Monday, 18 August 2008

What the heck is a Domain and why should I care? (CoP with Nancy White)

In the first in our series on communities of practice, (CoPs) I briefly mentioned Community, Domain and Practice ( In this blog post I want to dive a little deeper into Domain. Because Etienne Wenger does such a great job of defining domain (and he really helped me understand it) I'll start with his definition, and use his definitions later for Community and Practice as well:

The domain: from

A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. 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. (You could belong to the same network as someone and never know it.) The domain is not necessarily something recognized as "expertise" outside the community. A youth gang may have developed all sorts of ways of dealing with their domain: surviving on the street and maintaining some kind of identity they can live with. They value their collective competence and learn from each other, even though few people outside the group may value or even recognize their expertise.

So Domain is what we care about together. It is what is important enough for us to make time to participate, to learn these crazy online tools if that's how our community connects, and makes us prioritize it over the many other things we have in our busy lives. So it has to matter! So if a learner is taking a course because they "have to", we need to think carefully about if a community is the right approach.

Domain is not static

Domain is also one of those things that seems obvious at first -- we are interested in learning about how to become entrepreneurs -- but ends up being a bit more subtle.
In large communities, there may be a big, overarching domain, with smaller, more specialized subgroups. In some communities, the domain may be relevant for only a short period of time and then the community naturally comes to the end of it's life. The domain may shift when new people join or initial core members leave. Not all domain's are "eternal!" So the first lesson about Domain is that it is not static and it has to reflect and respond to the interests and needs of the member. So we might start a CoP on entrepreneurs coming out of a business course offering, but it may turn out that the core of the group is really interested in marketing for small businesses, or developing a horticulture business. Then you get to that "ignition" point where the interest and passion is sufficient to get the community going. That "commitment" that Etienne describes in his definition. Over time, the domain focus might shift again -- and responding to that shift is critical for community sustainability.

Community and personal identity

Domain also has to do with something else important in communities of practice: identity. The domain gives the community as a whole an identity, and it also is part of the identity of individual "members." Shawn Callahan from Anecdote often says a useful test of a domain is to be able to identify with it personally. So in a community of entrepreneurs, you would say, yes, I'm an entrepreneur. But it may have a lot more personal meaning if it was "yes, I'm own a small horticultural business" and thus the more specific domain has more meaning.

So if you are thinking about a communities of practice approach with your e-learners, ask yourself, what might be the domain of my community? Try it out on some of your learners. See what they tell you. If it resonates... keep going. If they look at you like you are crazy, keep refining your ideas about domain WITH them. Because after all, it will be THEIR community. If you do this little experiment, leave a comment here and share a story of what you learned!


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Joitske Hulsebosch said...

Hi Darren, I just discovered you blog and enjoyed your post about domain. I have the impression most people who work with networks without understanding CoP theory overlook the domain (or don't give it a lot of attention)...

In your youth example domain becomes very close to culture? I wonder how you distinguish the two?

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