Seductive texts: communities of practice ‘at work’

Harman, Kerry (2003) Seductive texts: communities of practice ‘at work’. In: Journal of Vocational Education & Training 5th Annual Conference, 16-18 July 2003, Greenwich, London.

[img] Microsoft Word
Download (34kB)


‘Communities of practice’ has widespread ‘currency’ in both the workplace learning literature and increasingly, in contemporary workplaces. Workplace learning researchers, workplace trainers and organisational consultants are using communities of practice as a way of talking about and theorising learning at work. It is this seemingly unproblematic ‘rise and rise’ of ‘communities of practice’ that is somewhat troubling and a theme which will be explored in this paper. Why is it that communities of practice are the contemporary focus of our gaze? As a researcher interested in the complexities of power and learning at work I ask ‘what work does communities of practice do in organisations?’

My introduction to, and interest in, ‘communities of practice’ has come about through my involvement as a research team member in an Australian Research Council funded project which is exploring ‘everyday’ learning at work. In the ‘Uncovering Learning’ project, ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) has been used as one of various conceptual frames for exploring the extent and nature of everyday learning at work. The research site is TAFE NSW, in Australia, the NSW state government provider of vocational education and training. TAFE NSW is a large, public sector organisation that is undergoing change as a result of widespread education and training reforms. Our interest in this project is on TAFE as a workplace, although the significance of TAFE being in the ‘learning’ industry cannot be overlooked.

‘Communities of practice’ has appeal in this workplace at the moment. For example, the Professional Development Network, a staff development unit within TAFE, is using communities of practice. ‘Reframing the Future’, a staff development and change management program for VET practitioners, including TAFE employees, is also using a communities of practice framework (Mitchell, 2003). ‘Reframing the Future’ provides an example of the way ‘communities of practice’ is being used as a human resource development strategy in organisations. In this sense ‘communities of practice’ can be viewed as a contemporary organisational practice in TAFE.

Using a postmodern perspective on researching learning at work we might ask which discourses are the most powerful, how they come to be powerful and how they frame practices (Edwards & Usher, 2000)? So why is it that ‘communities of practice’ has become such a powerful discourse in contemporary workplaces? Various commentators draw attention to the way the workplace is currently being discursively constructed as a legitimate site of learning (eg Garrick, 1998; Usher, 2000; Usher & Solomon, 1999). Communities of practice texts, both theoretical ones, such as Wenger’s work on communities of practice (1998), and organisational ones, such as the stories circulating at work about communities of practice, contribute to this construction. For example, Wenger’s notion of communities of practice draws on a theory of situated learning, where learning is understood as being located in social contexts, including everyday work (Lave & Wenger, 1991). These texts contribute to a normalising of learning at work and the contemporary shifts in power that are taking place within organisations and between universities and organisations. In terms of the latter, it is now understood that organisations have increasing control of the learning process and ‘what is learned’ (Usher, 2000).

A postmodern approach to researching learning at work emphasises the way discourses construct certain objects as ‘knowable’ and ‘known’ and certain perspectives as ‘true’ (Edwards & Usher, 2000). Using this approach we can explore the way communities of practice texts position workers in normative ways thereby constituting particular forms of experience and subjectivities. I will use a text from the Reframing the Future program to briefly illustrate the representation of contemporary TAFE practitioners and explore the way a community of practice discourse constructs workplaces as legitimate sites of learning and the ‘worker-learner’ as a legitimate way of being at work.

In this text ‘communities of practice’ are described as ‘groups of people bound together by common interests and a passion for a cause, and who continually interact’ (Mitchell, 2003, p. 5). The new worker is one who places an emphasis on relationships, for example, training providers need to be ‘more client-focused by establishing improved relationships with both enterprise clients and individual students’ (p 8). Workers are knowledge producers where: ‘The development of practice involves a balance between exploring ideas together and producing documents and tools’ (p 6). The communities in this text have great appeal. The members ‘communicate regularly and continuously in an atmosphere of trust, enabling collective enquiry about issues of importance to the members’ (p 6). The communities of practice are unproblematically aligned with a broader goal, which is the successful implementation of the new training system. For example ‘all the communities were required to focus on the implementation of the national training system. Legitimate foci for the communities included Training Package implementation, the requirements of the Australian Quality Framework (AQTF), the recognition of current competencies, industry-provider relationships and collaboration with other providers’ (p 13).

In this text workers are presented as active and emotionally engaged knowledge-producers in the contemporary workplace and learning at work is presented as empowering and self-directed. And, as the management gurus remind us, it is exactly these active, entrepreneurial, knowledge-producing subjects that contemporary organisations need in our rapidly changing times (eg Drucker, 1988; Handy, 1995; Senge, 1990). The connection between the need for organisations to have active knowledge producers and the discursive production of these types of workers begins to draw attention to the relationship between learning at work and power.

