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January 8, 2008


Andragogy has been defined as “any intentional and professionally guided activity that aims at a change in adult persons” (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005, p. 60). In the mid-twentieth century, researchers like Bruner, Gibb, Miller, Overstreet, Savicevic—and most notably Knowles—began to use the concept to explore “the art and science of how adults learn” (Knowles et al., 2005, p. 61). The primary assumptions of Knowles’ andragogical model are:

1. “Adults need to know why they need to learn something before they learn it.”
2. Adults “need to be seen…and treated by others as being capable of self-direction.”
3. Adults bring a great deal of experience to their learning and “the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves.”
4. Adult’s readiness to learn is triggered by their “moving from one developmental stage to another.”
5a. “Adults are motivated to learn to the extent that they perceive the learning will help them perform tasks or deal with problems that they confront in their life situations.”
5b. Adults learn “most effectively when [new learnings] are presented in the context of application to real-life situations.”
6. “Adults are responsive to some external motivators…but the most potent motivators are internal pressures.” (Knowles et al., 2005, pp. 64-68)

Theorists and disciplines influencing Knowles’ andragogical approach of adult learning were many. Knowles referenced two theories of inquiry contributing to his approach: (a) Thorndike’s scientific stream of inquiry that established adults can learn and that they have different interests and abilities than children, and (b) Dewey and Lindeman’s artistic stream of inquiry that explored how adults learn (2005, p. 37). Lindeman’s strong influence on Knowles’ approach is seen in the extensive excerpts and the summary of Lindeman’s key assumptions about adult learners included in the introduction to Knowles’ andragogical approach (2005, pp. 37-40). Knowles cites clinical psychology to reinforce the idea of adult developmental stages and to show linkage between personality development and education; key clinical psychology theorists cited by Knowles include Freud, Jung, Erikson, Maslow, and Rogers. Developmental psychology is cited by Knowles to reinforce the concept of how adults change throughout adulthood, and sociology and social psychology are cited for their contributions related to the “behavior of groups and larger social systems, including the forces that facilitate or inhibit learning and change” (2005, p. 52). After outlining the social sciences’ contributions to his andragogical approach to adult learning, Knowles then outlines the contributions of adult education. Houle and Tough were notable contributors, with Tough’s research on how adults learn and what motivates them plus Houle’s study on the types of adult learners (i.e., goal-oriented, activity-oriented, and learning-oriented). Based on these many contributing theorists, it could be argued that Knowles’ thoughts were not entirely original; however, his synthesis of these concepts has made an enduring impact on the study and application of adult learning.

In an additional chapter of the sixth edition of Knowles’ classic work (2005), Holton and Swanson addressed additional implications of andragogy for today’s world of adult learning. As stated in the chapter’s opening, “one aspect of the andragogical model that disturbs many people is that not all adults seem to fit the assumptions…adult learners are not as homogenous as the andragogical model implies” (Knowles et al., 2005, p. 204). To provide a more complete set of principles that the adult learning practitioner can apply, the authors cover such topics as individual differences in adult learners (including different cognitive and learning styles), meta-learning or learning how to learn, and developmental perspectives including life-span developmental models and cognitive development theories. While Knowles’ andragogical approach does provide useful principles for adult learning, these additional perspectives from Holton and Swanson provide a more complete view of the variations one must account for in the design, development, and delivery of adult learning.

Like any enduring theory, there has been much follow-up research and critique of Knowles’ andragogical approach to adult learning. Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner (2007) cite the critiques of Knowles’ work that question whether the theories of andragogy apply to all adults in all situations and whether they are effective with only adults. Merriam et al. point to recent critiques that have questioned the lack of consideration of “the sociohistorical context in which learning takes place” (2007, pp. 87-88)—resulting in the perpetuation of an inherently biased view that accepts an American White middle-class male perspective while ignoring other cultural and gender perspectives. Merriam et al., along with Brookfield (1995), also argue for the need to consider the potential role of social capital (including social networking, communities of practice, etc.) in creating positive learning environments in the adult workplace. Brookfield argues strongly against a theory of andragogy, stating “that the attempt to construct an exclusive theory of adult learning…is a grave error” (1995, Issues in Understanding Adult Learning section, para. 1). Rather than arguing for the truth of any one theory for adult learning, Brookfield encourages examining the insights and overlaps evident in what self-directed learning, critical reflection, experiential learning, and learning to learn have to offer adult educators; in addition, Brookfield encourages practitioners to remain aware of the impact of emerging research in the areas of cross cultural adult learning, practical theorizing, and distance learning (1995).

