Communication between communities: are we speaking the same language?

A landscape of different communities (Credit:

A landscape of different communities (Credit: Every community, be it a physical one or a virtual one, has their own meanings, routines and ‘correct’ ways of doing things. How to help them understand each other?

Let’s say I’ve just had a great idea! Even better, let’s say I have done a load of research and now I have some facts and evidence that are really useful. Doing this research has increased my knowledge and now I would like to give that knowledge to you so that you can do your things better too (whatever your things may be). And not just you, my research evidence would be useful for everyone, if only they knew about it.

So now what? Perhaps I could write an article or a policy brief. By reading my article or brief, you would understand that you now need to change the way you do things. You could read the new evidence and slot it into your head with your old knowledge and things would get better.

But of course, that is not what happens. How many things do we read that make no ‘sense’, that have no meaning, that do not manage to slot into our heads? And presumably most of those things we can’t make sense of do make sense perfectly in the research community that they come from. What makes perfect sense in one context may simply not make sense in another.

Reading the latest book by Etienne Wenger-Traynor (once just Wenger) and co-authors (2015), there is a great metaphor for this phenomenon: the Landscape of Learning.

In this landscape, you can imagine all different communities of practice busy working on improving their own area of competence. An area of competence may be a discipline. In my little world that would be areas like plant genetic resource conservation, gender dynamics, entomology, ecology, biology, genetics. Areas of competence may also be formed around regimes such as management, regulation, communications or research.

People in communities generate and share knowledge with each other in their area of competence. Meaning is created in the community by people actively engaging in practice and theory, conversations, routines, standards that make sense in that community. And by doing these things together, these communities develop a feeling of accountability to their community. Let me give you some examples: Researchers find it very hard to make a statement without substantiating it with a reference, or qualifying it. That is the way they roll. On the other hand, managers manage; they don’t need all those references and qualifications, they are looking for workable advice that improves their management practice. Qualitative researchers feel accountable to certain principles and ways of doing things while quantitative researchers are accountable to others. The private sector has one bottom line, the public sector a different one.

You can be in more than one community of course. So if you are a researcher in, say forest genetic resources, you will feel accountable to improving the body of knowledge about FGR. But you will also feel accountable to the body of knowledge of how to do good research because you are a researcher.

Wenger-Traynor calls these ‘claims to knowledge’. And he explains (p16-17, my underline),

“There is no guarantee that a successful claim to competence inside a community will translate into a claim to ‘knowledge’ beyond the community where it is effective. Whether the competence of a community is recognised as knowledge depends on its position in the politics of the landscape… What researchers find, what regulators dictate, what management mandates, what international development agencies try to make happen, what clients expect, and what practitioners end up deciding, all these attempts to colonize moments of practice can be in conflict – hidden or open”

For researchers, whose daily work is to find explanations and evidence (or at least plausible hyphotheses), this begs the question: How do you get your findings recognised as knowledge? How do your findings get introduced into other communities’ regime of competence? How do you have conversations that make sense to you both? For example, the researchers who engage in gender research feel accountable to that knowledge, the ideas, traditions and literature that have been generated around it. How do you make that relevant to someone working on crop breeding say? What about private-public partnerships — how do you speak the same language?

Wenger-Traynor suggests (my underline again):

“ systematically make boundaries a learning focus rather than assuming or seeking an unproblematic applicability of knowledge across practices.”

A learning focus?

I wonder what we need to do to ‘make boundaries a learning focus’. I guess it will need boundary people — those who manage to span multiple communities, speaking both languages and translating and mediating between communities. It will need boundary objects too — objects such as graphs, images, manuals and guidelines, that can be used by different communities but with some kind of shared end point in mind. It will also need boundary practices — practices whose purpose is to connect other practices by addressing conflicts, reconciling perspectives, and resolving differences (Wenger 1998, p. 114).

People always say that creativity comes from tension, conflict and difference. If we start reflecting on the boundaries between our communities and other communities, seeking people, objects and practices that can bridge them, I wonder what wonderful creative innovations we will come up with.


Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger-Trayner, Etienne, Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Steven Hutchinson, Chris Kubiak, and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, eds. 2014. Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, Identity, and Knowledgeability in Practice-Based Learning. 1st ed. Routledge.

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