Originally published on June 27, 2018

This is the 24th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner are married and also formed a professional partnership.

Etienne is best known for his seminal work on communities of practice and social learning theory. He is an independent thinker, researcher, consultant, author, and speaker. Etienne is mostly known for his work on communities of practice, though he considers himself a social learning theorist more generally.

Bev is best known for her pioneering work in international settings, learning across boundaries, and the use of social media. She is a social learning consultant who works with organizations to develop strategies and practices for cultivating communities, networks, and other forms of social learning.

I first heard Etienne speak at DCI’s Knowledge Management Conference in Boston in 1998, at which he presented “Real Knowledge Management: Building Communities of Practice.” His work on communities of practice inspired me, and I have focused on this topic to a great extent in my career in knowledge management.


1. Etienne Wenger-Trayner is a globally recognized thought leader in the field of social learning and communities of practice. He has authored and co-authored seminal articles and books on the topic, including Situated Learning, where the term “community of practice” was coined; Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, where he lays out a theory of learning based on the concept; Cultivating Communities of Practice, addressed to practitioners in organizations who want to base their knowledge strategy on communities of practice; and Digital Habitats, which tackles issues of technology. His work is influencing a growing number of organizations in the private and public sectors. He helps these organizations apply these ideas through consulting, public speaking, and workshops.

Theoretically, his work focuses on social learning systems, trying to understand the connection between knowledge, community, learning, and identity. The basic idea is that human knowing is fundamentally a social act. This simple observation has profound implications for the way we think of and attempt to support learning. Practically, these ideas are helping people who face all sorts of challenges, such as:

  • design more effective knowledge-oriented organizations
  • create learning systems across organizations
  • improve education and lifelong learning
  • rethink the role of professional associations
  • design a world in which people can reach their full potential

Education: University of California, Irvine, Ph.D., Artificial Intelligence, 1990

2. Beverly Wenger-Trayner is a learning consultant specializing in communities of practice and social learning systems. Her expertise encompasses both the design of learning architectures and the facilitation of processes, activities, and use of new technologies. Her work with international organizations such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the International Labor Organization, The World Bank and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research have given her substantial experience in coaching conveners and in supporting multi-lingual groups across cultures, time-zones, and geographic locations. She has published chapters and articles about learning in internationally distributed communities and co-authored a popular toolkit on social reporting. She has also been the creative director of an Open Source platform for networked communities.

She feels most at home working with people in international settings and complex landscapes, especially when it includes the integration of new technologies and social media in innovative ways. Her biggest projects have been with organizations such as the International Labour Organization, Nuclear Threat Initiative, The World Bank, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bev supports government agencies or organisations who are setting up learning environments or communities of practice in distributed communities. This support can come on three levels: developing strategic learning strategies, training and coaching of community leaders, and facilitation of events. Monitoring the value of the communities is often a part of her work.

People have called her a learning architect, a social artist and a technology steward. Bev is often invited to facilitate community meetings for people who want quality conversations and dialogue. She has been the creative designer of a platform that combines social networking, work-spaces and a library.

She sees herself as action researcher with aspirations for doing more auto-ethnographic writing. In the 70s, Bev was a political and social activist, passionate about connecting people globally and raising awareness of global issues of justice in local contexts. She has lived in four countries: Kenya, UK, Portugal and USA. As a result, Bev developed a hybrid socio-techno-political worldview that spans continents. She identifies with people whose life has been one of crossing boundaries, from the very tiny to the very big.

Specialties: Dealing with complex issues (part of the social discipline of learning); designing and facilitating events that integrate online and off-line; integrating social media in the learning strategies of communities of practice; working and designing for distributed teams; and designing for conversations and dialogue that cross time, space and cultures.

Education: University of Bath, Universidade de Aveiro, University of Brighton, University of London

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Annotations from Communities of Practice: Selected Readings by Fred Nickols

From eLearn Magazine, September, 2006, an ACM publication

“If we can stop focusing on who learns more or less of particular, culturally well-defined fragments of knowledge, and ask questions instead about what is around to be learned, in what circumstances, and to what end, learning achievements would become statements about the points of contact available to persons in various social settings.”