One of the greatest debates about andragogy relates to whether andragogy is a theory at all. Based on this author’s reading, it appears evident that andragogy is not a theory but more a set of guidelines that can be used by adult learning practitioners. Knowles himself acknowledged that he “prefers to think of [andragogy] as a model of assumptions about learning or a conceptual framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory” (Knowles as cited in Merriam et al., 2007, p. 87). In order for Knowles’—or any researcher’s—work to be accepted as a true theory, it must pass rigorous empirical tests that validate the model’s assumptions and display the re-creatable impact of changing one or more of the model’s variables. Learning, being a largely internal process, is hard to measure. Yes, as the behaviorists argue, changes in behavior can be observed and measured. However, the same cannot be easily said for affective changes or acquisitions in tacit knowledge; self-reporting of affective changes is rife with bias, and tacit knowledge is highly difficult to access and express. So perhaps, as Gagne (as cited in Knowles et al., 2005, p. 10) suggests, learning is not something that can by theorized, but rather learning may be a set of generalizations and principles that can be applied to result in desired performance changes.

The implications of these critiques are that andragogy should not be viewed as a rigid set of guidelines to be applied to every adult in all adult learning situations. Some principles may be applicable to children as well (e.g., the benefits of learning using real examples and from one another’s experience). Additionally, practitioners should not assume adult learners are a homogenous audience but rather (a) be sensitive to cultural, social, and gender-related differences, (b) design learning that appeals to adults’ different cognitive and learning styles,
(c) consider multiple approaches and apply the principles that are the best fit for the given adult learning situation, (d) continue efforts to establish empirical evidence that validates the various learning theories, and (e) retain a critical mindset, not accepting any approach as a hard set of rules to blindly apply.

Whether termed a theory, philosophy, or set of guiding principles, Knowles’ work is still relevant in today’s world, in partnership with other theorists providing additional guidance to the practice of adult learning and education. While Knowles’ andragogical approach to adult learning may have—in the words of Brookfield (1995)—acquired the status of “myths that are etched deeply into adult educators’ minds,” it does offer principles that display face validity when applied to the design, development, and delivery of adult learning programs. Just like the different learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, etc. all make important contributions to adult learning, so does Knowles’ andragogical approach. Moreover, just as no one of the learning theories should be applied to the exclusion of the others, the same is true of Knowles (and the other adult learning theories and theorists cited by Brookfield, Knowles, and Merriam). The majority of these theories and techniques have the potential to make valuable contributions, depending on what is most appropriate for a particular adult audience’s learning needs and preferences. Thus, for the adult learning practitioner, the critical task lies in being able to analyze the audience’s needs, the desired behavior or attitudinal change, and the context within which the learning is to happen—and then selecting and applying the theory(s) and technique(s) that will yield the best results.


Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult learning: An overview. In International Encyclopedia of Education. Retrieved December 1, 2007 from http://www.ict.mic.ul.ie/adult_ed/overview.htm

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. (Original work published 1973)

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons. (Original work published 1991)

- Robin

Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.

January 15, 2008

Small Groups in Adult Learning

Small groups are most appropriate for adult learning when the group process helps with learning at either an individual or organizational level. Imel (1997) identifies three types of learning groups that support different learning goals: (a) cooperative learning groups to support instrumental learning goals, (b) collaborative learning groups to support communicative learning goals, and (c) transformative learning groups to support emancipatory goals. Cooperative learning groups are effective when the learning goal focuses on discrete skills or knowledge (primarily in the cognitive domain), e.g., systems training or standard operating procedures. Collaborative learning groups are effective when the learning goal includes an affective or social component that can be enhanced by group interaction, e.g., problem solving or practicing “soft skills” (such as coaching or delivering feedback). Transformative learning groups are effective when the learning goal includes component(s) that would be a challenge to the learners’ current mental models and assumptions, e.g., at key promotion/developmental points or in response to a major shift in the organizational climate and/or job responsibilities (such as the changes due to a merger or re-organization).

