Just today John D. Smith in his group wrote:
"Communities of practice are only observable by people who are IN a social web."
This statement has bounced in my mind for all the day long... What do we mean when we say "IN ..[something that has to do with CoPs]..."?
- if by "IN" we mean an observer has to be in closeness to members' proxemics (see Hall, 1966) in order to be able, capable and aware enough to observe a CoP in action, I would say "Yes, maybe so" (supposing the term "proxemics" to also include virtual ones, and VCoPs as well) and sometimes even "No" (supposing F2F contact with persons to be so full of clues that it might overwhelm/mislead you... or supposing a person in such F2F situation to have poor social skills);
- if by "IN" you mean an observer has to be a "part of", I would say "Not necessarily". In a VCoP, one has to be a member of it, belong to it, be subbed to it, in order to observe it. In a CoP, you can just be an observing.
Denying the role of the separate observer, means undermining the theoretical framework of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (and lurking, in VCoPs), experiential learning and action learning, that is, the very basis of CoPs.
- LPP works because it is by observing the active engagement of core participants without taking a part in it you learn how to BE one of them (vs how to make one of them... sounds similar, or the same thing, but they are at least ontologically different).
- Experiential learning works because tacit knowledge is passed by through observation of an experience and its reproduction (even when, or especially, when it's not codifiable! -- see Kolb, 1984).
- Action learning works because after an action, reflection is necessary for learning to happen (Argyris, Putnam & McLain Smith, 1985)
By practising we are in action, but being in action per se does not account for learning. It's reflection after action that accounts for learning from experience (at least, in action/experiential/situated learning, which is the way one learns in CoPs).
Speculating about an experience, trying to find an explanation, a model, a reason is mandatory and far from being idealistic, detached or "not into" the experience. After such "modelization", in action/experiential/situated learning, comes the moment for experiments, which as I said some times before need definitions, methods, and ways to be reproducible. And, of course, next step is.. another experience!
This is all to say, learning is not all from being INSIDE things (ie: practitioners), or all of being OUTSIDE them (ie: academics), but rather a concerted cycle of experience-theory-experiment-learning progressions (or if you prefer, an inside/outside, in-touch/detached cycle).
In this way, from this perspective, system thinking is the way to go. It gives you direction, reminding you that wherever you are at, you have to tilt your perspective before merely hoping to find any grounded solution.
So, how I mean that "IN", is the way we say to one another: "You are IN(to) CoPs aren't you?", where "IN(to)" means "having knowledge of".