Social Learning vs. Communities of Practice

February 22, 2011

This is a guest post from Tiffany Fary, a Senior eLearning Instructional Designer in the corporate sector.

When it comes to the terms “Social Learning” and “Communities of Practice”, many people in the corporate learning realm are confused, myself included. We think we know what these mean one day, and then the next day a new theory or idea emerges that turns the whole idea of each upside down and inside out. Are Social Learning and Communities of Practice different? I think they are, but do you?

Social Learning

People in corporations are picking up Social Learning as one of the latest learning “buzzwords” without really knowing what it means. They hear it mentioned mostly through their own social networks and immediately think…”This is new and innovative! Let’s do this!”. It’s up to us then to figure out what to do with it. The scramble for research begins.

Here’s what I think Social Learning means:

Social Learning – Learning by observing, conversing, or questioning. This can take place in an informal or formal setting and sometimes may even occur without the learner realizing that learning is taking place or without making a conscious decision to learn. It’s organic and usually unorganized. Social Learning is more focused on the needs of the individual. In social learning, a participant might ask “What do *I* need to know and who knows how to answer this quickly?” Knowledge is primarily consumed or pulled from experts.

Social Learning is hard to track and it’s going to happen whether we try to implement it or not. It’s learning in the wild, via conversations, social media and the learning 2.0 technologies.

Communities of Practice

What corporations should really be focusing on are Communities of Practice (CoP) instead. Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave are the most well-known and respected experts when it comes to coining the phrase Communities of Practice and initially defining it more than 10 years ago. CoPs are recently gathering more traction the learning community and this is most likely due to the availability and wider acceptance of the 2.0 technologies in the corporate environment. We now have the tools, such as blogs, wikis and discussion boards, to really make this work…AND be able to track it.

Here’s what I think Communities of Practice are:

Communities of Practice (CoPs) – Groups of people with a common interest that are focused on collaboration and sharing of information related to that common interest. CoPs have a purpose, organization, and are usually tied to a business goal when used in corporations. A CoP is more focused on improving performance and enhancing knowledge of the group, as opposed to an individual. In CoPs, a participant might ask “What can I share with the group or how can we solve a problem together?” Knowledge is primarily shared or pushed.


As the innovators and learning experts for our respective organizations, we need understand what our “customers” are asking for as well as be able to influence them into making the right decisions in relation to Social Learning and Communities of Practice. However, we can’t do that unless we’re able to understand these differences (if there really is any) ourselves. I’m not a learning expert, but I hope I got you thinking and perhaps I just turned your own theories upside down and inside out. 😉

Tiffany Fary is a Senior eLearning Instructional Designer with more than 11 years experience in corporate learning. She is primarily focused on improving learning and enhancing learner performance through the use of technology. In her free time, Tiffany enjoys spending time with her son and is an avid video gamer. You can follow her on Twitter via @TiffanyFary.

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  • Bev Trayner

    Tiffany, communities of practice are one part of social learning theory. Communities of practice give us a language for talking about learning in social systems (which some people call social learning). To see them in opposition to each other is as helpful as garden v flowers!

  • Tiffany Fary

    Thanks for the comment, Bev, and I love your analogy especially with Spring on the horizon…I hope! I don’t expect everyone to agree. That’s the point of a blog, right? What I’m saying though is that many are being asked to create the garden and have no idea what to plant first because terms are not being used consistently. The garden might already be there.

  • Bev Trayner

    haha! You’re right. People are being asked to create a garden when it’s already there. Deciding together whether to start with the herb or the rose garden – or what fishes to put in the pond – might need some shared understanding first.

  • Howard

    Hi Tiffany;
    Your portrayal of social learning sounds like Bandura’s theory and I don’t think that matches what most people think of when they hear social learning. I think it comes from theories that link learning and social interaction. Learning as relationships (connections) is what I’m currently thinking about: to people, to idea and knowledge, to practices etc. . .. Maybe improving learning is about strengthening the right relationships. CoPs are good places for this type of learning and if I’m not mis-remembering there might be other benefits to CoPs like engagement. Have to look back at the literature again.

  • Ameliamh

    A community of practice to me means that people come together and share ideas and learn from each other. I like the idea of Open Education Resources a lot more than I enjoy Web 2.0. I get lost out there and find that people don’t really have anything substantive to say. I do not have the time to sort through twitter comments.