But a word of caution... small groups may not always be appropriate for adult learning—especially not when individuals need to learn tasks for which they will be solely responsible and have potentially limited support. It is certainly true that most learning topics include knowledge and skills that can be very effectively discussed and analyzed in small groups so that learners may benefit from others' perspectives. However, if the desired end behaviors are something that must be practiced and mastered on an individual basis, the program design should not rely solely on group learning techniques.

We can also consider the appropriateness of learning groups for formal versus informal learning. I would like to begin with a slightly different definition of formal versus informal learning (in contrast to the examples of formal learning being corporate and organizational and informal learning being in a church or community (Walden University, n.d.)). Marsick and colleagues have studied and published a great deal on the subject of informal learning over the last 20 years. Marsick & Watkins (1990, p. 12) contrasted informal learning versus formal learning as follows:

Formal learning is typically institutionally sponsored, classroom-based, and highly structured. Informal learning…may occur in institutions, but it is not typically classroom-based or highly structured, and control of learning rests primarily in the hands of the learner… [Furthermore, it] can be deliberately encouraged by an organization or it can take place despite an environment not highly conducive to learning.

Characteristics of informal learning include a learning process that (a) is integrated with daily routines, (b) is prompted by an unexpected internal or external event, (c) is mostly unconscious, random, and influenced by chance, (d) includes opportunities for reflection and action, and (e) links to the learning of others (Marsick & Volpe as cited in Marsick & Watkins, 2001, p. 28). As such, formal learning (with its controlled environment and high-structured characteristics) provides numerous opportunities for adult learning to occur via small groups. Informal learning, in contrast, does not provide as many opportunities as it is highly self-directed. Learning how to be a self-directed learner may not be a task well suited for learning solely via small groups—and the same can be said for many informal learning experiences. However, small groups can have their place in aiding informal learning—in particular when informal learning is used as a vehicle for accessing tacit knowledge. For example, informal learning can help a learning organization tap into its knowledge potential through the use of communities of practice, knowledge repositories, goal-based scenarios, and groupware (Marsick & Watkins, 1999; Marsick, 2006). In fact, adult educators can support informal learning by creating environments—both physical as well as cultural—in which small groups will naturally form and organize. As such, the facilitation of groups for formal learning involves the development of structured activities and what Knowles referred to as process design and management (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005); in contrast, the facilitation of groups for informal learning focuses on creating a conducive and supportive environment in which self-directed learning and knowledge sharing can thrive.


Imel, S. (1997). Adult Learning in Groups. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from http://www.cete.org/acve/docgen.asp?tbl=pab&ID=72

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. (Original work published 1973)

Marsick, V. J. (2006). Informal strategic learning in the workplace. In J. Streumer (Ed.), Work-related learning (pp. 51-69). Dordecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. New York: Routledge.

Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (2001). Informal and incidental learning. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2001(89), 25-34.

Walden University. (n.d). AMDS8830 Adult Learning. In Week 6 Discussion Assignment. Retrieved January 8, 2008 from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com

- Robin

Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.

January 16, 2008

Teaching vs. Learning

In considering the differences and relationship between teaching and learning, it can be helpful to begin with some definitions. Teaching can be considered the external manipulation of learning events and the learning environment. Learning, on the other hand, is an internal process for the learner. As such, the external process of teaching leads to an internal process of learning. Additionally, through effective program design, the internal processes of learning may be made more external—and explicit—through the inclusion of group discussions and activities. As Gage argues, “the distinction between the two theoretical frameworks [of teaching and learning is that] learning theories address methods of learning, whereas teaching theories address the methods employed to influence learning” (as cited in Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005, p. 112).

