Etienne Wenger: Communities of Practice
In his now-classic 1998 book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (publ. Cambridge University Press, UK), Etienne Wenger introduces a vignette of a day in the life of a medical insurance claims processor in the USA [p.18-34]. Ariel (not her real name) arrives in the morning to face a day of processing insurance claim forms, finding out missing information, finding out what amount can be claimed for what, and so on - and of being interrupted by phone calls, meetings, etc. She has to enter all the information into a computer system - and she is frustrated that if she is interrupted by the phone half way through entering information and has to look at another record, she will lose all the information she has put in since the computer will not save the information so far. A second, shorter vignette [p.35-38] describes the struggles people have with one particular form and how to explain to customers the decisions that are made around it. Both vignettes are created from Wenger's observations in a real firm.
Overview of Wenger's Book
Wenger's vignettes are an insightful portrayal of the nitty-gritty, day-by-day responses, achievements, communications, social relationships, learnings, concerns and frustrations of office life and of using the computer system. They are instructive, but they are by no means as interesting and delightful as Flora Thompson's descriptions of everyday life of rural 1890s Oxforshire, for reasons that might become clearer below.
Wenger uses these vignettes as a launching pad to discuss and offer a way to understand our everyday learning when we are operating as part of 'communities of practice'. In rather high-register language, sporting many polysyllabic words with Greek and Latin roots, he discusses three main issues, practice, identity and design, and in the latter formulates a theoretical proposal that we may understand and articulate our 'design for learning' in terms of four 'dimensions' and three 'components'. The dimensions are:
- Meaning, ranging between participation and reification: direct engagement with concrete things and events versus making into a concrete thing something which is not concrete but abstract. [p.231, 57]
- Time, or rather the result of time passing, which ranges between design and emergence: epitomized in the (designed) piece of software on one hand and practice on the other, which is not the result of this design but rather a response to it. [p.233]
- Space, ranging between local and global.
- Power, ranging between 'identification' and 'negotiability' (setting up a framework but depending on the framework being negotiable): design "can thrive on participation or impose itself through non-participation". [p.235]
These dimensions are distinct but interrelated tradeoffs. The three components [p.237] are:
- Facilities of engagement, such as mutuality, competence and continuity;
- Facilities of imagination, such as orientation, reflection and exploration;
- Facilities of alignment, such as convergence, coordination and arbitration.
He then discusses how this framework may throw light on organisation and education.
There is much more in his book, but that is how I understand its main messages. His book is beloved of academic management scientists especially those involved in knowledge management ...
Comment from a Dooyeweerdian Perspective
... and rightly so because it provides many insights about everyday living and paints a much richer and more thoughtful picture than most books on business life or use of computer systems. But, perhaps, it may still be usefully critiqued and enriched by bring Dooyeweerdian thought to bear. Specifically, his framework and his discussion fail to match the full diversity of richness and the vitality of his vignettes.
Richness with Diversity
His discussion of communities of practice throughout his book, and his framework for understanding 'design for learning' in organisations (dimensions and components), seems to be reasonable and it seems richer than many others. But it is surprising how little he makes of his vignettes, despite their extending to 20 pages. Having told the story, he seems intent on developing and expanding his theoretical insights and there is much in the story that he does not use, and yet which seems important in organisational learning. Moreover, Wenger's framework is descriptive and lacks any recognition of the normativity by which those studied (such as in the vignettes) evaluate things in everyday life and find themselvesselves guided, often tacitly.
Here are a few aspects of everyday life that are found in the vignettes, which are permeated with a notion of good or bad:
- Ariel is always trying to achieve her production targets, and that gives the flavour to the whole morning.
- Ariel was therefore horrified when she found she needed to deal with two apparent errors in her previous work.
- One she accepted was her fault. The other she contested, and spent time filling in the form to make her case.
- She was very pleased when her case was accepted.
- But she nevertheless managed to gain 'production' early in the afternoon.
- She did this because she always plans to do all the easy cases first, and leave the complex ones to the end of the day.
- She finds the afternoon drags slowly (we might surmise that this is because she is no longer motivated to gain production, but she does not reflect on this).
- Communication with others is kept sparse because of wanting to reach production targets as soon as possible.
- She needs help from other processors with things she cannot do or does not understand, and offers help to others.
- When a phone call comes in the middle of entering information about a claim on the computer, she resigns herself to losing all the information and having to re-enter it later, because the computer will not save partly-entered cases when she tries to access the records of the customer on the phone. What a waste of time!
- The customer is a bit annoying - but nowhere so bad as some can be.
- She had dressed neatly because there would be important visitors that day, and tidied up her desk. On her desk were a couple of personal photographs, which made it 'her' space.
- When they came by her she just got on with her work, because she knew they had no connection with her.
- and so on.
Many of these it is difficult to fit into Wenger's framework of four dimensions and three components, without reducing their poignancy. Some can be linked to his concepts of identity, learning, etc., but doing this leaves a lot of the reality outside. Most have an element of space, time and meaning and some have elements of power, but these four dimensions fail to cover the whole reality as expressed in the vignettes, and draw our attention away from, rather than towards, important aspects. His framework makes it difficult to distinguish certain things from each other. For example, to understand life we need to be able to differentiate fun and delight from their opposites like boredom and aversion, and from other aspects like justice and injustice, generosity and meanness, loyalty and unfaithfulness. Examples of most of these can be found in the selection of points above drawn from the vignettes.
It seems to me that Wenger's framework would benefit from adding a third 'arm' beside his dimensions and components: that of spheres of meaning, or aspects as Dooyeweerd understands them. The points above illustrate a number of his aspects (click on each aspect to find out more about its kernel meaning if you wish):
Spheres of meaning in which Ariel functions day by day
Aspect / sphere
| always trying to achieve her production targets || formative |
| horrified || sensitive |
| dealing with errors in previous work || formative |
| One she accepted was her fault. The other she contested. || juridical |
| spent time ... || economic |
| ... filling in the form to make her case || lingual |
| very pleased when her case was accepted. || sensitive|
| managed to gain 'production' early in the afternoon. || formative |
| she always plans to do all the easy cases first, and leave the complex ones to the end of the day. || formative |
| She finds the afternoon drags slowly. || aesthetic |
| Communication with others || lingual |
| is kept sparse because of wanting to reach production targets as soon as possible. || economic |
| She needs help from other processors with things she cannot do or does not understand, and offers help to others. || ethical |
| entering information || lingual |
| phone calls || lingual |
| What a waste of time! || economic |
| The customer is a bit annoying - but nowhere so bad as some can be. || sensitive |
| She had dressed neatly ... and tidied up her desk On her desk were a couple of personal photographs, || aesthetic |
| ... because there would be important visitors that day || social |
| ... made it 'her' space. || pistic |
| When they came by her she just got on with her work, because she knew they had no connection with her. || social |
| ... and so on: if you have the book, then you can see almost every sentence or phrase of the vignettes speaks of one or more of the aspects. |
Richness with Vitality
These aspects are normative, in that we can differentiate a good and a bad in each, a positive and a negative. Some of the examples above are positive, some negative. Whereas Wenger's framework tries to be neutral regarding normativity, the aspectual approach provides something of the vitality of everyday living precisely because it inherently resonates to the norms by which we evaluate things and by which we find ourselves guided in everyday life.
This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.
Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.
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Created: 21 November 2009