    Perhaps I just do not know how to use the social media in a way to meet my own learning needs.

    Even the comments on this blog site are not interesting no do they say much. I feel like most of the comments are just people airing out.

    Social learning – I honestly do not feel it is happening through Web 2.0. So you can wiki and tweet all you want, but i just can follow. Sorry.

  • Michaeleury

    How about this, in a big garden it’s pretty hard to find the specific flower you’re looking for. I reckon a benefit of (online) social learning is that it can help you find your way through gardens you haven’t visited before, providing the garden with pathways and signposts that point you towards the flower you’re looking for (so you don’t get lost out there!). When you get to that flower you’re likely to find others there who like that flower as well. You can then have a friendly chat with them (a CoP?), sharing information, so that when you leave the garden you may know something new about your favourite flower.

  • Tomgram

    I like your definitions Tiffany. Social Learning is a very broad term. Connecting it to social media is a recent but distracting phenomenon. We learn socially (as well as individually) in many ways…in person, via technology mediated communication, and through mimicking what we see others doing. A community of practice is simply a way to organize social learning to achieve specific goals. Etienne Wenger would argue we quite naturally form communities of practice to accomplish objectives. Again, only recently have we been toying with technology and social media as vehicles for communities of practice. We have to be very careful not to get fascinated by the technology and focus more on creating an environment with the tools and communication channels to accomplish their goals. I blogged on this in a series focusing on integrating learning and work. Thanks, Tom
    10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work Series (part 2)

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  • Bev Trayner

    Tiffany, you got me talking to you in my head for weeks. About why it can’t be social learning *vs* communities of practice. Got it out on my blog here:

  • Jay Cross

    Tiffany, I think you’re missing an important aspect of communities of practice, namely the “practice” part.

    My favorite example of a community of practice is professional chefs. They are a community in every sense of the word even though no one maintains a membership list. Chefs identify with one another. They spend time together. They share their knowledge and swap secrets with one another. They enrich the practice of the profession. They nurture people entering the professional and guide their professional development. They set and maintain standards. You can even spot them by the clothes they wear.

    What brings them together is the “practice.” That’s terrible term, for it’s subject to misinterpretation. We’re talking practice as in legal practice or medical practice, not as in piano practice or football practice.

    Their goal is not making profits; it’s furthering the practice. I agree that sharing knowledge with one another is a major part of this but it’s done in service to the profession, not the bottom line. (Maybe this is one reason high-end restaurants are such risky business.)

    Within a corporation, a community of practice is more likely to rally around a professional endeavor like computer security or microprocessor design than around the marketing department or the London office. In Silicon Valley, engineers are often more loyal to their community of practice than to their employer. Over in the corner of the bar, you’ll spy engineers from competing firms like Intel and AMD opening sharing trade secrets because they’re chip engineers first and employees of some firm second. (By the way, this fuels innovation.)

    Social learning is a different animal. It’s not simply a buzzword. Almost all learning is social, after all, but I won’t get into that here. Take a look at what’s being discussed on Jane Hart’s new Social Learning Community (free, just ask) to see some of the substance of what’s going on in that sector.

  • juandoming

    Communities in practice, although as stated Jay Croos, Whatis more information to be transmitted from one to another, it is also to share, collaborate with each other, within the community, obviously, but … you can fall into “temptation · From unionism, is not it Jay? Tiffany? and unionism means the opposite of open, to provide what your community is good, the rest of society.
    We must find a middle ground, while not preventing this “loyalty”to the community, let us get the good society we have.

    Do you think the planteaminto.?

    @ juandoming

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  • Roan Yong

    Jay Cross sums it up for CoP. I like how he describes CoP. Anyway, my two-cents advice for @tiffany would be this: there is no need to separate Social Learning and CoP.

    For CoP to work, individual needs to gain something. That something could be personal development, or sense of belonging. When individuals grow their expertise whether they realize it or not within CoP, then Social Learning has taken place. So CoP and Social Learning could be the same thing.

  • Patrick Hadfield

    Interesting post – and more valuble discussion!

    There is more about the relationship between social learning and CoPs, too. Within a CoP, a lot of the learning will be social (as you’ve defined it) – watching, asking, copying. It may not even be intentional – Jay Cross’s example of chefs is quite illuminating.