The implication for adult learning is that adult educators must consider both components—teaching and learning theory—to design effective learning events. The process can be envisioned as a series of cyclical phases where teaching and learning theory first influence the design of programs and then the delivery of those programs. In the first phase—the design of programs—whether one leads with learning or teaching theory depends upon where one is most comfortable. For those who came to be adult educators through teaching, starting with teaching theory is a natural beginning. For those who came to be adult educators through a discipline such as instructional or educational design, starting with learning theory can be a more natural beginning. Wherever one starts, whether teaching or learning theory, it is important to check ones’ design against both schools of thought. Apply a critical eye to the design to ensure the learning event is structured to best facilitate adult learning processes—and envision the class unfolding before your eyes to ensure that the materials will support the facilitator to lead the class per effective teaching theories.

In the second phase, the design is then delivered in the classroom—where the theories of teaching are most visibly at play. Yet, learning theory is still evident and plays an important supporting role. For example, facilitators need to ensure that learners know why they are learning something, are dealt with respect, are given the opportunity to share their experience, and perform activities that involve real-life application relevant to their current life or work challenges (Knowles et al., 2005).

For the adult educator, the role of learning and teaching theory do not end once class is over. Rather, the adult educator needs to reflect on what occurred in the class and consider what improvements or changes should be made for the next program. Here, the adult educator can identify potential additions to learning and/or teaching theory which then in turn can assist in the design and/or delivery of the next program. Thus, the relationship between teaching and learning theories completes a full circle. They inform design, which lead to delivery, which—for the savvy adult educator—provides input to future designs, and so on.


Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2005). The Adult Learner (6th ed ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

- Robin

Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.

January 26, 2008

Critical Analysis of the Research on Communities of Practice

Beginning with its roots in anthropology, communities of practice (CoPs) have been studied by many since Wenger and Lave first introduced the concept in 1991. CoPs can be defined as “a group of people having common identity [and] professional interests and that undertake to share, participate and establish a fellowship” (Pickett as cited in Dalkir, 2005, p. 112). Dalkir (2005) describes CoPs as typically informally-created groups centered around a common focus or goal, whether a profession, work function, problem, topic, or industry; furthermore, members’ commitment is driven by trust and professional behaviors/practices (p. 124) and they typically possess a virtual workspace in which “to store stories, artifacts, tools, discussions, glossaries, [and] historical events” (p. 125). The study of CoPs began with predominantly ethnographic studies, progressed through to qualitative studies, and then more recently has expanded into quantitative studies that are attempting to display a link between CoPs and improvements in organizational performance. This paper will take a chronological look at these developments, ending with a critical analysis of the major theorists and their contributions.

Theoretical Works

Wenger is considered by many to be the seminal theorist on CoPs and has published much on the subject. Through an impressive ethnographic study in his dissertation, Wenger (1990) began his investigation into the characteristics of communities and the people and practices that make up those communities. In 1991, Wenger first published on the subject of CoPs. His article introduced the idea of “learning as a social phenomenon… [where] information only takes meaning in the context of the social practices of the communities that give it cultural life… [Furthermore,] through our membership in their communities…we come to know—and be empowered by what we know” (Wenger, 1991, p. 83). This concept was further reinforced in Wenger’s work that year with Lave where they first identified the CoP concept in their “research toward a ‘social theory of learning’” (Zboralski, Salomo, & Gemuendon, 2006, p. 535). In addition to learning as a social phenomenon, Wenger (1991) provided recommendations for “managers who want to leverage the power of the social communities within their corporations” (p. 83-84). He also introduced his organization, the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), as a CoP that would be exploring these concepts. Interestingly, IRL was a not-for-profit initially funded by the Xerox Corporation that resulted in the development of the concepts of distributed intelligence, cognitive apprenticeships, communities of learners, and—most significantly—communities of practice (Pea, n.d.). Wenger was a research scientist at IRL from 1987 to 1997 (Wenger, n.d.).

