Digital Habitats

Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, John D. Smith

This was my first book on “communities of practice,” which Wenger had popularized quite a lot back in the 01990's early internet. I had steered clear of it because Wenger's style was so obviously biased towards adapting Internet use for large, already-existing corporations. At a surface level, it never seemed to me like anything other than falsely glib human resources cookery, dressed up with all the latest and most fashionable buzzwords, much unsuited for the more informal settings where I plied my material. I would still classify it as such, but I was at least able to glimpse the more theoretical basis upon which they operated: “learning” as applied in the most non-pedagogical means possible. While there still isn't anything wrong with it, something about it rang hollow to me. The book's method can be so pro-bureaucracy that, even if I cannot question the pure effectiveness of the technique (... which judging by the brass-tacks it finally got down to in Chapter 6, it most certainly is,) I feel they miss the primary reason why community can be so important and powerful on the individual level.

Since reading this book, I've been able to revisit some of the theoretical foundations upon which communities of practice were based, including a brief stint with Wenger's original text on the subject from an academic library, as well as seeing where the school of thought managed to fit into practice of organizational behavior in the corporate world generally. To summarize the entire field based on the subject of “knowledge management”: if you are anywhere in a large business or government service, and part of your work requires you to manage extremely technical information, approach the subject as if you were a librarian. Wenger spends a lot of time and many case studies talking around the subject, but that's still essentially what it boils down to. While this seems like a simple enough idea, putting it into effect can prove difficult. Despite the wishes and aspirations of any organization who wishes to adapt Wenger's theory into practice, their workers still have a regular job to do. Assuming the responsibilities of department librarian will often be seen as an imposition on their regular duties, by both the workers and the managers alike, even when being a community of practice is still seen as a worthwhile goal. The idea of just hiring a dedicated librarian, too, is often never considered. Accordingly, communities of practice (or the appearances thereof) became simply another means for organizations to extract surplus value out of their own skilled workforce.

At the end of the day, the only domain in which I've seen the forethought regarding communities of practice be applied in an actually-useful way, is in how educators try to anticipate for the actions of their own students in asynchronous learning environments. It makes sense for the topic's pseudo-pedagogy to eventually be adopted by actual-pedagogy, but that success seems limited to my eyes. Any community of practice successfully made by a classroom will just be torn down at the end of a year, on account of it being a classroom. This revolving-door of pedagogical practice leaves me suspicious regarding the long-term viability of communities of practice in general.

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