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No. WP- 02-02
IT Supports for Communities of Practice:
An Empirically-based  Framework

Noriko Hara
Rob Kling

Center for Social Informatics
SLIS, 10th street & Jordan Ave.
Indiana University, Bloomington
IN 47405-3907
 812-855-6166 (fax)

Despite strong interest among practitioners and scholars, the study of communities of practice (CoPs) and Information Technology (IT) is short of empirical research.  This paper presents a theoretical framework for communities of practice and provides alternative perspectives on IT supports for communities of practice.  The framework was developed based on the literature and ethnographic case studies of communities of practice within two organizations.  The study examines how people share and construct their knowledge and how they use collaborative IT to support work practices in two organizations. The surprising finding is that the groups that used IT most intensively had the least well-developed CoPs.  The results of the study would inform practice and research in Knowledge Management.

Although using information technology (IT) to improve the efficiency of group work has been of interest to some researchers, many others are especially interested in developing Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) technologies that improve the effectiveness of teamwork and organizations. Organizational learning is one important lens that helps us understand organizational effectiveness and organizational change. Brown and Duguid (1996) proposed a link between organizational learning and communities of practice (CoPs) based on the study of Xerox technicians.  The focus of learning research has been moving from individuals to groups and organizations.  In the 1990s, it has been necessary to consider social and cultural aspects of learning (Bonk & Kim, 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Resnick, Levine, & Teasley, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978) as a way to foster knowledge sharing.

The role of IT to support organizational learning and knowledge sharing in CoPs is investigated in this article.  Some authors are strong believers of engineering online communities (e.g., Kim, 2000).  Along similar lines, some authors in education tend to romanticize online communities of practice and ignore the importance of nurturing social aspects of these communities (e.g., Barab, S. A., & Duffy, T. M. 2000; Greenspun, 1999; Schank, Fenton, Schlager, Fusco, 1999; Schlager, Fusco, & Schank, 1998; Sharp, 1997).  For example, Schank, Fenton, Schlager, Fusco (1999) identify the criteria for effective online community technology.  However, these criteria are inclined to focus on rather technical aspects of the system (e.g., transparency and system security), rather than the dynamics of developing a community.  Kling and Courtright (in press) indicate this problematic nature of the literature and caution us to be realistic about the effectiveness of designing online communities of practice. Despite some claims about the potential use of IT to support online CoPs, there have not been many empirical studies.  This study examines the use of IT in face-to-face CoPs as well as an online CoP.

 This paper introduces a framework for CoPs.  The framework was developed based on the literature and the ethnographic case studies conducted by the first author. Second, we will discuss three kinds of knowledge and argue that some knowledge is difficult to share in electronic formats.  Next, we will address the relationship between CoPs and IT.  Finally, the implications of the study for further IT research will be discussed.

Communities of Practice
The term, communities of practice (CoPs), was coined by Lave and Wenger (1991), even though ethnographers have a longer tradition of studying occupational communities (Orr, 1990; Van Maanen & Barley, 1984).  Since then, the term has been popularized by Brown and Duguid (1996) based on Orr’s ethnographic study at Xerox (see Orr 1990; 1996).  More recently, this term became well known in the corporate world (e.g., Krackhardt & Hanson, 1993; Ruhleder, Jordan, & Elmes, 1996; Stewart, 1996; Wenger, 2000).  However, the use of this term is not consistent.

We use the following definition in this paper: “Communities-of-practice are informal networks that support professional practitioners to develop a shared meaning and engage in knowledge building among the members” (Hara, 2000, p. 11).  This definition is based on Wenger’s four traits to define CoPs: a social fabric of learning (Wener 1998): negotiating meaning; preserving and creating knowledge; spreading information; being a home for identities.

Research Methods
The selection of the research sites was based on specific criteria (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993).  The first author chose the first research site based on the five attributes that derived from the definition of a CoP: (1) a group of practitioners; (2) the development of a shared meaning, (3) informal networks, (4) supportive culture—trust; and (5) engagement in knowledge building.  By using initial observations and interviews, she identified a CoP at the Public Defender's Office in Square County.  After fieldwork at the first site, she gained access to another Public Defender's Office in Circle County.  The purpose of adding this second research site was to examine whether a CoP existed among the public defenders in a different organization and how IT supported informal learning and knowledge sharing among the public defenders.

The data were collected through three different methods (observations, interviews, and document reviews).  The first author spent approximately four months at the first research site in order to observe work practices, shadow some attorneys, and join their social activities.  Initial interviews with the seven attorneys in the office were conducted as well as the second interviews with them, an investigator, and a prosecutor at the end of the fieldwork.  Some official documents in the courts were reviewed in order to gain understanding of the attorneys’ work.  At the second research site, the first author spent approximately three months in the field to observe attorney’s work, conducted interviews with nineteen attorneys, and reviewed official documents regarding the office.  These interviews, documents, and observations were analyzed simultaneously.

Ethnographic Case Studies of Communities of Practice
Before introducing the developed framework for CoPs, it is useful to understand two ethnographic case studies.