In 1997, Snyder built on Wenger’s and others’ early work by identifying CoPs as a tool for enhancing organizational learning, building organizational competencies, and improving organizational performance. To support this claim, Snyder (1997) argued that “competencies in the current environment are rarely static, so high-performance [CoPs] engage in continuous learning activities to ensure that competencies are built, shared, and applied effectively” (p. 8-9). Furthermore, CoPs:

…are aligned with competencies…they both enact competencies…and develop and renew competencies through a variety of learning activities. [They] “also constitute influential organization conditions…that influence communication and coordination… [and] are aligned, therefore, with several of the factors associated with a performance-based model of organizational learning. (Snyder, 1997, p. 9)

Snyder’s most important contribution in his 1997 article was the introduction of a “set of [33] testable hypotheses about how communities of practice influence performance, how they learn competence, and what conditions facilitate competence development” (p. 14). These 33 hypotheses can be used to test the interrelation between CoPs and organizational learning, organizational competence, and organizational performance. In fact, this set of hypotheses for testing the interrelation between CoPs and organizational learning, organizational competence, and organizational performance went on to encourage many research efforts including those by Lesser & Prusak; Dove; Lorenz; Smith & McKeen; Webb, Wunram, Lettice & Klein; Lucas; and more.

In 2002, Snyder and Wenger collaborated (along with McDermott) on the writing of the seminal book Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. In it, they introduced seven design principles for CoPs:

1. Design for evolution
2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
3. Invite different levels of participation View image
4. Develop both public and private community spaces
5. Focus on value
6. Combine familiarity and excitement
7. Create a rhythm for the community
(Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 51)

This work also led to the creation of Wenger’s quick start-up guide that succinctly presented the major concepts related to CoPs (View image) (Wenger, 2002). Then in 2004, Wenger reinforced his earlier proposition of the social nature of knowledge by arguing that “communities of practice [are] the social fabric of knowledge” (p. 1). He further described the three elements of a community of practice (domain, community, and practice) and defined the role of management sponsorship to “enable communities to thrive and have an impact on the performance of the organization” (Wenger, 2004, p. 7).

Applied Research

Where the previous theoretical works helped to define what a CoP is and how one should be designed and managed, applied research aided in identifying what problems CoPs can solve. Snyder (1997) referred to the role of early CoP case studies completed by Brown & Gray, Cook & Yanow, Orr, Snyder, and Wenger in demonstrating “that learning occurs most effectively within communities that have developed trust, shared understanding of problems, and a language to communicate new and old solutions” (p. 9). Ever since, CoPs have been identified as an effective knowledge management application in numerous case studies, providing useful examples and best practices for how to design and foster CoPs in organizations. For example, DaimlerChrysler found CoPs “to be an efficient means to achieve business process improvement and manage complexity” by improving the flow and sharing of knowledge throughout the organization (Kannan, Aulbur, & Haas, 2005, p. 138). Ericsson Research Canada used online CoPs, finding them to be “a complete KM concept anchored in the people domain and supported by suitable technology” (Hemre, 2005, p. 157). Baria (2005) shared that Rolls-Royce has seen CoPs provide numerous benefits to “both the business and the individual” (p. 253) and have found that having a corporate CoP leader strengthens CoP activity (p. 246). And New Zealand has used predominantly virtual CoPs as an effective means of encouraging “inter-organizational knowledge networking on a national scale” (Rao, 2005, p. 206; Spence, 2005).

In additional applied research, Choi (2006) examined the potential of CoPs as an alternative learning model for knowledge creation and performance training in corporations; Choi also acknowledged CoPs as a key engine for creating and sharing both tacit and explicit knowledge. Choi (2006) also identified factors that facilitate or encourage CoP activity including “learning motivation and desire for learning, creation of work-related knowledge and sharing of expertise in CoP participation, relationship between theme and outcome of CoP and performance, trust among members, and the leadership trait of the team leader” (p. 144-145). Later in 2006, Zboralski et al. defined potential positive performance effects of CoPs including knowledge, business performance, and socialization (View image). They also developed a measurement model to evaluate the CoP constructs of information exchange, networking, network position, knowledge effect, business performance effect, and socialization (View image). Importantly, Zboralski et al. (2006) demonstrated “that CoPs have a close connection and positive direct impact on business performance” (p. 547) by quantitatively proving CoP members with a strong network position due to their involvement in a CoP have a positive effect on the knowledge base, the business performance, and the socialization between staff.

Critical Analysis

As we turn now to a critical analysis of the theoretical works and applied research, let us focus on Wenger’s contributions from the theoretical perspective and Zboralski et al.’s contributions from an applied research perspective.


