An Overview of “Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice”

An Overview of the
Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice
By: E. Wenger, R. McDermott & W. M. Synder

Wenger, McDermott and Synder (2002) offered seven practical aspects to consider for maintaining and supporting the growth of voluntary communities of practice.   This is an interesting read focusing on the significance of generating sustainable energy within the group.   Communities of practice (CoPs) are voluntary and Wenger et. al. noted their success over time is dependent up “their ability to generate enough excitement, relevance and value to attract and engage new member” (p. 1)

They put forth seven key principles:

  1. Design for evolution
    – At first you design to attract group members, but overtime the needs and goals of the group will change. To effectively sustain a CoP your design must continue to evolve.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
    – A well connected leader will thoroughly understand the needs of a group and be able to invite relevant outside perspectives to help the group grow.
  3. Invite different levels of participation
    – People participate in groups at varying levels of intensity and frequency and that’s okay.  Each group member contributes in their own way.  What I found interesting was Wenger et. al’s ongoing reminders to purposefully design for interaction.  Just as you would place a park bench along a path to invite people to sit and talk, so to must you create those opportunities within the CoP.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces
    – All interactions both public and private have an opportunity to benefit the group through the interconnected relationships of the community. The authors explained that conversations at formal meetings are important, but don’t underestimate the value of the conversations that happen after the meeting or at the water cooler.  Those formal or informal discussions will enhance the individual relationships within the community.
  5. Focus on value
    – People participate in communities because there is value.  Work to ensure that both formal and informal interactions add value to the community.
    —  What is it that draws people to the group?
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement
    – A familiar routine creates a comfort level which facilitates the sharing of knowledge; however, to remain vibrant a community needs some exciting events that draw members together in a shared sense of adventure.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community
    – All communities have a rhythm, finding the right tempo for your community ensures that people are not running to keep up or stalled when it’s time to move.  Wenger et. al. noted that “the rhythm of the community is the strongest indicator of its aliveness” (p. 7).


  • As an educator, your classroom is an ever evolving community of practice just like a business team working toward a common goal.  Wenger, McDermott and Snyder offered 7 thoughtful practices to keeping the community alive in an easy to read format.  Regardless of your team’s context, reflecting on these principles will provide a framework to better support the growth of your community and in turn grow the social and intellectual capital of your team.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice. Retrieved from


An Overview of “Social capital in virtual learning communities and distributed communities of practice”

An Overview of
Social Capital in Virtual Learning Communities and Distributed Communities of Practice
By B. Daniel, R. Schwier & G. McCalla

A worthwhile read that introduces you to the concept of social capital.  Daniel, Schwier & McCalla (2003) explained the value of social capital in a straightforward way while highlighting the complex factors in play.  Because of the multidimensional nature of social capital, there’s no standard way to measure it.  The authors build on the earlier work of Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998), which is succinctly pulled together in a thoroughly researched article overviewing the embededness of social capital in our learning communities.  Daniel et. al. (2003) noted the positive benefits of social capital include:

  • increases people’s ability to solve problems
  • people cooperate and collaborate better
  • increased positive interactions within the community
  • increased positive social behaviour
  • it increases team success in both education and business
  • reduces financial risk
  • bridges cultural gaps through the creation of a shared identity

As with anything taken to the extreme social capital can isolate the group by inhibiting the addition of new members or creating a highly cohesive group that begins to deviate from the accepted norms of the larger culture.

While social capital belongs to the individual and can’t be traded, a person’s connections within the group can facilitate the exchange of information.  Each interaction within the group or between groups has the opportunity to increase the knowledge of the group member. Increasing your social capital means following the expectations of the group and contributing to the overall goals of the team.

Daniel et. al. noted the significance of a shared language in generating a strong group identity.  Even shared stories provide opportunities to shape the identity of the group and share rich sets of meaning (p. 6).  The more interactions that take place with positive outcomes the more the trust grows between group members.  Increased trust facilitates increased interactions.

Daniel Schwier and McCalla elaborated on the differences and similarities between virtual learning communities and distributed communities of practice noting the most important characteristic is meaningful collaborative learning.  The stronger the social capital the more exchange of tacit and explicit knowledge.  Individuals learn by sharing, reflecting and making connections to new information, which is enhanced by the sharing of tacit knowledge (p. 12).


