Context and culture in communities of practice

A predominant feature of BEtreat was the impact of context and culture on the learning process. There was an expectation that we would share our experience of communities of practice with a view to learning from each other. However, whilst the sharing was easy enough, the understanding of where people were coming from was more difficult. Participants came from very different backgrounds. Large corporations such as Shell, Deloitte and Microsoft represented the ‘for profit’ sector and within the ‘not for profit’ sector there were those who were working with many communities across large geographical areas and those who were working with much smaller more localised communities. The disparity in the amounts of funding received by these different communities was huge.

These differences in contexts led to mismatches of understanding of what we mean by communities of practice and also to different uses of language. I found myself listening to conversations which were quite unlike the types of conversations I usually have about communities of practice and I’m not sure that I ever did really understand what the other participants were doing with their very different communities of practice. There was a lot of ‘talking past each other’.

On reflection it might have been helpful to go further than the descriptive sharing that we did, most of which was not relevant to other contexts, and instead focus on analysing the culture of the different communities with a view to understanding them better and being able to better make comparisons. One possible useful approach to analysing culture is the ‘Culture Web’, which Julia Balogun writes about in her article ‘Strategic Change’ in Management Quarterly Part 10 January 2001. This captures, through stories, symbols, routines, power structures, controls and organisation structure (see p.5 of the article), what the central paradigm of a culture is. If context influences how communities of practice are understood, then could we argue that an understanding of this central paradigm is needed? Maybe this would have helped us to better understand each others cultures and the different issues that each of us are facing in our work with communities of practice.

Etienne Wenger talked to us at BEtreat about learning in a landscape of practice and working on the boundaries between communities of practice, so that we can find new ways to talk across boundaries. At BEtreat the boundaries between the different practices were very evident and, I think, problematic. It was said that there is a need to manage cross boundary working. For me, sharing practice was not enough. We needed to analyse and question the different cultures and it might have helped to use an approach such as the Culture Web.

That said, it was very stimulating to be able to work alongside people I would never normally come in contact with and the experience has caused me to further reflect on Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice.