What are the similarities between a tribe learning to survive, a group of academics working on similar problems, a street gang understanding their environment and a gathering of new employees helping each other orientate themselves? The ways in which communities, often informal communities, learn from each other through the social structures and patterns they create help us recognise a vital connection between knowledge, community, learning, and identity.
These are what social learning theorist Etienne Wenger-Trayner has described as 'communities of practice'. They are groups of people who share an interest and form partnerships and, because human knowing is fundamentally a social act, they are engaged in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour. By understanding and formalising how these systems operate, new opportunities have begun to emerge for more effective knowledge-orientated organisations and cross-organisational learning systems.
What are communities of practice?
Etienne Wenger-Trayner and Jean Lave established the principle and approach in the 1990s and, from 2011, Etienne Wenger-Trayner and his co-author Beverly Wenger-Trayner have added to the concept through the value-creation framework, a conceptual and practical tool that allows communities of practice and learning networks to articulate the value that they create for members, their organisations, and other stakeholders. The rigour of the framework allows self-organised, peer-to-peer communities and networks to gain recognition, legitimacy, and support in more formal organisations. An increasing number of organisations in the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, and Asia are adopting this framework to become more systematic about the way they understand, promote, and assess the value created by social learning. This adoption is taking place across sectors, including business, healthcare, education, government, sports, and international development.
The value-creation framework extends the theory of communities of practice to specify the different types of value that social learning can create. This allows practitioners to use the concept of value to focus their shared learning and to tell the story of how this learning contributed to a difference that matters to members and organisational stakeholders.
Since joining the University of Brighton in 2016, Etienne Wenger-Trayner together with his colleague Beverly Wenger-Trayner, have extended and refined the theoretical basis and practical application, clarifying how the value-creation framework constitutes an operational dimension of social learning theory. Four new types of value are added to the four original ones to build a full picture of the contributions of social learning. The notion of learning loop has been introduced, along with reframing loops, through which value creation becomes an integral part of learning.
In this practice-based theory-building method, research and impact are not sequential or separate processes, but they advance each other through an ongoing feedback loop: the relevance and usefulness of new concepts are tested in practice and in turn, the demands of practice call for refinements and extensions of the conceptual framework.
Developing and popularising the value-creation framework
In 2017, this practice-based approach to the development of the value-creation framework resulted in a joint article with the team of the Imagine program at the University of Brighton. The Imagine Program and now the Centre of Social Justice for Resilience have been using the value-creation framework extensively as a participatory mixed-method evaluation approach to assess the impact of their interventions, allow participants to articulate the value of the program for them, and convey this value to stakeholders.
The new framework has helped as an evaluation tool in sectors ranging from government and education to sports coaching and international business. The National Centre for Systemic Improvement in the USA have adopted the Value-Creation Framework to collect meaningful data about new participatory approaches they had developed, showing both how people benefitted from the interventions and what the state agencies did to support that. Universities internationally are using the Value-Creation Framework as a tool for building a more robust picture of the impact of a variety of projects and initiatives. The Center for Community Learning at Western Washington University in the US Northwest has been cultivating a community practice bringing together academics and community practitioners to develop the university’s community-learning program. Since 2018 they have used the Value-Creation Framework to articulate the value of the program and to secure support and investment by the university and community organisations. Their guide to community learning includes guidance for value-creation stories based on the Value-Creation Framework. The Center for Health and Healthcare in Schools at George Washington University in the US have built a community of practice approach to improving health outcomes for students. They have just finished an assessment of that community using the Value-Creation Framework.
The field of sports coaching is increasingly turning to social-learning approaches for the professional development of coaches, and researchers are using the Value-Creation Framework to evaluate the effects of interventions. The Coaching Association of Canada (CAC) has supported the cultivation of communities of practice for coaches and it is now a core element of their professional development approach, while the organisation UK Coaching has made the Value-Creation Framework a central pillar of their approach to coach development.
Communities of practice have become very common in business. Some leading organisations including AB Sugar and JP Morgan Chase are now turning to the value-creation framework to assess their potential to create value, with the latter spearheading Ignite, an initiative that has started more than a hundred local communities of practice, grouped into global communities with thousands of members across the business.
Upon joining the University of Brighton, Etienne Wenger-Trayner was able to extend a long-standing relationship with the ideas and aims of researchers in the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice, where the principles of Communities of Practice and Value-Creation were embedded in work that helps vulnerable people in extended communities.