My Mistake: Communities of Practice and Peer Learning Groups Have Much in Common

(Last Updated On: April 7, 2020)

“Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them.”  Bruce Lee

In a relatively recent blog I wrote about the differences I perceived between peer learning groups and communities of practice. In that blog, I wrote that an easy way to tell them apart was that peer learning groups, as organized by The Peer Learning Institute, involve managers from different professional areas- while communities of practice involve managers and employees in the same professional area. I also wrote that communities of practice have no obligation to put new knowledge into practice, as do peer learning groups.

I was wrong on both counts.

It is true that there are some minor differences between them, but their similarities far outweigh the differences.

Community of Practice: 3 Key Elements

Thanks to Leo Bottary, the co-author of The Power of Peers and founder of Peernovation, LLC, who directed me toward Etienne Wenger-Trayner’s work,  I found the most clear definition of communities of practice:

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

According to Wenger-Trayner, there are three crucial characteristics that separate communities of practice from other types of groups:

  1. The domain. A community of practice has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. The members value their collective competence and learn from each other. A peer learning group, with a focus on a specific current management challenge, certainly has this in common with a community of practice.
  2. The community. In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other; they care about their standing with each other. This is also true of peer learning groups.
  3. The practice. They develop a shared repertoire of resources, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems- in short, a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction. It is here where peer learning groups and communities of practice can diverge.

Peer learning groups meet at the very least for two 90-minute sessions separated by a month of reinforced practice of new skills. So, unless the peer learning groups continue to meet to focus on different management topical areas, there is not a sustained interaction.

Minor Differences

There are other minor differences, such as the fact that peer learning groups, as defined by The Peer Learning Institute, always use a structured process that scaffolds learning. This may or may not be so in a community of practice. Also, peer learning groups may focus more directly on resolving a current operational and managerial challenge within an organization, while a community of practice may go deeper into specific areas of their interest to develop their technical competencies.

It’s Both, Not Either/ Or

However, based on Wenger-Trayner’s definition of a community of practice, I think I can safely say now that peer learning groups are a modified form of communities of practice, with many more shared characteristics than differences. They can both co-exist in any organization.

A group of accounting managers might participate in a community of practice to polish their understanding of the most recent accounting regulations, and also form a peer learning group to share their challenges in managing the virtual operations of their company. Peer learning groups can lead to forming communities of practice and communities of practice may subdivide into small peer learning groups to further the understanding of a particular topic or issue.

In short, it is both, not either/ or. There is a role for each type of group collaboration, learning and sharing in every organization. The important thing is not what you call your collaborative teams or groups, but what function they perform, how they contribute to the professional development of your people, and what benefits your organization gets from that.

If you want to learn more about peer learning and peer learning groups, please visit us at https://www.peerlearninginstitute.com

Deborah Laurel, Chief Learning Officer

The Peer Learning Institute

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