Case Study 1: Communities of Practice in Square County Public Defender’s Office

The first research site, Square County Public Defender’s Office, is a small organization that employs seven full-time attorneys, one investigator, and three secretaries.  There is one manager who is in charge of the office.  The office does not have strong IT infrastructure.  Despite the job’s low status and lack of external incentives (e.g., monetary compensation), the public defenders in this office are motivated to learn from each other and become better defense attorneys.  Being a public defender is not an easy job. However, the negative factors associated with being public defenders lead them to band together and have stronger ties because they cannot afford not to help each other.

From interviews and observations, the culture of the office constitutes the opportunities to learn and willingness to share information among the attorneys.  An attorney in the office described how they helped each other, especially during the trials:

When someone has a trial, everyone tends to get involved.  So, we just finished a 3-day rape trial that ended up with a misdemeanor battery plea, basically after going through the 3 days of trial . . . .  Everybody gets involved, if she needs help with something in the middle of the trial, if something comes up, everybody just sort of rallies.
Her comment supports the following observations: a trial encourages attorneys in this office to collaborate with each other, although their work is highly individualized.

This office has seven full-time public defenders whereas many other counties only have contract attorneys.  The Square County attorneys identified the importance of having colleagues to share ideas.  Jason, an attorney, explained that this office was like a family; they watch out for each other. Despite their highly individualized work style, they help and give each other support.

Case Study 2: Communities of Practice in Circle County Public Defender’s Office

The second research site, the Circle County Public Defender’s Office, is a larger organization than the one in Square County.  There are approximately 50 full-time attorneys, 60 contract attorneys, and 50 support staff.  Because of the lack of space, they located more experienced attorneys in a separate office, which was one block away from the main office.  As a result, there exist two different CoPs within this organization.  One of the CoPs developed among more experienced attorneys who deal with major felony cases.  They have strong professionalism and mutual support.  The other CoP developed among less experienced attorneys who deal with less serious offenses, such as misdemeanor and “class D” felony  cases.  Their ties were not as strong as these among the more experienced attorneys.  In order to overcome the isolation of less experienced attorneys, the office has used different interventions, such as official mentoring programs and monthly lunch meetings.  However, all the attorneys interviewed mentioned the difficulty of “forced socialization.”  The invisible line between these two groups does not seem to disappear; the training director indicated that she felt that the sense of separation was growing ever stronger.  In addition to the physical separation of the two offices, there appear to be misconceptions about each other, which amplify the personal separation of the two groups.

Communities of Practice among Misdemeanor/D Felony Attorneys
There are 23 attorneys in the misdemeanor/D felony division.  It appeared that these attorneys have their own communities of practice.  Julie Young, a D felony attorney, who works in court F, illustrated how she interacted with other attorneys:

I think one of the greatest sources of ideas is just all the other lawyers in the office, David Stevens is usually here [in the same office]; some of the other court F attorneys who know the judge better than I do.  People are always bouncing ideas off each other and talking about their cases, “what do you think about this?”  In this office it happens almost all the time.
This description is similar to that of the Square County Public Defender’s Office.  David Stevens, a D felony attorney, supported Julie’s comments:
I share an office with another public defender, Julie, and then there's four attorneys assigned to the court that I work in.  And usually the four of us will talk a lot about the cases because we are always in front of the same judge and try to determine “Is this an issue that the judge thinks is a good or bad issue?”, or “How do you think the judge will rule on this?”  If anyone has questions and they need an answer, I’ll tell them they can always come to me or I can go to them.  [It is] pretty open, especially if a client has two D felonies and is represented by two different public defenders, you talk to the other one and try to get something worked out.
David’s comments indicated that his interaction with other attorneys seem to be limited to within his own court.  Also, his comments emphasized the task-oriented nature of the conversations with his colleagues. By the same token, Cathy Bruce depicted her experience of talking with other attorneys in the office:
. . . we talk to each other.  If there's some issue that has arisen in a trial that I'm not familiar with, like if there's some trial where I feel like I don't know specifically the law in that area, but I feel like my client has a good chance of winning that trial.  I will just talk with another attorney here in the office to see how much knowledge they have and what advice they can give me as far as handling that case.  More like information sharing.
As shown in the interviews with Julie, David, and Cathy, misdemeanor/D felony attorneys talk to each other and share information among themselves.  However, it appeared that these attorneys tend to talk to the attorneys who are assigned to the same court.  Therefore, their access to other resources is limited.

In the domestic violence courts, considered to be a part of misdemeanor/D felony courts, both the inexperienced and the more experienced attorneys work together because they handle everything related to domestic violence cases, including misdemeanors and some major felony cases.  Ann Howard, who was assigned to a domestic violence court, had been working in the office for about eight months since graduating from law school.  The other attorney in the same court with her is more experienced.  Ann explained how she worked with this other attorney.  She mentioned that she was working on a Class C felony—a stalking case—and that the agency requires a minimum of three years of practice to handle a C felony stalking case.  She continued to explain how she worked with the other attorney, Troy, in the same court:

Well, I haven’t been practicing for three years, but I can still do a case if I have another attorney present or supervising it, which Troy has been practicing for 13 years.  So he and I are working together on this case. He lets me do a major felony case, and yet I am still within the confines of the agency requirements.  So he and I may sit around and bounce ideas off in terms of what we can do.  I may be thinking about something and kind of walk it through with him to see the logical steps and things like that. He's not very technologically inclined in terms of the computer systems we have here.  So lots of times he'll come to me, “Ann, how do I find this, what do I do?” things like that.
This is an example of “natural mentoring.”  The state requires certain qualifications to “be assigned to” major felony cases.  However, working with the more experienced attorney, Ann was able to handle more serious cases and also develop her apprenticeship.  Moreover, Ann indicated that her relationship with the other attorney is reciprocal because he helped Ann on legal issues and she helped him on technical issues.

