Social Networks : Communities of Practice and Complexity : Conversation and Culture

Peter Bond is a co-director, with Andrew Haldane, of Learning Futures (Consulting) Ltd  a company formed in 2004 to develop new applications for the KALiF™ Process, a method of accelerating the formation of innovative collaborative knowledge networks devised by Learning Futures Ltd. ( 

Peter practised as a ceramics technologist before becoming a specialist economic development advisor on new technology and innovation. Formerly head of the department of technology management at Liverpool John Moores University he now focuses on the development of new technology and knowledge based firms. He has written extensively from a complex systems perspective on the relation between knowledge and technology management.

Contact Peter by e-mail

This article was first published in AMED's Organisations & People journal, Vol 11 No 4 (November 2004). Check out our AMED Organisations & People section for more details.


Communities of practice (CoP) have been hailed as the perfect vehicle for knowledge transfer and competence development, and the associated theory presented as a bridge between the theories of organisational learning and organisational performance (Snyder: 1997). Unlike some 'here today-gone tomorrow' solutions to corporate under-performance, such as business process reengineering or core- competency, CoP theory appears to have had a much longer period of maturation, finally coming to prominence as a result of its co-evolution with the theory and practices of knowledge management, especially the development of computer enabled and mediated networking. It has gained considerable currency in the field of corporate development because of the emphasis that is now placed on knowledge as a competitive asset. With its wider diffusion has come a proliferation of community types, such as, communities of interest, virtual communities, and distributed communities of practice, all of which, it could be argued, have diluted and even distorted the original concept. This may be due in part to the fuzziness of the original definition and the difficulty some may have of distinguishing a CoP from a team, a learning organisation, or some form of informal social group. 

Drawing on a very different theoretical base, a novel approach to understanding community of practice formation is developed here, one that (hopefully) realises the ambition of providing a link between the learning organisation, organisational competence, and organisational performance theory. The key concept is something that Finnish psychologist, Timo Järvilehto,  refers to as the result-of-action, which can also be treated as a social asset. The model is currently being applied by Learning Futures (Consulting) Ltd, in the context of economic development, to the identification and development of emergent communities of practice across groups of companies that constitute industrial clusters, particularly the high-tech or knowledge intensive kind.

What is a Community of Practice?

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger used the term ‘communities of practice’ to refer to an organisational phenomenon they identified as being a feature of the development of social groupings that had a particular need or desire to transfer skills and practices from one member to another (Lave and Wenger: 1991). Examples of CoPs include the organisations of Ancient Greek craftsmen and the medieval guilds of Europe. In such communities, apprentices learned from their masters until they were competent enough to work on their own account, eventually becoming masters themselves. Perhaps the most frequently cited modern CoP is that of the Xerox photocopier repair technicians (Brown and Duguid: 1991) who were the focus of research by Julian Orr (1996).  Arguably, Orr’s original work remains the most definitive on communities of practice, despite the fact that he never used the term, he referred to them as the ‘technician community’ or the ‘service community’. But exactly what is a community of practice?

Lave and Wenger initially described a community of practice as: ‘a set of relations among persons, activity and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping CoPs’ (1991). The idea is further developed in subsequent publications by Wenger and is, essentially, a social entity recognised as such by its members who are bound together in a sense of joint enterprise that emerges from a mutual understanding of a problem, or issue, and a desire and commitment to solve it. The ‘copier technicians, for example, were presented with a common set of technical problems they would take as a collective challenge to their intellectual capacity as problem solvers.  Through their participation in this self-organised joint solution making, individuals gain a sense of shared identity with fellow technicians in an occupational community focused on its work and not the organisation that employed them. Later, the concept becomes much more aligned with knowledge management, and their function or purpose is described as building and exchanging knowledge, and developing the capabilities of the membership. In contrast, the purpose of a team is to accomplish a given task, and that for a work group is to deliver a product or service (Wenger and Snyder: 2000). 

The self-organising quality of CoPs can put them at odds with those who would seek to control them, but, if they can be ‘directed’, the benefits that can arise, especially in knowledge based firms, are said to be considerable. Because, communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better, the very knowledge they create serves as the basis of their continuous reinvention. In a notional state of constant excitement and passion for learning, CoPs present the opportunity for companies to capture a stream, not only of creative solutions, but also of radical innovations.

