The Search for 'Hidden' Virtual Communities of Practice

Communities of practice within organizations already exist, and have existed for quite some time: they are often seen as cliques or social circles of individuals who communicate outside the official (hierarchal) channels of communication to obtain and provide support for work-related tasks, often without the support of the organization.

The "virtual" community is merely a technological enhancement of an existing practice, making it feasible for individuals to interact over greater expanses of space and time.

In that sense, it isn't necessary (or even particularly productive) for a company to attempt to "create" virtual communities, merely to nurture communities that already exist by providing the medium of communication. This would be a "first step" in the wider adoption of communities of practice within the organization.


Before discussing "hidden" communities, the author provides background information, especially in light of previous "knowledge management" efforts and the current work on communities of practice.

A key distinction is made between explicit knowledge (that which is documented and communicated) and tacit knowledge (information that is not recorded). There has been considerable research into this area, particularly into tacit knowledge, which may include not only what is "not communicated" but that which is difficult or impossible to communicate at all (things that are instinctive or intuitive).

There is some implication that explicit knowledge (learning) is all that can be shared from one person to another, and that implicit knowledge (wisdom) must be gained through first-hand experience and application.

However, there is also a model of knowledge transfer by which tacit knowledge passes among individuals through observational learning, based on the concept of apprenticeship. A novice gains explicit knowledge from an expert, but also gleans tacit knowledge by observation. The two become combined, and when the novice is accomplished enough to mentor others, he combines the explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge, and each generation of student layers on the tacit knowledge of their own experience.

The principle applies not only to master-student relationships, but to any relationship among peers. Learning can be an informal, social process that may involve multiple individuals in a loose web of connections to one another.

The concept of a "community of practice" is relatively recent. It is understood to mean a group of peers in which there is no structure of authority, who share a common interest about which they have a desire to communicate with others, and who gather for the purpose of this discussion in a defined "space".


The author discusses the differences between these three concepts:

There are instances in which it would be beneficial for two or more of these functions to be served at once, though it's also likely that there are instances in which just one of these is sufficient, appropriate, or sustainable.


There are various terms used: distributed community, virtual community, etc. There may be specific reasons that a given qualifier is used, but they are all essentially communities of practice.

It's also worth noting that come communities of practice are named according to the nature of their interest. Again, it's not a significant distinction.

The one distinction worth considering is the difference between a community of practice and a social community - with "social" being an activity that is unrelated to a practice or field of study, but to the interaction among its members for more psychological or sociological reasons. Communities of practice often have social aspects, and a social community may have sub-groups that form communities of practice, or one may morph entirely into the other.


People who interact regularly form informal communities of practice, though they may not recognize them as such or define themselves as "members." This is often visible on the Internet, when "user groups" form without the support (or consent) of an organization that produces the technology the group is discussing,

The author notes that "hidden" is not meant to indicate invisibility, as they are often operate in the open. The reason a community is hidden may be that it was formed informally. In other instances, a hidden community may be intentionally hidden, clandestine, in that they may expect others to be hostile to their purposes.

The author also disambiguates between a hidden community and one that has disappeared. A community may intentionally dissolve, it may disband when its purpose has been achieved, it may disband when members are unable or unwilling to continue participating, it may be redefined, or it may merge into another community.

It may be possible to change a hidden community into a "fully functioning" community under the aegis of an organizational sponsor. However, care must be taken, such that the community is willing to accept the costs of sponsorship (some degree of control) in exchange for the benefits it provides (some degree of support).

(EN: It bears remark that informal communities, while seldom hostile in their intentions, often take a defensive stance, assuming the worst intentions, when a representative of the "official" organization approaches them. It's an extremely delicate negotiation that can easily be mishandled.)