In fact, Rhonda Smith, the supervisor of the misdemeanor/D felony courts, referred to the group of domestic violence courts as the most “cohesive group.”  Rhonda elaborated on the characteristics of the group:

For a long time, I couldn’t get anyone to stay there, but now I’ve got a really good group of four lawyers down there, and it’s as stable as it has ever been.  It used to be that people just couldn’t stand it because of all that emotion, it was very draining.  But I don’t know, the chemistry with those four particular people.  They like each other . . .  They like working together.  I think they are having fun.  Now, as to trying to decide whether they want to move on and do other kinds of crimes, they sort of feel bad about leaving each other.
The attorneys in domestic violence courts seem to have stronger ties with each other and hesitate to leave this group.
In summary, it appears that there are small communities of practice among misdemeanor/D felony attorneys, and each community has less interaction with the others because they tend to associate with each other, especially those who are in the same court.  In addition, they do not seem to have active interaction with the major felony attorneys.

Community of Practice among Major Felony Attorneys
Sixteen attorneys in the major felony division appear to form a community of practice that is larger than the ones with misdemeanor/D felony attorneys.  Elizabeth Fox, a major felony attorney who has been in this office for about four and a half years, emphasized the importance of having access to her colleagues: “I can't imagine not having all the people here that we do.  You can just walk right next door, and say, ‘listen to this.’  That is invaluable.”  In fact, during the interviews with the major felony attorneys, the first author frequently observed that attorneys were visiting other attorney’s offices and having brief discussions about their cases.
     The major felony attorneys use one another as resources as well as for moral support.  When Ruth Chambers, a major felony attorney, was asked whether she talked to other attorneys, she confirmed:

That is usually the most helpful way to solve our problems.  Usually if you talk to two or three, you will find someone who has had exactly the same experience or who can give you some insight as to how to deal with the problem.  Plus we like to sit around and gripe about everything.  Makes us feel better.  So, we use each other as a support system as well as bounce ideas off of and get ideas about problems we might be having. I do that frequently
Since public defenders’ work is stressful, they use each other for moral support and problem solving.  When Joanne Kent, another major felony attorney, was asked about the informal lunch meetings, she said:
In this building and on this floor, I may be biased, but I think we have a lot of sharing, a lot of give-and-take.  The lunch room is frequently filled with 5, 6, or 7 people, depending on who’s available.  If somebody is in deposition or in court, they can’t do that, but there is always a group in there.  We are constantly leaning on each other and talking about cases, asking for opinions. I don’t think it’s a competitive environment.   At least I don’t perceive that.
Joanne articulated well the characteristics of the informal lunch meeting.  This informal information sharing process is similar to the process we found in Square County. However, some attorneys prefer not to talk about their cases during the lunch hour.  Major felony attorney, Ruth Chambers, also commented on the informal lunch meetings:
. . . we usually have lunch together unless we have something else we need to do and the conversation inevitably gets around to our cases, usually even if we try not to talk about them.  We try to avoid them, so that we can be something other than an attorney.
Ruth indicated that it was irresistible not to talk about their cases during lunchtime although they wanted to take a break from their work.  She further said, “nothing beats a group of us sitting around and talking casually about cases.  That’s the most helpful of all.  I think most of the attorneys would agree with that.”  Therefore, she admitted the important nature of their informal conversations with colleagues.

Being a public defender is not something they simply turn off during lunchtime.  In effect, lunchtime and meeting after work at a bar are the times when the public defenders talk about their cases, new case law, and trials.  This kind of phenomenon was found in various other studies (Orr, 1996, Wenger 1990).  Engaging in the conversation with colleagues as a public defender “is a part of who they are that they always carry with them and that will surface . . . .  It is a constituent of our identities” (Wenger, 1998, p. 57).

IT Use in Circle County
Compared to the Public Defender’s Office in Square County, the attorneys in Circle County utilize IT to support their work practices.  We categorized the roles of IT in this office by using Ngwenyama and Lyytinen’s framework (1997) that identified four types of social actions: instrumental, communicative, discursive, and strategic.  The interviews and observations revealed that the public defenders in this office use IT significantly for all social actions except “strategic.”  Under the instrumental category, the attorneys use research tools to find cases, a database to locate criminal records for their clients and to find other attorneys who may be working with the same clients, and a knowledge-sharing directory to share motions and appeals with other attorneys.  Under the communicative category, they mainly use e-mail to communicate with each other and to distribute information among themselves, including the contract attorneys. Finally, under the discursive category, some of them use the listserv provided by the State Public Defender Council for discussion purposes.  Hence, IT in this office plays a major role in supporting attorneys’ work practices and connecting them to each other.  However, IT does not seem to help overcome the “invisible line” between the two groups of public defenders.

Case 3: The Online Communities of Practice

This section will first delineate the nature of a listserv that helped create an online community of practice among public defenders in this state, then discuss the difference between e-mail and the listserv, describe the extension of the listserv to face-to-face communications, and discuss some drawbacks of the listserv.

