The term community of practice (CoP) was coined by Jean Lave, a social anthropologist. Its value in learning was popularized by Etienne Wenger, an educational theorist. CoP denotes a group of people who share a passion about a common topic, and deepen their knowledge and expertise in this domain by interacting with each other on an ongoing basis. According to Etienne Wenger, a community of practice defines itself along three dimensions and its characteristics can be captured by:
The domain. A community of practice is is something more than a social network. "It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people".
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".
The practice. "Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction".
Learning traditionally gets measured as on the assumption that it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their heads… Learning is in the relationships between people. Learning is in the conditions that bring people together and organize a point of contact that allows for particular pieces of information to take on a relevance; without the points of contact, without the system of relevancies, there is not learning, and there is little memory. Learning does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations of which they are a part.
The development of Communities of Practice is the charter of Army Knowledge Online. Here is a paper and related presentation that articulates the thrust in DoD. We are in the process of putting these ideas into practice in our Semantic Wiki for Complex Operations project.