— R.P. McDermott, “The Acquisition of a Child by a Learning Disability,” Understanding Practice

The adult learners we work with face a difficult conundrum: Their social world is constrained by the technologies they know how to use and vice versa: The technologies they know how to use are limited by their social world. For many people, a solo exploration of the online world can be arduous, insecure, and time-consuming. In an age characterized by increasing access to information and communication technologies, and by learning through these technologies, such issues acquire a great significance. This is particularly true when we view learning as a social experience and not one of absorbing information. In this article, we explore a design for learning that includes connecting people across time and distance so that they develop practices for sharing and creating information and knowledge rather than just acquiring it.

Our exploration is a reflection on the many distributed events we have designed, led, and collaborated on within our extended CPsquare community. These events have always started online, moved to face-to-face meetings or telephone conference calls, and returned to further online interactions. We have observed these events and developed practices to help people relate to each other in a community setting, introducing new points of contact using the different social structures and media at a group’s disposal. Although in practice events such as these are more likely to be part of a more complex iterative cycle with people using many types of media (including, for example, the telephone), we offer a simplified outline to suggest a basic design curriculum for online learning. This curriculum can be used to generate other designs using more than one medium. By identifying the different phases of the media cycle, by being aware of what people do, and by listening to what they say they feel, we aim to improve our designs for learning during each phase, as well as when weaving together more complex combinations of different media.

Our Context, Perspectives, and Experiences

Most of our experiences have taken place with adults participating in workshops or courses aimed at improving knowledge and skills in the areas of technology use, facilitation, and communities of practice. Participants are often leaders or early adopters who come from the corporate world, higher education, and government and non-governmental training organizations. The courses or events have had a workshop atmosphere in which participants are expected to take leadership roles and a communities-of-practice perspective frames the outcomes. As a result, they include stimulation of relationships between participants (community), exploration of a body of knowledge in which participants share an interest (domain), and development of practices that support further learning (practice).

These three elements are part of Wenger’s model of a community of practice. We refer to it as “the CPD model,” and it provides an invaluable design heuristic, as focus on one facet of C, P or D has implications for the other two. From a community-of-practice perspective, all three are facets of learning and, where it is supported, learning occurs in all three facets at once: meeting new people, acquiring new conversational and technical skills, and learning about a subject. While it may appear that we are merely suggesting a simple combination of computer-based and in-person elements, we see that this combination can lead to a different idea of “curriculum” that touches on all three CPD facets simultaneously.

At the same time learning about technologies for effective, ongoing communication is becoming more complex, both because technologies are more abundant and because the combinations and interactions among them are becoming more complex.

When we first began exploring these ideas, tagging, blogs, and syndication were not widely known. Today, communities and their leaders need to be competent in managing them all together. The combination of modes of communication (e.g., media, venues, technologies, and relationships) happens sequentially and simultaneously. We need a language to talk about them together.

Taking a communities-of-practice perspective is to use a discourse about learning that grounds the building of social relationships and bringing together of people in self-organizing, productive ways. Learning and knowing come about through informal, often improvised, engagement with other people. Interaction is aimed at negotiating the meaning of our experiences in the world that we share and are jointly constructing. In our case content and technology are community resources to be negotiatedand created; they are not seen as materials or tools that can be dispensed, much less downloaded. A community-of-practice perspective also suggests measuring desired outcomes as something more than quantitative measures that represent the acquisition of knowledge fragments. Rather, they should express the quality and depth of conversations, dialogue, and the negotiation of meaning. The development of relationships that are capable of supporting learning in the future is an important design goal and outcome. Although our context, perspectives, and experience may be somewhat unique, we think that some of what we describe will be recognizable and our practices useful in other settings. Let us negotiate the meaning!

Description of Our Practice: Some Heuristics

We summarize the observations of our experience in the form of an outline divided into the media cycles referred to as the online ramp-up (preparation phase online), face-to-face meeting, and online follow-on (post-meeting online phase). The subheadings refer to a series of phases that move from the beginning of the online ramp-up, through the face-to-face meeting, and to the online follow-on. The bullet points present a heuristic based on the observations we have made in these different phases. The heuristics apply both to participants and facilitators.