The training director in Circle County estimated that 20 percent of their attorneys use the listserv provided by the state public defender council for defense attorneys in this state.  We fictitiously call it "pubdef-L."  About 250 attorneys subscribe to this listserv in order to share information.  It is not open to the public: In order to be a part of pubdef-L, a user must be a member of the state public defender council and send in a request to join pubdef-L.  The traffic in pubdef-L is relatively heavy.  For instance, there were 214 messages within two weeks, between October 1, 1999 and October 16, 1999.  Linda Ellis, a misdemeanor attorney who subscribed to pubdef-L, summarized its characteristics: "There are a lot of experienced lawyers on there, so you get different information.  A lot of wisdom comes through pubdef-L to help solve problems and give suggestions, and cite and find cases. It's a good asset.”  Roy Stewart, a major felony attorney, also had high regard for pubdef-L:

 [the listserv is] great because attorneys all over the state are on that, and it's not uncommon for an attorney in a small county to ask a question, "how do I deal with the situation?" and he'll get responses.  Other defense attorneys are willing to help.  The attorneys all over the state give him some ideas.  So, that's really helpful.  That's like being able to brainstorm with your whole community of defense attorneys.  It all came together about within the last three or four years.  Before that, I don't know how people kept in touch.
Roy was an experienced attorney, yet he valued the information coming through pubdef-L because he considered it a brainstorming tool within the community of defense attorneys. Further, we infer that pubdef-L helps connect the defense attorneys throughout the state and creates a sense of a community among them.

To illustrate the content of online discussions, Cathy indicated an example of the discussions in pubdef-L:

. . . here is an attorney who is asking everybody on pubdef-L . . . . he is basically asking if anybody out there who knows anything about this issue that he has, and what would they do. And he has a bunch of responses already .... So anybody who knows anything about it will respond. If you put a message on, it goes to the entire group. That's like information sharing we have on a computer, and not everyone in this office is a member of it. It's an excellent resource.
Whereas Cathy cited an example of an attorney who was asking for simple technical information, David cited an example of attorneys asking for feedback on and opinions about a current issue.  Therefore, pubdef-L was used to brainstorm with other attorneys as Roy had noted previously, because all respond to the list, not just to the person who raised the question.

Pickering and King (1995) examine the motivation for e-mail use in interorganization communication.  They note that "most of the messages posted to Usenet newsgroups are requests for particular information and assistance with problem-solving" (p. 481), and the discussions in pubdef-L have similar characteristics.  Pickering and King further argue that Interorganizational computer-medicated communication supports dispersed occupational communities.  Pubdef-L appears to uphold this function.

In addition to information sharing and problem solving, Cathy sees pubdef-L as a great learning resource as well: "Since I'm new, I just learn a lot, I'm not at a point where [I'm responding much] . . . But I just learn a lot from hearing about different issues.”  Hence, pubdef-L provides a learning space for less experienced attorneys as well as the more experienced ones.  Joanne said:

pubdef-L is a statewide defense network.  I don't know how many messages I read every day, probably dozens.  So you have a lot of attorneys that you are talking to . . . . It's the same thing with leaning on everybody's door because people will throw out a fact pattern and people all over the state will respond.  And say, "Oh, yeah, I've heard about the case down in Maple County and they did such and such.  The prosecutor's approach was this way, or the judge said this or that.  That sentence was done in this way."  It's like a computer equivalent of leaning on each other's doorway.  Walking pass, overhearing conversation, and joining in.  That's neat and you get incredible information.
Joanne addressed the usefulness of pubdef-L and defined one of its functions as a learning space, as Cathy had done.  Joanne indicated that she learned from pubdef-L not just by reading the messages, but also by engaging in conversations with other attorneys. She transferred physical interactions with other attorneys to computer-based interactions and stated that it was the "computer equivalent of leaning on each other's doorway."

Interestingly, the attorneys in this office do not use e-mail for the same purpose. When Joanne was asked about the different uses of e-mail and pubdef-L, she noted:

On e-mail, unless you send it Groupwise, you just send it to one person . . . . most of the time, the messages are directed toward a specific person or a small group. So, I don't think it's quite the same.  In the pubdef-L, it goes to everybody in it. It's like somebody pops up and says something . . . It's different from when you are initiating the conversation.  You are overhearing it, and then you can join in.
The public defenders in this office clearly distinguished between the use of e-mail and pubdef-L.  Although they could use the office-wide e-mail for the same purpose as pubdef-L, i.e., to discuss legal issues and cases, this was not happening.  That might be because some attorneys want to have the choice of being on the list or not.  Joanne explained about some attorneys' attitudes towards pubdef-L:
There are some attorneys who think it's like a gripe session at the bar but it's really more substantial.  Although attorneys' gripe session at the bar is substantial because you are talking about the work.  It's kind of neat because you have very serious stuff and then somebody will throw in a joke or read a funny article and pass that around to perk people up.  And that's nice, too.
This comment indicated that Joanne enjoyed the discussion on pubdef-L and acknowledged its function as a gripe session.  This kind of socialization seemed necessary to develop professional identities.  According to her, everybody takes turns responding to messages.  Hence, there is no obligation or pressure.  Although Joanne said she did not respond often, she was one of the attorneys who actively participated in the discussions on pubdef-L.  In fact, during her interview, she kept opening her e-mail account.  The "beep" sound was heard several times from her computer indicating new e-mail messages.  She sometimes checked and mentioned that the message was from pubdef-L.