Bearing in mind that the scope of this paper did not allow for a detailed review of all of Wenger’s work, the materials reviewed were somewhat disappointing. Strong points of Wenger’s work included his solid work to conceptualize CoPs and emphasize the need for them to be very flexible, organic, and evolving in nature. In addition, his writing is approachable and appealing to readers, with many statements possessing good face validity, e.g., “intuitively, everybody knows what knowledge is. When you have it, you are likely to understand situations and do the right thing; when you don’t, you are in trouble” (Wenger, 2004, p. 1). However, his published work (including the materials cited in this paper) focuses more on the practitioner than the scholar; thus some of Wenger’s materials are sometimes lacking in scholarly rigor. For example, much of his published work is targeted to practitioners and most of his articles and materials were not published in peer-reviewed journals. (A search for peer-reviewed CoP articles that Wenger authored revealed only one article that he co-wrote with Eckert in 2005, and reading his detailed CV revealed that a very small percentage of his articles and papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals.) Despite this, Wenger’s material has become the seminal work on CoPs—as supported by the number of citations of Wenger’s work in CoP research articles plus Wenger’s own biography that claims “Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, [is] a seminal book that lays out the theory of communities of practice” (Wenger, n.d.).

Wenger’s 2004 article was particularly disappointing. While the “doughnut” analogy for his model (View image) may make it feel more accessible to practitioners, he may be doing a disservice to the discipline of knowledge management—made all the worse by the fact that he begins the article stating that the field has had to deal with numerous skeptics and detractors. But then he goes on to state, “I will argue that when it comes to knowledge, management is a doughnut…and noting that the center of the doughnut is empty, I will argue that knowledge management is primarily the business of those who actually make the dough—the practitioners” (Wenger, 2004, p. 1). Again, perhaps this is an approachable analogy, but the light-heartedness of its description may make the reader question if knowledge management is a respectable discipline. Then in looking more closely at the writing of this article, the model is not directly linked to the structure of the paper, causing significant confusion and further making the doughnut model questionable. Further, Wenger (2004) missed opportunities to reinforce the model by not illustrating such statements as “this defines two paths between strategy and performance: business processes and communities of practices” on the model itself (p. 8). Ensuring the article’s structure directly followed the model (e.g., with consistent terminology and labeling of sub-sections) and illustrating all the concepts on the model would have greatly improved the quality and coherence of Wenger’s article and model. A final problem area is that Wenger lists key issues and questions at the end of each sub-section, yet does not address what actions should be taken to address these issues.

Zboralski et al.

In contrast, Zboralski et al.’s (2006) article was particularly impressive for not only its contribution to quantitatively proving a relationship between CoPs and organizational performance, but also in its thorough scholarly approach. The article begins with a very thorough literature review, establishing a strong relation between Zboralski et al.’s research and the existing body of knowledge. However, like most research projects in the social sciences, there were some weaker areas. For example, Zboralski et al.’s sampling is somewhat problematic. Within the selected multinational company, there were 220 CoPs that met the researchers’ criteria; yet over a four month timeframe they were only able to get questionnaire responses representing 36 of those CoPs. The researchers claimed that their coverage of “about 31% of all active community members…can be considered a valid representation of the overall population” (Zboralski et al., 2006, p. 542). However, it is not entirely clear by what objective criteria this claim can be made. The questionnaire for their measurement model was pre-tested, resulting in revisions prior to releasing the questionnaire to the sample population. However, the authors did acknowledge that a common method bias could not be ruled out. In addition, the study is somewhat limited in that it was based on one German multinational company with an extensive number of CoPs, and the measures were based on the CoP members’ perception of the CoPs’ effects on organizational performance. Overall, Zboralski et al.’s conclusions were justified by the results; however, they could be strengthened further by replicating the research with other companies plus comparing the results to the perceptions of non-members of CoPs or to objective performance measures that could not be influenced by the participants’ perception.


In completing this review and critical analysis of the literature on CoPs, it has been intriguing to see the different roles and contributions of the early theoretical works and the later applied research works. It is also fascinating to see the evolution of CoPs from an ethnographic dissertation to one of the most common knowledge management applications utilized by organizations today. Most significantly, it is encouraging to see the efforts of researchers to move from a theoretical base to quantifiable proof, thereby strengthening the professional discipline of knowledge management.


