Abstract - The Information Society 19(3)

Special Issue: Virtual communities in the service of learning

Community of Practice: a Metaphor for Online Design?

Thomas Schwen and Noriko Hara


This paper examines four cases and identifies several issues associated with the concept of communities of practice. These cases describe different forms of communities of practice in various settings including consulting firms and legal firms. Based on an examination of these cases and the research literature, we highlight several issues that should be considered before developing an online community of practice. The issues are: (1) Prescriptive vs. Description Distinction; (2) Ready-Made vs. Communities in the Making; (3) Knowledge of Possession vs. Knowing in Practice; (4) Mid Level Social Theory vs. Micro Learning Theory; (5) Motivated Members vs. Unwilling Subjects. We believe that communities of practice are not likely to be forced, but emerge, and designers need to be aware of the characteristics of existing communities of practice to nurture them. We caution against the tendency to romanticize the communities of practice construct and especially online communities.

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