For each heuristic presented in the outline, there will also be a number of people to whom it does not apply (as we sometimes indicate). As it begins to apply to more people during the progression of the phases, those people for whom it does not apply usually start to feel some discomfort.

The term “heuristic” highlights the descriptive function of the events in the outline and also emphasizes an ongoing tension and contradiction between our interpretation of the feelings and the practices we observe.

HEURISTICS — What Participants Experience

Phase: Getting into the online space

  • Launching into various preliminary interactions, usually involving Web pages, emails, phone calls, and payment which have the function of bootstrapping other points of contact.
  • Engaging with this new online experience balances uncertainty and extrapolation from previous experiences.
  • Finding other people “there” — a glimpse that it may be worthwhile.
  • Feelings of familiarity or frustration, despair, or delight.

Phase: Finding your way: asynchronous discussions

  • Dealing with technical mechanics and overcoming social obstacles, both online and in a context around the computer at home and/or at work.
  • Discovering that an asynchronous medium has a rhythm that intersects “real life.”
  • Getting to know (or not) how to use different pathways or facilities to participate in an online discussion.
  • Figuring out the “right thing to do,” acquiring social learning skills or technical mastery and taking some initiative (or not) as a result.

Phase: Experiencing a new kind of community

  • Reframing the online world as social, not just technical.
  • Feeling recognized, ignored or (mis-)understood by other participants or by the facilitators.
  • Noticing social behaviors, relationships, affinities, alliances, and conflicts between people in the group.
  • Recognizing others and starting to understand the existence of diverse views or “language” (discoursal) differences.
  • Becoming more self-conscious of online social conventions.
  • Recognizing different roles (e.g. leader, supporter, interlocutor, etc.) and assuming one (even without knowing it).
  • Feeling comfortable with tensions and ambiguities — and realizing that there may be social resources for handling them.

Phase: Engaging in a larger social space

  • Discovering how one online technology can lead to contact with other participants using others, such as telephone, email, IM, or other means.
  • Having meaningful, informal interactions that suit a specific purpose and lead to further interactions.

Phase: Anticipating face-to-face engagement

  • Negotiating and constructing face-to-face agendas.
  • Going on a journey (traveling to a physical meeting place) and seeing its effects on the online continuity.
  • Negotiating living arrangements (sharing transportation or physical space with other participants).

Phase: Meeting individuals face-to-face

  • Validating the online investment by meeting people again: recognizing people that you have already met online and comparing face-to-face and online personas.
  • Resuming online conversations, and experiencing other people’s responses to you; renegotiating affinities and distances.
  • Experiencing the difference between face-to-face and online community.
  • Gaining confidence and enjoying differences.
  • Appreciating the learning potential in differences, tensions and newfound partnerships: finding new partnerships.
  • Being excited or disappointed (and figuring how to show or mask it).

Phase: Participating in groups face-to-face

  • Entering a new social space, from making an initial comment or telling your first story to negotiating (successfully or not) the special roles of leadership, support, etc. in a face-to-face setting.
  • Taking the initiative (or not) to do something on behalf of the group.
  • Feeling left out or included and recognizing “liminal moments.”
  • Creating group artifacts or records of the encounter (or not), such as notes, photographs, diagrams, etc.
  • Managing tensions (or not) and turning them into group learning (or not).
  • Experiencing an online backdrop to face-to-face interaction (e.g., there is an assumption that conversation continues after the face-to-face meeting ends).

Phase: Framing one’s experience in a new context provided by the group

  • Feeling more committed to “the group” despite the fact that it has come to existence through previously unknown circumstances.
  • Developing a clear sense of helpful and unhelpful skills in a learning community, online or face-to-face.
  • Tuning in to other people’s phases and supporting them appropriately.
  • Having a sense of “what isn’t known” or is “off limits.”
  • Feeling responsible for fellow members’ learning.
  • Feeling accountable in one’s actions to fellow members.