    There is something of organisational culture here, too: CoPs may well have an (unstated, implicit) view of “the way we do things” – and doing things this way may be central to the community. (The closed-shop nature of craft guilds springs to mind.)

    Within organisations (instead of CoPs set up to share knowledge between organisations), one driver of CoPs will be profit – so I must disagree with Jay on that point. Individually one may join a CoP to improve and further the practice – though that is another way to profit – but for an organisation to devote time and resources implies a profit motive. That’s what organisations are generally there to do!

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  • Dean Jenkins

    Nice to debate the distinctions. In healthcare there are similar buzz word discussions and misconceptions.

    The framework of a Community of Practice is *a* social learning theory as very well described by Etienne Wenger. ‘Social learning’ by itself is a rather ambiguous term which, if you want to harness it within an organisation, needs to be more precisely defined in terms of the various social learning theories that are most appropriate for your needs (of which there are many).

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  • Brandon Williams

    Tiffany, this topic is of utmost importance to any business wishing to harness the power of informal learning. I admire you for putting the topic out for discussion!

    From reading through some of the comments, I can already see the variance of opinions and viewpoints one might expect from Corporate America at large. There are many valid points from your readers, including some professionals who are clearly well versed in learning theory; I appreciate their time and contribution.

    That being said, the commentary from Ameliamh sums up the issue learning professionals will face – no matter what you call the vehicle (social learning, informal learning, learning 2.0), you won’t be able to capture the true benefits (learning that leads to increases in employee efficiency or knowledge that leads to increased profits etc.) of an online CoP if the community members won’t adopt the technology. It won’t matter whether this is due to clutter, user confusion or inability to operate, improper implementation, or functionality issues.

    The technology is (and always will be) the means to an end. The telephone and e-mail were ultimately adopted and developed to create efficiencies within organizations across America. Whether they be for profit corporations or purely for the sake of figuring out how to master Halo, CoPs will use the most effective “technology” as a means to an end. The former may be brown bag lunches, e-mail, Yammer, Jive, or Saba Live while the latter may be cell phone, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or the Halo network itself – but the CoP will find a way to have its unique questions answered.

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  • Janet

    Well said Brandon!

  • Janet

    Thanks Dean. Agree it’s rather ambiguous. I once referred to it as a cluster.

  • Janet

    Yes, there’s often gold in them thar comments.

  • Janet

    Yes, it’s a nice summation. Jay’s good that way.

  • Janet

    Interesting observation. Thanks for the comment.

  • Janet

    Just want to put a frame on this one.

  • Janet

    Thanks for the comment and the link. Good stuff!

  • Janet

    I’ve always loved garden analogies when discussing this topic.

  • Janet

    I think, for me, the value became apparent when I found ways to filter and control the messages. Otherwise, it can just be a bunch of noise.

  • Janet

    Thanks for bringing up Bandura. We probably don’t talk enough about existing theories and their application. At least in a corporate environment.

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  • Pissuoff

    It is very true although the topic is kinda controversial. Actually an informal CoP has already emerged here and the benefit of social learning is evident. Ameliamh also contributed to the virtual learning community with his negative feedback. I think his negative view about social learning is related to a) the chosen learning platform b) the quality of the learning community i.e. lack of self regulation c) different types of social presence compared with what’s in the real world d) his own taken-for-grantedness, i.e. deep in his mind, he firmly believes that social learning is completely useless. Thus, he refused to learn the ritual of the virtual world and  was fully immersed in his own bias towards social learning rather than immersing himself in the virtual world.

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  • Kandan Muthusamy

    I think
    it is a very crisp and clear in differentiating social learning from learning collaboration/community.
    I fully agree with your views on how social learning is misunderstood in the
    corporate world. I recently had a meeting with the CLO and his team and when
    they talked about social learning I thought they are talking about Bandura’s
    social learning approach but realized after some time they were actually referring
    to learning collaboration with web 2.0technologies.

    from misunderstanding or should I say misusing the term social learning they
    are very serious about the learning collaboration with the help of new
    technologies which I think is a welcome sign.

  • M Joesbury

    As a management development educationalist I am trying to find out if any one has made the link between the work of Reg Revans on Action Learning Sets, continued by Alan Mumford and Mike Pedlar; and the Communities of Practice work by Wenger and Lave?

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