The discussion in pubdef-L sometimes extends to face-to-face communication.  When the first author was participating in a criminal bar association meeting at a local bar, an attorney raised a question, and another asked her whether she had checked pubdef-L.  This dialogue indicated that they knew what had been discussed in pubdef-L and considered it as one of the useful resources.  David mentioned a conversation with a friend, also an attorney:

One of the reasons why I know Peter Bruce uses it [pubdef-L] is because . . . we hang out and we talk about it.  "Hey, I saw you down there.  That was a good response blah blah blah."  A lot of people may read the stuff but not respond.
Therefore, online discussions do foster face-to-face communication.  However, as in any kind of electronic discussion group, pubdef-L has some drawbacks.  Angela Myers, one of the major felony attorneys, tended to think that pubdef-L was not an essential part of her resources:
I'm sort of leaning toward not [using it].  To me, pubdef-L has a great potential to be a place where lawyers who don't want to do the work can just get on and say, "Hey, tell me what to say, tell me how to do this."  Now that's not always bad but I tend to think that it may stifle younger lawyers from knowing how to research the statutes and knowing how to dig into case law and knowing it.
Angela cautioned that pubdef-L can ruin the opportunities for less experienced attorneys to conduct research by themselves, because the listserv is only for question-and-answer sessions, not for research.  There might also be a danger of relying on the information from pubdef-L too much without critically judging its quality.  Alex Gordon, supervisor of the major felony attorneys, warned that attorneys needed to be selective about the information that can be obtained through pubdef-L by saying there is “lots of junk in it.”  Therefore, attorneys who are on pubdef-L have to evaluate the quality of the information obtained through it.  Both Alex and Angela mentioned that their criteria for judging the information was based on the message senders, e.g., whether they are good courtroom attorneys.  They both emphasized the importance of knowing court performance.  They have been practicing in this field long enough to know most of the other attorneys and their reputations.

In summary, the attorneys appear to use pubdef-L for many purposes: to ask questions; share updated information; brainstorm strategies in trials; discuss current legal issues; and learn from the discussions.  We found that the characteristics of pubdef-L resemble the attributes of the communities of practice, and especially, this one appears to have been developed to share technical knowledge.  However, there are some components that do not exist in this online community of practice.  For example, it is difficult to confirm that these defense attorneys develop a shared vision because all members of the community were not necessarily public defenders.  Some of the members are contract (part-time) public defenders who are private attorneys.

The online CoP was formed based on the listserv for public defenders throughout the state.  Although not all the attorneys in Circle County’s public defender’s office participate in the listserv, those who did join it found it very useful.  The attorneys use the listserv for at least two different purposes.  The first use was to brainstorm cases with other attorneys who were not necessarily located in the same office.  Some major felony attorneys who participated in the listserv indicated that it provided a sense of a community for public defenders in this state.

The second use was to learn about updated information from discussions on the listserv.  This second usage appears to be especially useful for less experienced attorneys, although experienced attorneys cautioned that one had to carefully sort the information posted on the listserv.  Moreover, some attorneys indicated that the listserv seems very useful for public defenders in rural areas, because they do not typically have access to experienced criminal attorneys.

 In addition, we found that less experienced attorneys have a tendency to rely on IT as a resource more than major felony attorneys do, because they are more comfortable with IT and they are also more isolated.  In fact, we argue that this tendency also makes the CoP among less experienced attorneys weaker, although there are other compelling factors that influence this community.  Further, we assert that electronic communication, such as e-mail and listservs, may not be able to advance professional identity formation in this office.  Finally, an online CoP among the attorneys in the state supports some aspects of CoPs.  While it does not seem to be a replacement for face-to-face CoPs, it can be a supplement.  Later, we will expand the characteristics of CoPs in order to understand the concept in greater depth.  We will also consider the relationship between CoPs and IT, and implications of this study for further research and development in IT.

A Framework for Communities of Practice
There are two perspectives in the organizational learning literature: one is a cognitive perspective, and the other is a cultural perspective.  Brown and Duguid (1996) do not make the relationship between organizational learning and CoPs explicit in their article.  Our position is that a CoP provides a milieu to foster organizational learning, especially based on the cultural perspective.

In addition, Lave and Wenger originally defined CoPs as scaffolding for newcomers to become part of a community or profession, as with new teachers or new journalists.  Newcomers start as peripheral members and eventually learn to become full members of the community.  This interpretation makes sense if one considers CoPs from an anthropological perspective.  This is the perspective of studying how a member of a tribe, e.g., a child, becomes a full member of a community.  Therefore, it appears that Lave and Wenger’s emphasis is on learning “cultural knowledge” (see the following section), including identity, which is embedded in the community.

A CoP provides an informal learning environment in which both novices and experienced members of the community may interact, share their experiences of being in a particular profession, and learn from each other.  Therefore, organizational learning occurs in a CoP.  Clearly, novices learn how to become professionals by being mentored by and apprenticed to more experienced members.  This is the concept of “legitimate peripheral participation” developed by Lave and Wenger (1991).  By using this term, they explain that “learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and that mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community” (p. 29).  In the case of misdemeanor/D felony attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office in Circle County, they learned how to practice law by means of legitimate peripheral participation and eventually moved up to become major felony attorneys, i.e., to fully participate in the group of public defenders in the office.