Phase: Diaspora: Moving back to the online space

  • Posting the artifacts produced in face-to-face interaction in the online setting.
  • Realizing that certain questions remain unanswered or even unacknowledged.
  • Hearing someone’s voice more clearly in their written messages because of face-to-face interactions.
  • Imagining the possibilities of new mixes of media and points of contact.
  • Being more open to meeting previously unknown community members online.
  • Feeling that the group can shape one’s identity over time, beyond a single event or venue or medium.

Phase: Online closing or transition

  • Acknowledging changes in practice, as well as in community and domain.
  • Feeling more skillful in the practices necessary for a productive learning community (which may be different in different venues: email, online, phone, face-to-face).
  • Sadness and excitement if the group is dissolving or when people move on.
  • Carrying the experience with you to another community, meeting, or setting.
  • Appreciating the importance of “behind-the-scenes” design and leadership.
  • Using the proceedings or a collection of group resources (e.g., online discussions, documents, audio or video recordings, photos, etc.) as a reference.

Discussion: Some Implications for Curriculum

For this brief discussion we highlight five facets of what we think contributed to the curriculum of events that was organized using the media cycle we have described.

1. Design for learning using CPD model is productive. Sparking the passion for a domain can connect us to a community, which leads to the evolution of practice. Conversely, a change in practice can lead to a change in community which leads to a redefinition of the domain’s scope. Scaffolding must be provided for all three that are in ongoing interaction and evolution.

2. Spending time on social processes. When creating new points of contact in a design goal, spending enough time on social processes is essential. Neither information nor abstract knowledge about points of contact is a substitute for experiencing the social interactions in doing real work.

3. Using different media to negotiate language as part of a larger process. When discussions about how general principles apply or what technical terms mean are important, design for learning must enable the negotiation of meaning. Disciplined building on earlier conversations becomes a key element, using the different ways that meaning can be negotiated in online and face-to-face settings. The differences in how we retain and remember what has been negotiated online or face-to-face also matter.

4. Creating new possibilities: subgroups and outside experts as resources. When it’s important to both re-draw social boundaries and enrich the social fabric around learning and inquiry, the online, face-to-face, online cycle also affords new possibilities.

5. Demonstrating leadership roles in different media. When a workshop aims to model skills and methods of inquiry, participants form a more complete understanding and have a fuller experience of the issues involved when this modeling occurs in different media.

6. Provoking shifts in “comfort zones.” While switching media is often experienced as unsettling, it also can open up new possibilities for collaboration and resourcefulness. A striking observation about changing media is that it changes people’s assumptions about what is “normal interaction.”


In contrast to learning designs that focus on combining different media or delivery methods, our design framework focuses on the processes involved in using one medium as a preparation for another and in using the dynamics and tensions of one to stimulate the learning in the next. Thus, the time dimension and an improvisational approach are fundamental. Each media cycle is an opportunity for a negotiation of meaning that takes place in different circumstances and during different phases of the distributed event.

In practicing this cycle ourselves, we have observed certain patterns of action and feelings by both participants and facilitators which we think could be helpful in designing for similar types of learning contexts, particularly among distributed communities and with a communities-of-practice perspective.

Articles by Others

John Hovell wrote to me, “I’m very excited to have an opportunity to eat breakfast with Etienne Wenger — might there be any question or message that I could pass along for you?”

To which I replied, “My question for Etienne is ‘what does he see in the coming 1–2 years for communities of practice (CoPs) — more of the same, or one or more new developments?’ In some ways, nothing is really new with CoPs, but at the same time, with the growing interest in Web 2.0, it can result in new energy for tools which have been around for a long time such as discussion forums. Is anything really new, or is the main thing to continue applying approaches which are tried and true with more and more people?”

Here is what John sent back after the breakfast meeting with Etienne.

“I thoroughly enjoyed a conversation with Etienne this morning. We discussed social learning theory, game theory, developmental theory, the nature of the firm — free agent nation, CPsquare, and of course communities of practice.