We are all part of communities of practice and our willingness to exchange knowledge and learn from others is impacted by our involvement in the group.  Positive social capital strengthens our trust in the group along with the effectiveness of our sharing interactions.  How we are connected to others within a network impacts the knowledge that we have access to which in turn impacts our ability to learn.  Depending on the culture created by group the social capital will either grow and foster more sharing based on the norms and expectations of the group or the effectiveness of the group will begin to decrease.

Whether you are in a classroom or working with a business team, you have to consciously create opportunities to grow social capital.  You need clear norms and expectations so that all group members understand how to participate in order to support the team in reaching their goal. Social capital will influence the quality of the knowledge exchanged and the effectiveness of the team.  When individuals feel comfortable enough to share their tacit knowledge, the entire group benefits from their experience.


Daniel, B. K., Schwier, R. A., & McCalla, G. (2003). Social capital in virtual learning communities and distributed communities of practice. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 29(3), 113–139. Retrieved from

A Overview of “A Process Model for Building Social Capital in Virtual Learning Communities”

An Overview of 
A Process Model for Building Social Capital in Virtual Learning Communities

By: Ben Daniel, Gord McCalla and Richard Schwier

This article briefly introduces the reader to the concept of social capital arising from social interactions in virtual learning communities. It explains how trust can be created through the act of storytelling, which is enhanced by a shared language including a common vocabulary.  Social capital is defined as “a stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviours that bind people as members of human networks and communities” (based on Cohen & Prusak, (2001), p.1). Trust is build through social interactions which are sustained by two key factors.  First, there has to be a context or social space in which the interactions can happen.  Second, it takes time to build trust.

Daniel, McCalla and Schwier provide a brief introduction to social capital and prepare you for their second more detailed article on social capital in virtual learning communities.


Daniel, B. K., McCalla, G., & Schwier, R. A. (2002). A Process Model for Building Social Capital in Virtual Learning Communities. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Computers in Education (Vol. December 0, p. 574). Washington, DC: IEEE Computer Society. Retrieved from

A Review of “Social Captial, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage”

A Review of 
Social Captial, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage
By J. Nahapiet & S. Ghoshal

This article considers the value of social capital in providing an organizational advantage, which is rooted in the idea of “the significance of relationships as a resource for social action” (p. 242).  Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998) define social capital as:

“the sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit.  Social capital thus comprises both the network and the assets that may be mobilized through that network.”
(p. 243)

Nahapiet & Ghoshal broke social capital into 3 clusters:

  • Structural embeddedness – the overall structure of the network; the connections between people. (p.244)
  • Relational embeddedness – the actual relationships that connect the different people; how the relationships affect their actions; who you know and how you know them; they are behavioural (p. 244).
    • Key aspects also include trust, trustworthiness, norms, sanctions, obligations, expectations, identity and identification (p.244).
  • Cognitive dimension – the symbols, systems of meaning and how we interpret things is common to a group (p. 244).  It includes the shared language that Daniel, McCalla & Schwier (2002) referenced.

Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998), along with Daniel, McCalla & Schwier (2002), all noted that “social capital is owned jointly by the parties in a relationship” (p. 244).  No one person has all the social capital.  To add to it’s complexity social capital is something that the individual invests in and builds up within the network.  “It has value in use” (p.244) but it can’t be traded or exchanged.

It reminds me of my transition from a high school teacher and differentiated instruction facilitator within one building to my role as a learning consultant within the school division. Within my home school, I had build up 13 years of credit with both staff and students.  My interactions with the larger network of people was relatively limited. As you grow and change networks you have to reinvest in building your social capital.  It’s obvious in a building when a teacher has social capital.  They can look at a student and the behaviour will stop, when you don’t have the ‘street cred’ in that building, the students just look at you and wonder why you’re looking at them funny.

Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998) also noted that social capital makes it possible to achieve goals that would not have been possible as an individual.  A strong community of practice with high social capital will produce better results at lower costs (p. 244-245), which is very similar to Covey’s (2006) motto that when trust goes up, speed goes up and costs go down.

Social capital has been shown to encourage cooperative behaviours, which has the potential to lead to new associations between group members along with increased innovation (Nahpapiet & Ghoshal, 1998, p. 245).  As Daniel, McCalla & Schwier (2002) noted, so to did Nahapiet & Ghoshal, social capital is a balancing act. It has the potential to be very positive within an organization; however, if the group becomes so strong that it’s hard for new members to access or integrate into then it can begin to have detrimental effects.   If the group takes on a mind of it’s own then the group becomes more prone to blindly following along rather than building on the strengths and diversity of it’s team (p. 245).