The Underlying Paradox of CoPs

Despite emphasis on their informal nature, it is recognised that a degree of formality is needed for CoPs to function. They need to generate a shared repertoire of ideas and resources, such as tools, documents, and routines, as well as a vocabulary with which to share the wealth of knowledge generated within the community. Together these constitute their structure. The paradoxical nature of organisational structure  is expressed in the idea of the Duality of Structure (Cohen: 1989), which states that structure enables as it constrains. When a community becomes institutionalised, as did the ancient Guilds of craftsmen, they seek to conserve existing practices rather than promote innovation. So here would seem to lie the true paradox of communities of practice. For them to be effective vehicles for competence development and knowledge transfer, and conducive to creative solution making, they must maintain a certain degree of autonomy (from host organisations), flexibility, and responsiveness.  In this case, the pertinent question is what degree of structuration enables optimal CoP performance and gives rise to their characteristic features?

In practice, this question may be impossible to answer and in any case might be dependent on the nature of the situation from which CoPs emerge. For instance, in a totally chaotic situation an emergent  CoP will have a greater degree of order, hence structure, whilst in a large bureaucratic corporation a CoP will have less structural integrity. Clearly it is the latter form that Orr, and subsequently Lave and Wenger, have recognised and studied.

In figure 1, an attempt has been made to view CoPs from a complexity thinking perspective in which a notional balance between organisational energy and order, at or below the edge of chaos, is deemed to be the optimal state for achieving CoP effectiveness. By analogy with the physical concept of entropy, we can say that the emotional energy, the passion and commitment associated with energetic CoPs, is dispersed following the delivery of a solution. The CoP, therefore, always tends toward a lower energy state.

Figure 1. Communities of Practice: Their Energy vs. Order

The key to maintaining the creativity and inventiveness of a CoP, bearing in mind it is emotional energy we are speaking of, the CoP needs to be continuously challenged by problems that excite its members, and if this is not quite enough, by appropriate forms of leadership, which will be dependent on the context from which the CoP arose.

From Whence Does Structure Arise?

The meaning given to structure here is a systemic one, referring to the actual components of the system plus the actual relations that take place between them (Maturana: 1978) this leads to a system being defined as; “[A] collection of elements that interact and relate with each other in such a way that the interactions that any of those elements have, and the results of those interactions, depend upon its relations with the others.” (Maturana et al: 1995). It follows that the behaviour of any system is determined, i.e. enabled and constrained, by its structure. The following series of diagrams indicate how structural components have emerged by virtue of the particular genetic structure of human beings, specifically homo sapiens, which determines the possible ways in which we can act vis-à-vis our environment and which has given rise to one generic form of social system across the ages and across cultures. The difference between human social systems is the difference of their structures, the precise nature of the actual components, and the precise nature of the relations between them.

Referring to figure 2a, a base line relation is shown between a self and an object upon which the self is deemed to act through the medium of human flesh, muscle, and bone to achieve a desirable result-of-action. The exact nature of the relationship is determined by the nature of the act. It is the result-of-action that provides the motivation for the act, the desire to repeat it, and the desire to improve the effectiveness of acting.  

Figure 2. The Evolution of The Human System

Over hundreds and thousands of years of interacting with the environment with a particular type of brain and physical architecture, a particular type of human emerged and began to develop an ability to make and use tools. From tool using arose the relations in figure 2b.  The relationship between the self and the object of action (typically something in the environment) is now mediated by a tool through the material(s) from which it is made (Rammert: 1999). According to some cognitive anthropologists, tool using preceded the development of our capacity for language (Donald: 1999), which  then led  to the emergence of the phenomenon of social co-ordination (fig 2c). As communities practised with a multiplicity of tools acting on a multiplicity of objects, specialisation in tool using emerged (Feenberg: 2000 and Bond: 2003 & 2004). The emergence of role specialisation is particularly significant in the development of CoP  theory because it is the way such specialists organise that became the focus of CoP researchers.

Summarising, the evolution of human society involves the co-evolution of tool-using, languaging, and social co-ordination driven, one might say, by results-of-action to produce the fundamental set of components and relationships with the self depicted in figure 2d, from which all human social systems are constructed.