But as Usher & Solomon (1999) point out, the shaping of subjectivity is a tension-filled and complex process. Some of these tensions are illustrated in the following account from the head teacher of a teaching group in TAFE. In this interview ‘Jim’ was talking about the challenges and changes he and his workgroup had experienced in relation to doing their job in recent years. Not surprisingly, Jim often spoke about the new training packages and the impact they were having on the way this group of teachers were doing their work. Using Wenger’s criteria of shared repertoire, mutual engagement and joint enterprise, this group could be described as a community of practice (Leontios, Boud, Harman, & Rooney, 2003). However, the practice of this community is not focused around the successful implementation of the new training packages. Instead, the practices of this group could be described in terms of resistance.

The morale around here has absolutely hit rock bottom- it could really hardly be lower and that’s of great importance to me – its very difficult to motivate people and after a while of patting them on the head and saying gee you really did a great job, that was great – it rings hollow – I can’t reward them any other way. The straw that’s broken the camel’s back around here was not constantly being attacked with the paperwork and the cuts, as the training packages –that’s what’s killed it. The one thing…you were able to motivate them in was their technical knowledge and their professionalism in which they are held in high esteem within the [profession]. So if something was new and important they would work it out themselves they would come to me and we would propose what new changes had to be made and how they would best work around them and that was never a real problem. When we had major curriculum reviews they would always turn around and release someone so everybody in this section has had release time [from teaching] to write curriculum…so there’s an incentive to turn around and put something back into it because it was an extra over the top, so they’ve all got pretty much a sense of ownership around here. They’ve all got their patches of expertise…
… there is no way I can supply quality education because I don’t have a curriculum that’s been properly structured. I’m delivering training packages that are totally meaningless…Now my people look at it and say ‘this is total garbage, change it’ and I go to get it changed and they say ‘we’re not changing it’ and I come back and I say I’m sorry they can’t change it, therefore they look at me and they say they feel like they’re totally ineffective or they throw their hands up in the air and say ‘this is total crap’ and we’re stuck and we’ve got that crap and we’re trying to teach it now. Now we’re going into the second year of the new course without any new curriculum, so it’s a quality issue…
This community of practice provide a contrast to the communities articulated in ‘Reframing the Future’. Instead of energetic, problem-solving implementers of the new training system we hear of a despondent, ‘burnt-out’, untrusting community. This community questions the national training framework and its promise of enhanced quality.

This story suggests tensions around being re-positioned as worker-learners (Boud & Solomon, 2003). The teachers in this community had learnt how to teach this course, what worked and what didn’t work with the students, as well as how and when to update the curriculum. They had learnt how to successfully deliver this course to their students. But the learning and the expertise of this community were not taken onto account in the process of introducing the new training packages. The knowledge held by the teachers in regard to their relationships with industry and with their students was disregarded. The teachers in this workgroup see themselves as experts in an area of knowledge, not as ‘learners’ who need to develop new practices.

The analysis of these stories brings to the fore the issue of ‘what counts as learning?’ In the Reframing the Future stories the practices that feature in the text are those that contribute to the successful implementation of the new training system. There is no talk of communities of practice that are resisting the implementation or presenting alternative agendas. This suggests that not all workplace practices are legitimate and that not all learning is legitimate. This privileging of some types of learning draws attention to the ‘disciplinary’ work of communities of practice. While communities of practice may open up space in the workplace for voices that might not normally be heard (Brown & Duguid, 1991), when it is used as a human resource development strategy it may have similar problems to other forms of organisational learning interventions. Garrick and Rhodes describe organisational learning as ‘ a dubiously legitimated and conceived project which focuses on control, the maintenance of orthodoxy and (although the rhetoric usually suggests otherwise) the suppression of difference' (Garrick & Rhodes, 1998, p. 177). When talking about communities of practice at work Gee et al. ask what space is left for reflection and critique if we are all immersed in ‘the core values and communities of practice of the business’(1996, p. 68)? This suggests the importance of creating space in a community of practice framework for dissention, challenge and contestation.

One of the appeals for organisations in communities of practice texts is that learning at work is represented as both natural and neutral. One of the consequences of this is that power and ‘discipline’ no longer seem so visible. It is in this way that ‘communities of practice’ can be considered a particularly seductive discourse. This paper has foregrounded the relationship between power and learning at work by locating ‘communities of practice’ in a social, cultural and political context. It begins to draw attention to the politics of learning at work and being a learner at work with the understanding that learning at work is not neutral. For example, the practices in the workplace that are being developed are framed within organisational goals. In this sense communities of practice can be viewed as a technology that aligns the goals of individual workers with the broader goals of the organisation. As a communities of practice discourse becomes increasingly privileged, what are the implications for reflexive learning practices that incorporates an element of organisational critique? As educators we need to avoid a bounded version of learning and open-up space for learning other than that which is ‘re-defined in managerialist terms’ (Garrick & Rhodes, 1998, p. 181).

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Research Areas: A. > Institute for Work Based Learning
Item ID: 7757
Useful Links:
Depositing User: Dr Kerry Harman
Date Deposited: 23 Aug 2011 07:21
Last Modified: 29 Sep 2015 17:33

Actions (login required)

Edit Item Edit Item

Full text downloads (NB count will be zero if no full text documents are attached to the record)

Downloads per month over the past year