posted 17 Feb 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 5
The knowledge: Etienne Wenger
By drawing on his experiences working with communities of practice and the lessons learnt by today’s knowledge-focused organisations, Etienne Wenger plans to develop a new learning theory for society as a whole. He discusses the role companies play as knowledge-management laboratories, and outlines the need for a social-learning theory for our time. By Sandra Higgison
When Etienne Wenger embarked upon a career in education, teaching kids in Denver the difference between être and avoir, little did he know that, come the 21st century, his work would have had such an impact on the business world. Following a series of turning points – Wenger went from teaching French to studying computer science, artificial intelligence and then anthropology – his work with Berkeley professor and anthropologist Jean Lave led to the creation of a learning model based on what they called a community of practice (CoP). Four books, and innumerable presentations and papers later, Wenger has become one of the most respected experts on social-learning theory. As he embarks on a new research project, entitled ‘Learning for a small planet’, he talks to Inside Knowledge about the role he sees emerging for CoPs as companies address knowledge at a strategic level, and the wider and deeper impact of a knowledge manager’s work.
Wenger abandoned teaching French in 1979 to study computer science, a subject he felt would be more useful and relevant to his students. As his learning progressed, and after devouring Mindstorms by Seymour Papert, he realised that computers had the potential to play a role in education that extends further than that of an electronic teaching aid. “Machines can help kids learn but they can also represent their thinking and help them become knowledge workers at an early age,” he says. “I entered the computer-science field with one idea and found something much deeper.” His research then focused on using artificial-intelligence techniques to support learning, a subject that formed the basis of both his PhD and his first book, Artificial Intelligence and Tutoring Systems.
As Wenger says, each of his books represents a milestone in his career. Similarly, the importance of working with Lave from 1987 onwards at the Institute of Research on Learning, was marked by the publication of their book Situated Learning in 1991. “I was always a bit disturbed that systems were built based on information structures, but that our models did not consider the meaning people derived from learning,” he says. “It was only when I accepted a position at the Institute of Research on Learning and began to work with anthropologists that I realised how they look at systems where the construction of meaning is built into the model and isn’t something you simply hope the user can find.”
Working with Lave, Wenger analysed the traditional concept of an apprenticeship as a model of learning. “An apprenticeship is very different from the schooling model that pervades the western world,” says Wenger. “Although most people think of it as a relationship between master and student, we found that in a situated-learning model the apprentice learns just as much by exchanging information and working with the community of people around the master. We needed a name for that living curriculum and called it a community of practice.”
Once Lave and Wenger had defined the concept, they began to see it in places where there was no official institution of apprenticeship. Colleagues studying schooling, for example, saw that their students formed communities of practice. But most unexpectedly, Lave and Wenger started to see CoPs outside of the education field within companies. “I was doing some work in an insurance firm and noticed that a group of claims processors was acting as a community of practice,” he says. “It wasn’t just a working group; their community was essential to their ability to perform their roles. All of a sudden our theory, derived from studying the apprenticeship phenomenon, made us see the world differently.”
At this time, knowledge management was coming to the end of what Wenger describes as its first phase, which focused on technology. Practitioners were trying to make sense of the feeling they had that KM was all about people. “You would go to conferences in the late 1990s and hear presenters speak about KM and say it was 90 per cent people and ten per cent technology,” says Wenger. “But they would then spend the whole time talking about technology, because they didn’t have much to say about working with people as ‘knowers’.” Since then, the concept of a community of practice has provided a framework to help organisations understand what knowledge management is all about and realise that they can manage knowledge by enabling these communities to function better. “There was a readiness among businesses to take CoPs on and run with them in a way that we couldn’t do in education at that time,” he says.
Communities of practice are now integral to the operations of organisations of all sizes, many of which have taken Wenger’s work to heart when supporting and nurturing their development. Although he has written extensively on the subject of communities, he is happy to recount some of the factors he believes are fundamental to their long-term success. “Internally, the domain of a community must be clearly defined and connected to what its members need to know to do their work,” he says. At the same time, CoPs must be allowed to evolve. “A community is like a relationship: what makes it work when you’re dating in high school is very different to what makes it work when you’re 50 and your kids are leaving home. Communities will often start by helping their members fulfil their need to share information. As they mature, they will use the strength they have built to take on different challenges.”