I asked the question that you posed and his answer was twofold — first, he mentioned that the growing popularity and ease of blogs has the potential to slightly change the way community of practice practitioners interact. Second, he mentioned the hope for an increased social focus on the combination of individual trajectories and the care for domain within the next 2 years.

I had 3 favorite moments during our conversation. First, as we discussed social constructivism and social learning theory, I questioned the dichotomy of authoritative teaching (‘teacher knows best and teaches their knowledge’) versus social teaching (‘teacher enables students to learn’). I thought it was brilliant the way Etienne called that an unnecessary forced dichotomy because ‘best’ teaching is usually driven by the passion of the teacher, not the teaching method. It’s the passion of the leader that tends to drive the students to want to learn/know more. This was a moment for me because I immediately thought about the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ (and all of my personal favorite teachers), where I thought I loved them because of their innovative teaching methods, but in actuality, it was probably their passion that motivated me most (and their passion probably drove those innovative styles).

Second, when I questioned the age-old ‘how do we incentivize/reward participation in CoPs, especially for folks that treat knowledge as power’ — Etienne responded with the view that CoPs are not necessarily knowledge-sharing approaches as much as they are functional groups that produce and provide value, so when viewed in that light, participation is driven by the shared understanding of providing business and personal value.

Finally, back to social learning theory, Etienne mentioned that social learning theory is currently lacking a relationship to developmental theory. In other words, at an extreme, social learning theory says nothing about the fact that a 5-year old cannot learn to be a rocket scientist — now maybe that is or is not true, but he believes that there is enough research out there to find synergies between social learning theory and development theory. I thought that was interesting and it came up after I mentioned that I think there could be synergies between social learning theory and game theory (how an individual acts based on how he/she expects others to react).

And I have to mention the funny paradox we briefly discussed — how employees tend to remain in a company for as long as the company enables them to leave. In other words, as long as a company is providing growth and learning opportunities, folks tend to stay (of course coupled with many other factors) all the while they are becoming more valuable in the market.”

Thanks to John for sharing his conversation with Etienne, and thanks to Etienne for his thoughts.

  • 2017 Update from Etienne — It’s amazing to read this today. I think I would still say similar things today. Perhaps I would mention more than blogs under Web 2.0. And social learning theory has also evolved quite a bit. But I think that the historical nature of the record calls for keeping it the way it is. So yes, OK with publishing as is. If you want to give people a link to more recent publications, you can point to the Resourcespage on our site.


  • Real Knowledge Management: Building Communities of Practice — If knowledge is a key source of competitive advantage, then managing knowledge is crucial. Yet taking this responsibility seriously requires a realistic understanding of what one is to manage. Traditional approaches to knowledge management typically reduce knowledge to information. This session explores how knowledge “lives” in an organization and what it takes to manage this knowledge by fostering communities of practice.
  • Key Issues
  1. The Difference between Knowledge and Knowing in Practice
  2. What Communities of Practice Are and How They Can Become Part of a Knowledge Strategy
  3. What It Really Means to Manage Knowledge



1. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity

  • Denham Grey: Etienne Wenger’s classic that sets the ground for understanding social learning, reification, participation and domain. This book delivers new insights with every reading. Deep, basic and timeless — insightful reading around knowledge stewardship.

2. Cultivating Communities of Practice with Richard McDermott and William Snyder

3. Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities with Nancy White and John D. Smith

  • Tools for Communities Wiki — This wiki is a companion piece to Digital Habitats. Like all wikis, this was a work in progress. It collected knowledge about how Communities of Practice use different tools. The vision was to provide a community perspective on these tools and their key features.

4. Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning edited with Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Steven Hutchinson, and Chris Kubiak

5. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation with Jean Lave

6. Communities and Technologies edited with M.H. Huysman and Volker Wulf

7. Artificial Intelligence and Tutoring Systems: Computational and Cognitive Approaches to the Communication of Knowledge

8. Harvard Business Review on Teams That Succeed — Chapter 6: Communities of practice: The organizational frontier — with William Snyder

9. Knowledge Horizons: The Present and the Promise of Knowledge Management — Chapter 10: Communities of Practice: The Structure of Knowledge Stewarding

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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