This post will endeavor to compare and contrast knowledge ecologies and communities of practice (CoPs) as discussed by Etienne Wenger in his book "Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity".
A knowledge ecology is based on the concept of personal knowledge networks (PKNs), loosely joined, and can be understood as a complex, knowledge intensive landscape that emerges from the bottom-up connection of PKNs.
Communities of Practice (CoPs)
Wenger (1998) discusses three dimensions of a CoP (p. 73):
1. How it functions (community): A mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity.
2. What it is about (domain): A joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members.
3. What capability it has produced (practice): The shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time.
Knowledge Ecologies vs. CoPs
A knowledge ecology differs from a CoP on all the three dimensions mentioned above.
According to Wenger, "the first characteristic of practice as the source of coherence of a community is the mutual engagement of participants" (p. 73). It is mutual engagement that binds members of a CoP together as a social entity and enables them to define themselves as members of the CoP. Unlike a CoP, a knowledge ecology is a social entity which has no clear boundaries and membership criteria. It involves an emergent network of people not so tightly bound as a CoP. A knowledge ecology is driven by independence and autonomy rather than membership, mutual engagement, and belonging to a community. Rather than being forced to interact intensely with other members of a CoP, within a knowledge ecology, everyone can rely on her PKN. Often, people turn to their personal relations in order to learn and get their work done, rather than trying to get access to a well established community of mutual engagement. Wenger further stresses that the kind of coherence that transforms mutual engagement into a CoP requires work and asserts that "the work of "community maintenance" is thus an intrinsic part of any practice" (p. 74). In a knowledge ecology, however, people focus on forming and maintaining their PKNs and sustaining dense relations with nodes in their PKNs rather than maintaining the CoP to which they belong.
Wenger states that "the second characteristic of practice as a source of community coherence is the negotiation of a joint enterprise" (p. 77). According to Wenger, a CoP involves organizing around some particular area of knowledge (i.e. a shared domain of interest) that gives members a sense of joint enterprise and shared identity. Membership in a CoP implies a commitment to the domain and a continuous negotiation of a joint enterprise. A CoP is thus a homogeneous social entity consisting of members with a joint enterprise and a shared domain of interest. Unlike CoPs, knowledge ecologies are not bound by a shared practice, a joint enterprise, or an overarching domain. They are open, flexible, heterogeneous, and multi- disciplinary social entities. In a knowledge ecology, people continuously create their PKNs which shape their identity and knowledge home, rather than create a shared identity through engaging in and contributing to the practices of a CoP. Wenger further notes that "communities of practice are not self-contained entities. They develop in larger contexts - historical, social, cultural, and institutional - with specific resources and constraints" (p. 79). Consequently, the practice of a community is profoundly shaped by conditions outside the control of its members due to external efforts to maintain influence and control over the practice. In contrast to CoPs, knowledge ecologies are not positioned within a broader system and are not bound to the control of any external force. They emerge naturally without strong predetermined rules or external authority. Knowledge ecologies are thus self-controlled and self-contained entities.
Wenger notes that "the third characteristic of practice as a source of community coherence is the development of a shared repertoire ... The repertoire of a community of practice includes routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols, genres, actions, or concepts that the community has produced or adopted in the course of its existence, and which have become part of its practice. The repertoire combines both reificative and participative aspects" (pp. 82-83). In contrast to CoPs, knowledge ecologies lack a shared repertoire and are thus open and distributed knowledge domains. The knowledge resources are distributed over different PKNs within a knowledge ecology. Unlike participation in a CoP, where the result is the development of a community’s set of shared resources and practices, the result of participation in a knowledge ecology is a restructuring of one’s PKN, that is, a reframing of one’s theories-in-use (conceptual/internal level) and an extension of one’s external network with new knowledge nodes (external level).
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.