Background: In the experience of health professionals, it appears that interacting with peers in the workplace fosters learning and information sharing. Informal groups and networks present good opportunities for information exchange. Communities of practice (CoPs), which have been described by Wenger and others as a type of informal learning organization, have received increasing attention in the health care sector; however, the lack of uniform operating definitions of CoPs has resulted in considerable variation in the structure and function of these groups, making it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness.
Objective: To critique the evolution of the CoP concept as based on the germinal work by Wenger and colleagues published between 1991 and 2002.
Discussion: CoP was originally developed to provide a template for examining the learning that happens among practitioners in a social environment, but over the years there have been important divergences in the focus of the concept. Lave and Wenger's earliest publication (1991) centred on the interactions between novices and experts, and the process by which newcomers create a professional identity. In the 1998 book, the focus had shifted to personal growth and the trajectory of individuals' participation within a group (i.e., peripheral versus core participation). The focus then changed again in 2002 when CoP was applied as a managerial tool for improving an organization's competitiveness.
Summary: The different interpretations of CoP make it challenging to apply the concept or to take full advantage of the benefits that CoP groups may offer. The tension between satisfying individuals' needs for personal growth and empowerment versus an organization's bottom line is perhaps the most contentious of the issues that make CoPs difficult to cultivate. Since CoP is still an evolving concept, we recommend focusing on optimizing specific characteristics of the concept, such as support for members interacting with each other, sharing knowledge, and building a sense of belonging within networks/teams/groups. Interventions that facilitate relationship building among members and that promote knowledge exchange may be useful for optimizing the function of these groups.