Intellectual capitalrepresents a valuable resource and a capability for action based in knowledge and knowing” (Nahapiet & Ghosal, 1998, p. 245).  This includes four aspects:

  • Individual explicit knowledge – the facts and concepts that are available to us in our personal memory framework
  • Individual tacit knowledge – it’s what becomes automatic to us based on our knowledge and skills.  It’s the knowledge in our heads that we have processed, made connections with and organized according to our experiences.
  • Social Explicit knowledge – the objective knowledge that is known to the people in the group
  • Social Tacit knowledge – the understanding embedded into what happens in that community.  It’s the unwritten knowledge and connections that bind teams together and make institutions unique.
    (p. 247).

Knowledge creation often involves the exchange of information between people or people learning new information (p. 248).  First, there must be an opportunity for knowledge to be exchanged, then people must anticipate the value that will come from it and be motivated by this prospect. Lastly, Nahapiet & Ghoshal referred to the absorptive capacity.  You have to be ready to recognize, incorporate and use the new information to move forward (p. 249-250).

Intellectual capital grows when there are opportunities for information to flow within the network.  This flow is dependent upon your connections and your ability to receive valuable information and know who to share it with in a timely fashion.  Gladwell (2006) illustrated this concept when he retold the story of Paul Revere’s famous ride and the other guy’s less effective attempt.  The more referral ties within a network the more opportunities for quality exchanges (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998, p. 252).  When the authors discussed network configuration and the importance of  having “a player with a network rich in information benefits [along with one who] has contacts established in places where useful bits of information are likely to air and who will provide a reliable flow of information” (p. 252), it reminds me of Gladwell’s (2006) connectors, mavens and persuaders.  These people are important in distributing and ensuring the flow of information.  Nahapiet & Ghoshal also noted the importance of bringing together diverse people within the network because significant creation of intellectual capital happens within those diverse connections (p.252).  Similarly, Gladwell explained the importance of connectors in bringing together people from different social circles.

“Intellectual capital is a social artifact and …knowledge and meaning are always embedded in a social context” (p.253) created and sustained through the relationships of the community. A shared language helps us connect and understand, while shared codes help us organize information.  Language helps us make sense of the world around us.  Shared narratives also play a significant role in facilitating transfer of knowledge often with tacit knowledge embedded into the stories (p. 254).

Trust is the belief that the “results of somebody’s intended action will be appropriate from our point of view” (as noted by Misztal – Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998, p. 254).  To trust includes becoming vulnerable, believing in the other person’s good intent, their competence, capabilities, reliability, and openness (p. 254). Trust in turn builds cooperation and cooperation builds trust.  The more trusting a relationship the more people are willing to risk in the knowledge that they share (p. 255), which leads to more opportunities to grow the intellectual capital.  Positive group norms, clear obligations and expectations facilitate people identifying with the group.  When people choose to become one of the group their identity changes, which in turn makes them more likely to exchange information and support the goals of the team (p. 256).

The authors reminded that social capital takes time to grow and requires that people are connected to each other in meaningful ways.  Interdependence will promote more interactions, which increases social capital.  Clear social, legal and financial boundaries will also create a sense of closure.  A defined group will grow more social and intellectual capital than an open group.

While social capital fosters the development of intellectual capital, the same can be said for knowledge supporting the development of social interactions. Nahapiet & Ghoshal explained that the cooveolution of social and intellectual capital lead to a strong organizational advantage.  Fostering the development of both types will build a stronger team.  Both are enhanced by the formal and informal interactions that happen during the day and the development of a shared identity.  Opportunities to interact and create shared stories strengthens the ties between individuals.  Nahapiet & Ghoshal asserted that the true organizational advantage comes when organizations commit to strengthening and continuing to maintain the the interrelationships of their teams(p. 259-260).

Step back for a moment and think about the communities and teams in which you participate. There is a constant ebb and flow of people coming into and leaving the group.  While some maybe more stable in membership than others the importance of developing strong interrelationships is essential in increasing the social and intellectual capital of the group. The more a person connects to the group, the longer they stay involved and add to the shared capital.

Nahapiet, J., & Ghoshal, S. (1998). Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage. The Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 242–266. Retrieved from

Connections – United we stand…

Connections build a united culture… (Connections Part 2)

hand-1030565_960_720Pixabay – Geralt

United we stand, divided we fall … the leadership choices that you make today shape the culture you live in tomorrow.