The way an organisation acts towards its communities is also important. “Knowledge and communities must form part of the organisation’s strategy,” says Wenger. “To connect with the formal structure, an executive sponsor makes sure the community has the resources it needs and that its voice is heard.” But this balance between formal recognition and over-management is a tricky one to maintain. “While participation in a community can be part of an employee’s performance appraisal, it shouldn’t become perfunctory. The institution has to find a way to recognise the community but manage it lightly.” Finally, Wenger says it is important to understand that communities look different in different environments. “Just like relationships, they vary within different cultures. Some marriages, for example, are arranged and are very successful, whereas others form freely. Likewise, in some companies communities are started following formal processes, while others start bottom up.”
The challenge of aligning CoPs and knowledge to the organisation’s strategy is what Wenger highlights as today’s burning KM issue. Communities of practice have played an important role in helping employees connect with others who may be able to help them, but he sees their remit widening as we move into the third phase of knowledge management. “Companies need to understand knowledge as a strategic asset, but it is difficult to translate the knowledge that exists in your company into a strategic conversation, as it is very distributed,” he says. “From this perspective, CoPs have to become nodes of the broader strategy conversation.”
As organisations realise that their survival depends on their knowledge, Wenger maintains they have to find new ways to think about strategy development. “Every community of practice understands the future of its own domain and how the company’s capabilities relate to this; organisations need to use this knowledge at the strategy table,” he says. “In the past, companies would set their business goals and then ask what knowledge they would need to meet them. Today they go a step further by asking, ‘Based on the knowledge we have, what business can we be in?’” In this third phase, knowledge management is placed in a strategic rather than operational context, which Wenger says is essential but a challenge given the organisational tools available today.
‘Learning for a small planet’, Wenger’s current area of research, relates directly to the knowledge challenges companies are facing. His work aims to scale the learning theory behind communities of practice to think about the planet as a learning system and how individuals, organisations and regions can govern themselves and their approach to learning. “When you build a theory, you create a set of concepts that allow people to reinterpret what they see and take action,” he says. “In this case, for example, we can reinterpret knowledge management – a process by which businesses are learning how to manage themselves as a learning system and employees are becoming learning citizens – and place it in a different context outside of the business world.“
Wenger already sees this learning happening in practice in many spheres. The Global Action Network (www.globalactionnetwork.org) is a prime example of a virtual community created for people in the fields of population and reproductive health. Members can contact their peers around the world, and share and learn from their work and experiences. “These people need to connect with each other around the globe and are doing so through knowledge-management concepts,” says Wenger. “‘Learning for a small planet’ is a project to develop these concepts into a theory that will allow us to talk about the process with a bit more rigour.”
The development of knowledge-management strategies within businesses and organisations is an important part of this research. “Companies are knowledge-management laboratories where individuals learn how to become a citizen in a knowledge society,” says Wenger. “As more people become involved with and see the benefits of KM at work, it will carry over into their lives, making them open to similar principles being applied in the civil sphere. I see knowledge management as more than a tool for helping businesses succeed in the market; it’s about carefully managing our knowledge to survive as a species.” Knowledge managers reading this should add another feather to their cap as, according to Wenger, their work will be an inspiration and valuable contribution to the world.
That said, it is likely that the global impact of knowledge-management and social-learning theories will not be fully recognised for some time. The sector Wenger first focused on when he developed the CoPs model with Lave is showing encouraging signs of interest, however. “When we originally studied this theory we thought our main audience would be educators, but businesses were ready to adopt it first,” he says. “Today, it’s coming back to education.” Wenger says that when he talks to teachers he senses the same willingness and hunger he felt in the mid-1990s when talking to people in knowledge management. “They know that they’re on the wrong track, but don’t know what to do. The assumption is that schools are the place of learning and life is the application. But if you reverse it to say that learning happens in life, what is the role of a school?” Wenger hopes to contribute further to this discussion as the debate heats up.
For now, Wenger is pleased to have accomplished his latest milestone, writing the research agenda for ‘Learning for a small planet’, which appears on his website www.ewenger.com. “It has been important for me to articulate what it means as it’s taken me 20 years to get here,” he says. Helping Wenger achieve this accomplishment was a piece of advice that a colleague recently passed on to him. “She said that I needed to focus on my ability to inspire people, not build institutions. And she was right,” he says. “At the time I was developing CPsquare, a community of practice for people involved in CoPs and I thought I had to be really involved in the community’s management, when this wasn’t how I could best contribute.” Wenger paid heed to the advice and says he has since carried it in his heart, “You need to understand who you are and view it as what you can give.” If Wenger succeeds in building what he describes as a social-learning theory for our time, his contribution will be a valuable and great one indeed.
Etienne Wenger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.