However, CoPs are useful not only for novices.  Learning is a continuous process in any kind of profession.  Although Lave and Wenger (1991) do not discuss how learning occurs among full members of a community, even experienced attorneys who have been practicing more than fifteen years can learn from younger attorneys, because conversation with the less experienced attorneys elicits the experienced attorneys' reflection on their own actions.  A CoP is a place to bridge these two groups (novice and experienced) and to start a conversation within a particular profession.  That was found to be the case for the experienced attorneys in the Public Defender’s Offices at Square and Circle counties, as well as for the Xerox technicians studied by Orr (1990; 1996).

A problem with the concept of “legitimate peripheral participation” is that it is hard to draw a line between novices and experienced people.  How do we determine when to have full-participation?  A public defender in Square County, Tom Ashton, said that he never felt that he had reached a mastery level, though others perceived him as a well-experienced attorney.  Perhaps it is important to have the perception that one has not achieved a mastery level to be in a CoP, because once people realize that they have reached a mastery level, they may opt to stop learning.  The reason for being in a CoP is to continuously learn.  Thus, the self-perception of not having achieved a mastery level might be one driving force that keeps the more experienced members active.  Furthermore, there are other possible factors that keep them in a CoP.  They may seek emotional solidarity and have desire to pass on experience to younger generations.

We characterize the core components of professional CoPs derived from this study, thus practice, professional identity, autonomy, shared vision, supportive culture, shared meaning, and collective knowledge building (see Figure 2).  Practice is a basis of a CoP because a CoP emerges around a particular field of practice.  Since we studied CoPs within a particular professional occupation, that of public defenders, we found that professional identity was one of the important components of the communities.  The groups’ sense of professional identity makes a CoP strong.  In a CoP, autonomy is another important component because CoPs include few training opportunities.  In fact, even receiving formal training requires autonomy in order to utilize the knowledge that attorneys gain from formal training, which is called Continuing Legal Education.  In this particular profession, formal training and informal learning are complementary.  Therefore, individuals in a CoP have to be motivated to learn and work in order to improve their practices.  Within a CoP, the members engage in knowledge sharing and collectively build their knowledge base.  In order to share knowledge with each other, a CoP has to have a supportive culture.  By sharing knowledge and learning from each other, the members of a CoP construct shared meaning.  Finally, a CoP is tied together by a shared vision among the members.

Social Construction of Knowledge In Communities of Practice: Three Kinds of Knowledge
In a CoP, members socially construct knowledge as opposed to individually. There are three types of knowledge that the members have to learn: cultural knowledge and two kinds of subject-matter knowledge.  In some CoPs, the subject-matter changes rapidly, e.g., CoPs among lawyers, whereas sometimes cultures change rapidly, perhaps because of the high rate of turnovers.  The original definition of a CoP by Lave and Wenger (1991) appeared to be concerned about only static cultural knowledge and subject-matter knowledge.  However, many jobs require the learning of subject matter that frequently changes.  Therefore, it is also imperative to address the learning of subject-matter knowledge in CoPs.

In our study, cultural knowledge refers to what it is like to be a public defender and includes their professional identities.  Most of the tacit knowledge that is necessary to become a full member of the community of public defenders is embedded in the culture of the public defender’s offices.  Therefore, younger attorneys learn how to be public defenders by observing more experienced attorneys and by talking with them.  As Huseman and Goodman state, “culture is one of the most powerful stores of knowledge” (Huseman & Goodman, 1999, p. 121).

We further classified subject-matter knowledge as either book knowledge or practical knowledge (see the summary of the three kinds of knowledge in Table 1). Book knowledge refers to mere facts, such as case laws and statutes.  In contrast, practical knowledge refers to using the book knowledge in practice; for example, how to use the latest case that an attorney found in Lexis-Nexis in a bench trial.  The attorneys have learned most of their fundamental book knowledge in law school, but they also have to keep learning new book knowledge because criminal laws are rapidly changing.  In addition, they have to learn how to use their book knowledge, which will eventually become practical knowledge.

Learning cultural knowledge and partial practical knowledge are tacit.  As a result, the main mechanism of learning them relies on observing experts.  On the other hand, parts of practical knowledge and book knowledge are explicit.  Therefore, they can be shared through documents and electronic formats, such as messages through a listserv.

Table 1: Three kinds of knowledge

Cultural knowledge

Subject-matter knowledge
Cultural knowledge

Practical knowledge

Book knowledge


In terms of book knowledge and a part of practical knowledge, which are easily shared with other people, development of shared knowledge can be explained by the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) (Latour, 1987).  ANT examines key relationships within socio-technical networks.  Latour developed ANT to explain how scientific knowledge is shared and constructed among scientists working in labs.  One unique aspect of ANT is the inclusion of artifacts into social networks to construct shared knowledge.  Latour uses the term, actants, in order to suggest equality between actors—human beings—and artifacts.

