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How is a community of practice different from an informal network in regard to social learning?

All communities of practice are networks in the sense that they involve connections among members. But not all networks are communities of practice: a community of practice entails shared domain that becomes a source of identification. This identity creates a sense of commitment to the community as a whole, not just connections to a few linking nodes.

Communities and networks are often thought of as two different types of social structure. From this perspective, one would need to ask the question: given a group, is it a community or is it a network?

We prefer to think of community and network as two aspects of social structuring, which require different forms of developmental work.

  • The network aspect refers to the set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections among participants, viewed as a set of nodes and links, with its affordances for information flows and helpful linkages.
  • The community aspect refers to the development of a shared identity around a topic that represents a collective intention—however tacit and distributed—to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it.

There are groups where one aspect so clearly dominates that they can be considered “pure” communities or “pure” networks. A personal network, for instance, is rarely a community as people in the network are not likely to have much in common except for being connected to the same person in various ways; and they may not even know about each other (even though they are potentially connected from a networked perspective). Conversely the community of donors to a cause may feel a strong allegiance and identity with the cause they share. They know about each other because they know that there is money flowing toward the cause beyond their own donations. And yet they do not necessarily form a network (except potentially), as there may not be any interactions or direct connections among them.

For most groups, however, the two aspects are combined in various ways. A community usually involves a network of relationships. And many networks exist because participants are all committed to some kind of joint enterprise.

From this perspective, the questions one would ask are: given a group, how are the two aspects intertwined and integrated, how do they contribute to the cohesion and functioning of the group, and which one tends to dominate for which participants? And at any given time, which aspect needs to be developed as a way to increase the learning capability of the group?

For more details on this contrast, see our evaluation framework for communities and networks.


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