The difference between communities of practice and knowledge networks

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 31, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

I was on a conference call on the weekend discussing Steve Denning’s book, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, with the CP Square guys. In chapter 7 Steve makes a clear distinction between CoPs and Networks where the latter consists of a group of people who link together for mutual benefit, such as an alumni. While a community of practice is a group with formed for the purpose of improving member practice. Now, if you take extreme examples like your LinkedIn contacts (a network) and Shell’s Turbodudes (a CoP of geologists interested in turbidites) the difference between the two forms of organising are clear. But when we consider the middle ground it seems that the organising structure is in the eye of the beholder. For example, ask a handful of people who participate in ActKM, some will say it is a network while others will swear it is a community of practice.

I would like to propose that the way we perceive the group type as either a network or a CoP depends on whether people have heard and retell the group’s foundational stories. I know many of the ActKM stories because I was there from the start. I can tell you the one about the KMCI debacle which helped get ActKM started, the one about how the listserver system went haywire and we introduced moderation and the one about the YahooGroups being deleted. So I see ActKM as a CoP. I’m also a member of CP Square but I don’t know that group’s stories and consequently I see it more as a network than a community. I would like to change my perception in that case.

This is merely an observation. Does it hold true in your experience?

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Matt Moore says:

    Shawn – I think there is a big element of truth in this. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to know the foundational stories. I suspect it’s simply necessary to have had some involvement in a story belonging to the community (even if that involvement is just observation).
    The difference between a network & community is one of identity. I might say I’m an ACTKMer. I would not say I’m a member of Shawn’s LinkedIn network.
    Arguably those on the periphery of a community will tend to see it as more of a network. Those with more regular & intense interaction (therefore more stories?) will see it as a community.

  2. I think you are right Matt. Perhaps the number and intensity of the stories you know about the community is one indicator.
    While I agree with the sentiment regarding identity and community I would also point out that I’m an ANU alumni and ex-SMSer, both of which are networks, not CoPs.
    Perhaps it is as simple as your last point states: those on the periphery see the group as a network. What if you are a major hub in a network?

  3. I like the connection of stories to identity. However, you’ve only commented on the perceived status of network vs community, ie the same entity can feel like a network or a community to different people… but what does that say about its intrinsic attributes? I think it’s also useful to look at more “objective” (or at leats intersubjective) markers that distinguish networks from communities… presumably the presency of a common body of stories at the core? “Common” in the sense that they are held in common, not necessarily that all members individually know them or use them as markers of belongingness.
    Your distinction also speaks to Wenger’s notion of participation/identity “trajectories” -presumably the “I’m in a network” member who doesn’t subscribe to the stories may always be that way, or may be inculturated and drawn in to the community’s identity over time?

  4. I agree that there are many other indicators of whether a person sees a network or community. I not sure, however, that they are objective but I noticed you hedged your words on that on as well. Common stories at the core might also be a good indicator. I guess you become aware of stories as you come closer to the core and then loose touch as your move to the periphery. If in moving to the core you believe you are in a community, do you change your mind as you float to the periphery and think the group is a network? Probably not but I imagine you would interact with the group as if it is a network when you are on the periphery. I’m not too sure of that last statement.

  5. Hedging is always good when linking truth with social entities… you never know whether there are any lurking Popperians waiting to pounce 😉
    I liked your last statement, it has a ring of truth about it… after all “how we interact” around something does externalise/realise/express our relationship to it. It suggests that the same entity ag ACTKM can be different things to different people, and that the difference between a network and a community is not a categorisation difference but a behavioral difference.
    Have you followed Miguel Cornejo Castro’s recent series of papers on community participation? His latest one has an interesting progression model looking at how motivation factors change as you move to the core or periphery… I’m sure behaviours and perceptions do as well.
    How would you discriminate “network-like” behaviours from “community-like” behaviours?

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