According to ANT, artifacts influence construction of knowledge at the same level as people.  For example, an attorney, Jason, described how a case found by another attorney helped all the attorneys’ cases in the office.  In this situation, the case (an actant) played a major role in assisting the public defenders’ work.  Therefore, how the case was used among the attorneys plays an important role in constructing shared knowledge, in addition to a human network among the attorneys.  In the Public Defender’s Office in Circle County, actants are more complex, because the office has more people who use more artifacts and tools, e.g., a database for criminal records, the Internet, and the listserv, to support their work practices.  One example is that attorneys share their experience and knowledge on the listserv.  Through this electronic medium, they construct their own knowledge about practicing law by having discussions with other attorneys.  Moreover, as described earlier, the attorneys use the listserv as a learning resource.

However, one complexity of CoPs is that other kinds of knowledge are also shared and constructed among members, which are difficult to explain using ANT.  In terms of tacit practical knowledge and cultural knowledge, which are hard to share with other people, ANT does not work well, because it was developed to explain scientific knowledge that can be easily shared.  Lave has proposed that culture is “the reproduction of ways of being in the world” (cited in Rival, 1996, p. 164).  Along the same lines, Rival illustrates two CoPs in a school village and a longhouse in the forest and states that “culture is not primarily acquired through the internalization of norms and values, or the transmission of factual information and abstract skills, but through interactive learning” (p. 164).  This argument fits the theme of the CoPs at the two public defender’s offices.  The study found that the best way to learn tacit practical knowledge is to observe other, especially more experienced, attorneys and to apply that knowledge in practice.  In terms of learning cultural knowledge, the interaction with other attorneys (socialization) plays a major role.  Jacob and Jordan (1996) describe “enculturation” as “a child learning cultural norms and behaviors for the first time” (p. 17).  By means of everyday practices and interactions with colleagues, the public defenders share, construct, and obtain cultural knowledge.

The group that we studied in Square County had an already-established community; the youngest attorney had been in the office for about six years.  Thus, the concept of a CoP as defined by Lave and Wenger (1991) was problematic for this study, because their research did not focus on a stable CoP.  Their concept of a CoP was focused on a newcomer learning the knowledge embedded in the community.  Hence, their focus was on the process of becoming a full-member of the community.  Although the group we studied did not have a newcomer, we found that it did establish a CoP.  Since culture in the existing community is not static (Van Maanen, 1988), not only newcomers but also full-members of a community have to keep learning not only the culture, but in the culture as well.

For example, the first author had a chance to participate in a management retreat of the Circle County’s Public Defender’s Office.  They discussed how the culture of the office had changed as a result of expanding the number of employees.  They started by having 10 full-time attorneys and 2 secretaries in 1994, and thus all of them were very close.  The office currently has approximately 50 full-time attorneys, 60 contract attorneys and 50 staff.  Therefore, they do not know each other well.  In addition, at the retreat, the managers discussed the problems we identified in this paper about the separation between the less experienced and experienced attorneys and proposed restructuring of task divisions.  This attempt will be likely to change the culture of the office.

To summarize, CoPs provide an environment in which the members of the communities share, construct, and learn three kinds of knowledge: book knowledge, practical knowledge, and cultural knowledge.

Communities of Practice and IT Integration
Harasim (1990) advocates the possibility of extension of “personal/professional networks into a global community” (p. 46) by using computer-mediated communication.  Many authors (e.g., Harasim, 1990; Sharp, 1997; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991) assert that computer networks should be used to build, expand, and support a virtual community.  In addition, some authors (Hara, Bonk, & Angeli, 2000; Haythornthwaite, 1998; Weedman, 1999) discuss the development of a sense of community among students who communicate online.  However, in order to build a virtual CoP, we need to carefully design the learning environment by considering all the technical, pedagogical, and organizational issues.  Brown and Duguid (1995) make the point that it is difficult to form a virtual CoP, but electronic communication strengthens existing communities.

Figure 1: Communities-of-practice (CoP) and IT

Information Technology Integration

CoP in Square country
CoP among exp. attorneys
Listserv CoP
CoP among less exp. attorneys

Note: high IT integration does not lead to stronger CoPs

In the study of CoPs, the correlation between CoPs and the use of IT was not necessarily positive.  Hence, high use of IT does not necessarily make a strong CoP  (see Figure 1).  In this study, we did not find a link between frequent use of IT and strong ties among the members of a CoP.  In fact, the higher the self-proclaimed use of IT that was registered for the people, the weaker were the ties found between them.  This finding is somewhat counterintuitive, because some authors claim that IT can connect people (e.g., Sproull & Kiesler, 1991).  However, the online CoP had stronger ties than the CoP among less experienced attorneys because the online CoP involves more attorneys and therefore leads to more interactions among the members who are engaging in collective knowledge building.

As mentioned earlier, the Square County Public Defender’s Office appeared to have a stronger CoP than the CoPs in Circle County.  One of the reasons might be the size of the organization.  Barker (1960) proposed the Behavior Setting Theory and compared small and large organizations; he argues that people from small organizations tend to have a stronger sense of satisfaction, participate in a wider range of activities, and have more responsibilities for assigned tasks, because they lack sufficient resources.  This Behavior Setting Theory may explain the difference between these offices.  However, small organizations have some disadvantages as well.  Barker notes that “the underpopulated setting is one where self-esteem and social status can both flourish, and also wither” (1990, p. 33).  Because understaffed settings do not have enough human resources, individuals’ responsibilities become heavier than in a large organization.  Therefore, individuals in a small organization have more opportunities to develop high self-esteem and social status (the Public Defender’s Office in Square County).  On the other hand, because of the lack of human resources, there is also a risk that the members cannot accomplish the tasks effectively (the CoPs among less experienced attorneys in Circle County—this finding was surprising because we suspected that less experienced attorneys would have a stronger CoP because they need to learn more).