In his theory of the Organism-Environment System (OES), Timo Järvilehto (1998a, 1988b,1999, 2000) stresses the importance of the result-of-action to our behavioural development. The concept of result-of-action is quite complex but includes, not only the physical artefacts we produce, such as tools and autonomous machines (non-human actors), but the also the sounds and gestures we make, our concepts and ideas for new ways of organising, which we articulate in writing in books and documents, and paintings. To know something is a result-of-action. If we obtain a change in attitude by speaking to someone in a certain way, that is also a result-of-action. So, as we act, we produce a complex flow of result-of-actions, including intermediate result-of-actions, an aspect that  is well illustrated in crafting and music making (Bond: 2002). It is from such examples of practise, that results-of-action are associated with emotions, can be readily understood. It is no less the case with other practices. Over millennia, these results-of-action have accumulated and their meaning continually transformed by being whisked up within complex interleaved flows of networks of conversation (see next section and fig 3.). They come together to create a momentary cultural space and learning environment in which they act as reminders of who we are, our role, and of where we are, at home, at work, or at play.  They act as extensions of our biological memory (Donald: 1997) and they act to provide structure to the communities in which we participate, enabling and constraining present and future actions, and therefore the kinds of results-of-action that may be produced.

Combined with other systemic and biological perspectives from, for example, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (Maturana and Varela: 1980), Järvilehto’s OES provides a powerful new perspective on the development of communities, which, by virtue of their nature, would not exist without practices. Clearly, CoPs will have the same structural components as any other human community.  In the following section an attempt is made to show the processes through which communities form around a complex set of result-of-actions, which, as social assets, value can be leveraged.

A Generic Model of Community Formation

Figure 3 contains a simplified model of community development. The key to understanding how a community forms is the role of the independent learner, how her natural motivation is to share her knowledge of the result-of-actions, and how they are produced, which leads to the formation of social relationships. All the circled areas are, in effect, result-of-actions. They represent various forms of social asset, such as the knowledge and competence of a particular individual, the taken-to-be-shared knowledge of a group of people, the results of individual and collective action, all of which become valued as a result of the benefits the community derives from their utilisation in other systems. Similarly, the value placed on a means or system of production, or a technique of crafting, will depend on the qualities of the result. Indeed, a person, a role, and a tool, all gain value as well as identity, through what has been called the mangle of practice (Bond: 2004). The result-of-action might also be treated as either a solution to a shared problem, or as an element of a system that provides the solution. For example, a tool is a result of a process of fabrication, but its value is realised in another system. The more an individual learns and the more she shares, the greater the variety of situations and events she and her community are able to handle. The more problems she is able to solve, the more strategies the community has for dealing with unanticipated events.

Figure 3. The Process of Social Network Formation

The act of conversation is particularly significant as it links an individual to a community. A conversation, however, is more than a simple communication. The meaning of conversation used here is taken from Humberto Maturana. He says that ‘objects’, which we can take to be the equivalent to results of action, function in a way that leads to a co-ordination of actions between two or more conversants. Conversation is a braiding of emotioning, defined as a bodily predisposition to act, with such co-ordination (Maturana: 1988. See also Bond: 2004). These ‘objects’, which more or less equate to results-of-action, can be thought of as precipitating a restructuring of the relations perceived by an individual participant in a system, and also by an observer of the operation of the system. The restructured system is the basis of future action(s). Conversation is a process that can, but not always, give rise to strong emotioning, which may influence a decision to share a result-of-action, individual and collective, with others. Järvilehto also associates the production of results of action with emotions. The depth of emotioning experienced during and after the production of a result, might also influence the value an individual attaches to it. Similarly, the value placed on a particular means or process of production, and the components thereof, will also be influenced by the depth of emotioning produced.


This has been a brief introduction to an extraordinary theoretical base, primarily derived from a biological perspective of human behaviour and cognition, and how it might be used to better understand the concept of communities of practice. The main conclusion is that CoPs, in structural or systemic terms, are no different to any other form of organisation. However, CoP theory has succeeded in focusing our attention on the benefits to be derived from a kind of organisation that is in a continuous state of excitement, a state that that is conducive to the production of creative solutions. In accordance with the theoretical underpinning of Figure 3, the source of restructuring, or reinvention in Wenger’s terminology, is the very results of actions it produces. The energy to maintain the pace of change at a rapid pace is derived from the emotional energy produced by, and during, the process of producing results of actions that benefit both the individual and the community as a whole. If, however, this notional emotional energy cannot be maintained this otherwise vibrant and inventive community will tend to become more structured, more conservative. The longer such a group acts together, the more likely it is that emergent structures begin to act as a constraint on future action. This suggests that the process of CoP development be approached as if they were transitory organisational phenomena that may act, but only for a finite period, as the source of the motivation for change and as the vehicles for change. If we wish to lengthen this period, which sometimes we would and sometimes not, then strategies must be developed that focus on renewal and the maintenance of appropriate levels of energy and excitement.

© Peter Bond and the Association for Management Education and Development (AMED), all rights reserved.  Check out our AMED Organisations & People section or view their website for more journal articles


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