CoP Series #2: What the heck is a Domain and why should I care?

This is a reblog of a guest blog post I did on Darren Sidnick’s Learning & Technology Blog: What the heck is a Domain and why should I care? (CoP with Nancy White). I’m republishing them here with Darren’s blessing! Part 1part 2part 3, part 4, part 5part 6,  part 7 ,  part 8 , part 9 and  part 1o  are all here on the blog.

What the heck is a Domain and why should I care?

Flickr photo by IdeaideiaIn 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!

Here is another story about domain:

Flickr Photo Credit:

view photostream Uploaded on July 10, 2008
by ideaideai
  1. Nice post, good to go back to the basics at times. I have one group in where there is a connection, but there is still different understandings about the domain. I have the impression that’s an obstacle to attracting the right new people. So a good domain definition also helps to become attractive for the right newcomers. Thanks for linking to this one- I’ll crosspost this one too!

  2. Kia ora Nancy!

    You mentioned that “domain is what we care about together”. You also mention about the importance of “interest and passion” to the life-span of a domain.

    You then go on to talk about the horticultural business person as opposed to the entrepreneur as being more specific to the domain. Am I right in saying here that you’re saying shared interest is a requirement but not a defining factor?

    You also mention that 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.

    I wonder if we are not discussing two quite different community types here. Communities of practice, rather than work teams, have one special quality that likens them to complexity systems – that of greater permanence. One simple way to prove the permanence of any suspected CoP is to remove the guiding forces that would traditionally be seen to be important to work teams.

    I think it is when we have work teams (rather than communities of practice) that there is greater possibility of the community coming to the end of its life when guiding factors are removed. In most cases where this happens with work teams, it is because the so-called shared interest then no longer exists, such as at the completion of a project, where the team members no longer have a shared goal, or with the presence of certain leader personalities where these are seen as important to the team members’ interest.

    My (unacademic) experience of CoPs is that they can often be initiated from work team environments. I have observed this happening at conferences, seminars and workshops (folk music, hobby craft, educational etc) where those with a shared interest begin a journey of collaboration that is characteristic of the CoP.

    My hunch is that the introduction of the term ‘domain’, and the attempt to define it, through categorisation, as an attribute of a CoP, may be a red herring :-).

    I’m tempted to stick with ‘shared interest’.

    Ka kite

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  4. Hi Nancy, in your experience in helping groups develop a community of practice is it more useful for the group to define its domain broadly and then enable sub-groups to form that might be more specifically aligned to a member’s identity? Or is the opposite a better strategy whereby people start with tightly defined domains and then look for where groups can connect? I’m kinda of thinking out loud here but my gut feeling says start with the broader definition then dial up passion by encouraging members to get specific and create sub-groups. If you do it the other way there is a good change the sub-groups never coalesce.

  5. Ken, I’m chewing on your comment because it is not clear if we are actually talking about the same thing, or not. I see domain as the same as shared interest. In some CoPs it is very wide, some narrow, but it is interest in learning about that shared interest thingie. Not, as you say, an agreement to complete a set of interdependent tasks (at TEAM!) which of course has a natural end point.

    So when a community defines its domain AT THAT MOMENT in time, it is about find ENOUGH shared interest, enough clarity, that they want to learn and practice around that domain. Does that make sense?

    Shawn, my gut response on the definition — narrow or broad — is entirely contextual. For me the practical test is “is this domain important enough for me to find time to participate, to learn, to be part of the community?” I’m interested in a ton of things, but not all of them to the point of engagement in a CoP. So chocolate – VERY general topic, but I’m engaged all right. Facilitation? Too broad at this point in my personal learning trajectory, so I’m interested in specific types of facilitation, while someone new to the field may want a very broad community and may be very motivated?

    Thus, your suggestion about sub-domains to me, is very relevant. The article above was written in the context of CoP as a strategy in more formal educational contexts. So again, context matters. What have you found about domain identification? (I realized I just used the word IDENTIFICATION vs DESCRIPTION. I suspect discovery is an important human pleasure!)

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  8. Hey Nancy – I love your comment that a “domain is what we care about together”. I guess it resonates strongly with me as when I try to explain the domain / community / practice model to people in Rio Tinto, I start off by saying something like “a domain is a fancy word for a subject – but there’s more to it than that”. And then I go on to say that a well designed domain should act as a magnet to people (I can never let go of my physics background!), and therefore the way that we articulate the domain should ATTRACT people (like a magnet does). The people who are attracted the most are likely to become core community members and be the most active – this fits well with the diagram that Etienne uses with the concentric elipses to represent community participation.

    If a domain doesn’t attract people, then they probably don’t care about it. I guess we’re articulating the difference between an individual-centric view versus a community-centric view? I wouldn’t say that it’s about top-down versus bottom-up, as most of our Rio Tinto communities are bottom up; the trick either way is to get the right nurturing ingredients happening to make the CoP work.

    Even if we get the domain right, but fail to use the language to describe (sell?) it properly, then we will not be doing a good job of nurturing it correctly. This language changes as a function of time, as do specialities (sub-domains) within the core domain.

    One of the key subtleties about domains is to figure out how one domain relates to another – either by mapping relationships between people or Venn Diagrams.

    Happy New Year!


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  10. Mark, it takes me months, sometimes, to respond. Terrible. First of all, I really like the magnet analogy. I think I shall borrow it for a workshop in 2 weeks.

    I’d be very interested to see sample venn diagrams to see how domains interrelate. I think I could learn a lot from that. Any public examples?

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