, but in having interiorized the languages, values and norms that characterize the community. 

Learning is no longer understood as the acquisition of knowledge (learning about), but as a process that modifies behaviour starting from experiences and the meaning attributed to one’s doing within the social context of reference (learning to be). 

Learning communities and collaborative learning

Organisation related learning communities are self-managed groups where professional growth is not so much based on a mapped training path, but on: 

  • the sharing of experiences 
  • the identification of good practices 
  • mutual help in dealing with problems related to one’s professionalism. 

This mutual, collaborative learning is a process that follows these steps: 

  1. if I have a problem, I ask for help from someone who has already tackled it (socialisation of the problem) 
  2. if the solution is reached and I understand it, I learn something new (socialisation of practices) 
  3. if no one has the solution, maybe someone, through the collaboration of others, can find a similar solution and grow the community’s skills (problem-solving) through this collaboration.

Roles in learning communities

As we said before, learning communities and communities of practice can be formal or informal, but it could be essential to identify roles:

  • Knowledge manager (or scientific manager)
    • suggests new topics for discussion 
    • proposes case studies 
    • provides answers or clarifications 
    • constructs teaching materials
    • establishes evaluation times and procedures
  • Tutor (or facilitator):
    • a link person for organisational, management and technical aspects
    • mediator between the scientific officer and the community
    • expert in teaching methodologies and therefore participates in the process of sharing materials
    • animates the community and facilitates its relations in that he/she detects the needs of the community and identifies concrete solutions at the level of contents, services, and technological tools
  • Community leader:
    • encourages the community to participate in the network activity
    • supports the scientific leader and tutor.

These roles need not be fixed but can be played in turn by the participants, following their attitudes, competencies, and engagements.

Collaborative learning in the virtual sphere

From this perspective, the advantages of collaborative learning using digital tools are numerous:

  • removal of spatial-temporal constraints: participants can connect and participate at any time, choosing times that suit them and allowing them to concentrate effectively on discussions; 
  • cognitive and motivational advantages: virtual group communication facilitates the activation of higher cognitive levels (development of critical thinking, evaluation of problem-solving strategies, etc.) and interest in study activities; it also promotes taking responsibility for one’s own and others’ learning process;
  • circulation of a broad range of information and realisation of meaningful experiences: the digital environment becomes an effective tool for information management as it facilitates the retrieval and selection of data that will be subjected to evaluation and critical reflection processes;
  • the possibility of recording discussions through databases and archives, making the digital environment a valuable research and learning tool;
  • the possibility of creating real communities of practice that promote a connection between work and learning.

This is the challenge of learning communities also in a work context.



Bruner, J. (1990). Culture and human development: A new look. Human development33(6), 344-355.

Stoll, L., & Louis, K. S. (2007). Professional learning communities. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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