Our assertion is that the listserv provides a part of the subject-matter knowledge that is explicit, but fails to provide much cultural knowledge.  Hence, the online CoP among public defenders accommodates some aspects of face-to-face CoPs, but not all of them.  Whittaker and Schwarz (1999) report an ethnographic study of the use of electronic scheduling software among software developers.  They conclude that current scheduling software is not appropriate for coordinating software development and indicate its limitations, which involve social and motivational factors.  As found in their study, the role of IT may be suitable for certain tasks, but not all tasks.  Hence, it is unlikely that online CoPs will be a substitute for face-to-face CoPs.  Figure 2 represents some aspects of CoPs that can be fostered by online CoPs.  Those attributes that are within the shadowed shape (collective knowledge building, supportive culture, some parts of practice, and some parts of shared vision) are found in the online CoP.  This study did not reveal whether online CoPs hold the attributes outside of the shadow (professional identity, autonomy, and shared vision).

Figure 2: Possible IT roles to support CoPs

Implications of This Study for IT Research
What can we do to support a CoP with IT?  Some IT can be used to bring people together.  As an example of CSCW application, senior scientists at a research institution and a graduate student who is learning to be a researcher at a different university can discuss current issues in science, such as green chemistry, by using video conferencing tools (see Hara, Solomon, Kim, & Sonnenwald, 2001).  This kind of technology can provide an environment for both novice and experienced researchers to interact with and learn from each other.  Furthermore, researchers at different locations can share their concerns and experiences with colleagues at other locations by using online conferencing tools.  They can be counselors for each other and collectively solve problems.  These exchanges could possibly be beneficial for novices, because the experienced researchers' “tacit knowledge” (Polanyi, 1958) will be more explicitly available to them.  Novices might be able to gain contextualized “practical knowledge” in addition to ”book knowledge.”  They can learn how to become a “reflective practitioner” (Schön, 1983) and a full member of a CoP  (Lave & Wenger, 1991) by observing the conversations of experienced researchers.  However, as noted earlier, fostering cultural knowledge among the members of such a community would be a challenge in an online CoP.

Research on CoPs should be built on social theory, and Wenger (1998) started theorizing the concept of CoPs.  That is an important step towards understanding CoPs.  Certainly the concept of CoPs receives much attention from different fields, including education, business, and information science; yet empirical research on CoPs is sparse.  More studies are needed to further the past studies by Orr (1996) and Wenger (1990).  It is sometimes difficult to identify CoPs.  For instance, in K-12 educational settings, it is difficult for teachers to form a CoP because they tend to be isolated. We found that CoPs play an important role in improving attorneys’ work practices. But we also found that the group that used collaborative technologies most intensively had the weakest CoP.

In this paper, we focused on collective learning by members of CoPs as a part of organizational learning.  We have illustrated CoPs in two public defender’s offices and presented the framework for CoPs.  Each CoP has unique attributes.  Yet, we found that there are several common elements that make up all CoPs: practice, professional identity, autonomy, shared vision, supportive culture, shared meaning, and collective knowledge building.  In order to form a CoP, the members have to learn continuously.  Therefore, autonomy is especially an important aspect of a CoP.  In the communities of public defenders, the attorneys we studied shared a vision of helping their clients.  To accomplish this goal, they try to improve their own practice through interactions with their colleagues.

Furthermore, in our examination of the use of IT in Circle County Public Defender’s Office, we found that the attorneys used IT to support three categories of social action: instrumental, communicative, and discursive.  The study did not find a strong relationship between CoP development and IT use.  Although the listserv used by defense attorneys throughout the state, helps to create an online CoP, the listserv does not seem to support the acquisition of cultural knowledge, which is tacit rather than explicit.  This online community is typically supplemented by face-to-face interactions among local attorneys.

Because a listserv is an old form of IT, some may argue that advanced Web technologies could have supported an online CoP that is similar to a face-to-face CoP.  However, the limitations of listserv technology did not necessarily cause limited support for the online CoP.  The newer forms of IT do not effectively support the sharing of tacit knowledge either.  The ability to allow the sharing of video might be seen as one way to communicate cultural knowledge.  However, in practice, few professionals are actually able to arrange for meaningful films to be made of their work.  For example, many judges would ban video cameras from their courts.  Few professionals have the resources to have their own daily work videotaped and edited for professional self-presentation.

This paper provides a theoretical framework based on empirical research.  The concepts of knowledge sharing and CoPs are rich yet complex, and this study has revealed some underexamined aspects of these concepts.  Using empirical data, we challenge current ideas about online CoPs.  This article contributes to the building of a theory of informal learning, and, more specifically, to an understanding of the role of CoPs and role of IT in the sphere of informal learning.

This study was made possible with the help of the two public defender’s offices. Curt Bonk, Blaise Cronin, Ivor Davies, Sam Guskin, Bradley Levinson, Linda Mabry, and Tom Schwen provided helpful insights and comments.

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