If you want to increase the effectiveness of your team and achieve goals you thought were out of reach, it begins by creating a culture in which people not only feel safe, they feel valued.

In “Leaders Eat Last,” Simon Sinek (2014) introduced us to the Circle of Safety.   Knowing that you are part of the circle of safety frees up people’s minds to focus on the team’s goals.  When a leader creates a culture where you “trust that the people to the left…[and] to the right of us have our backs, the better equipped we are to face the constant threats from outside together” (p. 22). Sinek wrote that you can feel it.  You can feel when you are surrounded by the circle of safety.  We feel valued and cared for by our colleagues and superiors.  We feel like we belong and our confidence grows along with our connections.  All of the group’s energy is directed towards the greater good (p. 24).

group-157841_960_720Pixabay OpenClipart-Vectors

When the circle begins to falter, we become suspicious of those around us and our brains go into survival mode. Our energy is redirected into watching for the dangers all around us instead of trusting our team (Leaders Eat Last, p. 22).  When trust goes down, speed goes down and costs go up (Speed of Trust, 2006, p. 13).  Trust, as Covey (2006) pointed out, is one of the most highly valued competencies of the new global economy (p. 21).

Daniel, Schwier and McCalla (2003) pointed out that “in almost every discussion of social capital, trust is treated as a central variable” (p. 6). While the development of social capital isn’t as simple as a direct cause and effect relationship with trust, Daniel et. al. noted that opportunities for positive social interactions do build trust.  Over time, increased trust is an integral part of growing social capital within a community (p. 6).

trust-1418901_960_720Pixabay – lcaroselli

In recent body language and confidence workshops and coaching sessions, Carla Gradin (2015-16) shared building connections is all about building on your know, like and trust factors.  As soon as you meet someone their brain automatically starts to process their first impression of you. Keep in mind first impressions happen in 2-3 seconds, likely before you’ve actually said anything (Gradin, 2015, p. 9). She reminded that our primitive brains immediately sort people into 4 categories:

  1. Friend
  2. Foe
  3. Sexual Partner
  4. Indifferent
    (page 8)

So if you want to build positive connections with people not only does what you say matter, how you say it has more impact than you think. Gradin reinforced Sinek’s 2009 TED Talk comment

“that people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”
(minute 4:00).

In order to believe your why, people need to make a connection with you.  Gradin noted that people first notice your hands.  If I can’t see your hands or more specifically the palms of your hands, my primitive brain becomes quite concerned with what you are hiding and if you are a threat (p. 8).  Even palms facing down tells my brain that you could be hiding a weapon and I need to be on alert.  The story people’s body language tells is often more honest than what people actually say.

So how can you help build connections?

Touch, builds connection.  As Sinek (2014) explained in Leaders Eat Last, it’s all about the hormones.  Oxytocin in the right balance can enhance positive, trusting connections. Gradin (2015) explained that when we touch people, it has the potential to release oxytocin, “which can evoke the same feeling of connection equal to 3 hours of talk time” (p.10).  In Super Better, Jane McGonigal (2015) explained “touch and gratitude are two of the most effective” (p. 17) ways to increase your social resilience.  In particular, McGonigal noted that 6 seconds of holding hands or touching someone not only increased your oxytocin level but theirs as well.  The more oxytocin you release the more likely you are to help and protect that person which deepens your connection (p. 18).  Gradin added that when shaking someone’s hand making eye contact also enhances oxytocin release (p. 10).

Interestingly, McGonigal highlighted research by Dr. Robert Emmons & Cheryl A. Crumpler along with Sara B. Algoe, Jonathan Haidt and Shelly L. Gable when she wrote:

“gratitude is the single most important relationship-strengthening emotion because, as researchers explain, ‘it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people'” (p. 18).

It turns out that expressing your appreciation is one of the best ways to build positive connections with others (McGonigal, p. 18), which is why Gradin highlighted the significance of the handshake.  When done well, it’s a socially accepted greeting that can enhance how people see your agreeableness (you appear more extroverted), your open mindedness and your emotional stability (p. 10).  Wonder what a great handshake is – check out our video on the handshake.

Interested in learning specific behaviours that can increase your trust factor?  Check out our next post on Covey’s Recommended Trust Building Behaviours.


 Resources Referenced: