Collaborating for a More Sustainable Supply Chain in Public Procurement, Pt. 2

This post, written by Tim Laseter and Nancy Gillis, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum. Also read the first part in this series on sustainability.

Building a Community of Practice

The concept of a community of practice can be traced back to the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), a 1986 spin off from the Palo Alto Research Center. IRL was a nonprofit research organization of linguists, anthropologists, computer scientists and professional teachers who believed that people learn less through formal instruction and more through social interactions. Etienne Wenger, a teacher and PhD in artificial intelligence, joined IRL along with anthropologist Jean Lave and they developed the theory of “Situated Learning,” which they published in a 1991 book of the same name. Their concept, in a nutshell, was that communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

According to Wenger, there are three elements that are crucial in distinguishing a community of practice from other groups and communities:

  1. The domain. 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 implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people.
  2. 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. Having the same job or the same title does not make for a community of practice, and members of a community of practice do not necessarily work together on a daily basis.
  3. The practice. A community of practice is not merely a community of interest—people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. 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.


The March White House meeting to launch the Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice sought to touch upon all three of these elements. At the meeting, representatives from industry, academia, non-profits and associations—all of whom were invited because of their organizations’ commitment to and active engagement in supply chain sustainability, as well as their own expertise in the topic—sat clustered around small tables. Most had not met before and found that the quickest way to engage was on the topic they all knew about—supply chains.

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