Baria, D. (2005). A day in the life of a Rolls-Royce knowledge manager. In M. Rao (Ed.), Knowledge management tools and techniques (pp. 246-254). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Choi, M. (2006). Communities of practice: An alternative learning model for knowledge creation. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(1), 143-146.

Dalkir, K. (2005). Knowledge management in theory and practice. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Hemre, A. (2005). Building and sustaining communities of practice at Ericsson Research Canada. In M. Rao (Ed.), Knowledge management tools and techniques (pp. 155-165). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Kannan, G., Aulbur, W., & Haas, R. (2005). Knowledge management in practice: Making technology work at DaimlerChrysler. In M. Rao (Ed.), Knowledge management tools and techniques, Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Pea, R. (n.d.). IRL. Retrieved January 19, 2008 from http://www.stanford.edu/~roypea/HTML1%20Folder/irl.html

Rao, M. (Ed.). (2005). Knowledge management tools and techniques. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Snyder, W. (1997). Communities of practice: Combining organizational learning and strategy insights to create a bridge to the 21st century. Retrieved December 15, 2007 from http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/cols.shtml

Spence, P. (2005). Knowledge networking on a national scale: A New Zealand case study. In M. Rao (Ed.), Knowledge management tools and techniques (pp. 206-213). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Wenger, E. (1990). Toward a theory of cultural transparency: Elements of a social discourse of the visible and the invisible. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California.

Wenger, E. (1991, Fall). Communities of practice: Where learning happens. Benchmark, pp. 82-84.

Wenger, E. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A quick start-up guide. Retrieved January 9, 2008 from http://www.entreculturas.pt/Media/start-up_guide_PDF.pdf

Wenger, E. (2004). Knowledge management as a doughnut: Shaping your knowledge strategy through communities of practice. Ivey Business Journal, 68(3), 1-8.

Wenger, E. (n.d.). Full CV. Retrieved January 19, 2008 from http://www.ewenger.com/bio/biocv.htm

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Seven principles for cultivating communities of practice. In Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge (chap. 3). Retrieved January 9, 2008 from http://www.askmecorp.com/pdf/7Principles_CoP.pdf

Zboralski, K., Salomo, S., & Gemuendon, H.G. (2006). Organizational benefits of communities of practice: A two-stage information processing model. Cybernetics & Systems, 37(6), 533-552.

- Robin

Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.

January 30, 2008

Instructional Program Design

Instructional system design. Educational technology. Workplace learning and performance improvement. Program design. All terms to describe the creation of learning events, predominantly for adults. Guiding this process is the ADDIE model; it stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation—the major phases or elements involved in creating a learning event. The model is somewhat sequential from an Analysis, Design, Development, and Implementation (or delivery) perspective; with Evaluation often depicted as an iterative component one should revisit at the end of each of the other phases. While ADDIE is one of the most-frequently cited models for instructional program design, interestingly Molenda’s (2003) research revealed that “there does not appear to be an original, authoritative version of the ADDIE model” (p. 3). Despite that fact, the ADDIE model has endured and become a standard for the industry.

The Analysis phase most typically includes components of performance analysis, task analysis, goal analysis, and audience analysis. With audience analysis in particular you can identify what motivates the learners and thus devise ways to tap into their internal and external motivators per the primary assumptions of Knowles’ andragogical model (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005). During the Analysis phase, humanism provides insight into the individual learner—which can be identified via target audience analysis and identifying the learners’ potential affective goals plus any motivational and/or environmental barriers that may impede the learner.

In practice, instructional program analysis can range from full curriculum needs assessments to course needs assessments. Rossett (1987) defines training needs assessment as “the systematic study of a problem or innovation, incorporating data and opinions from varied sources, in order to make effective decisions or recommendations about what should happen next” (p. 3). Techniques for needs analysis include review of existing materials, questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups. Additionally, one of the most critical things to remember about analysis is to not blindly accept someone’s proclamation of a performance problem. Mager & Pipe (1970) argue, “What people identify as ‘the problem’ often isn’t the problem at all. It is merely a symptom of the problem” (p. 2). Additionally, do not jump to the conclusion that training is the correct solution. The performance problem may not be a skill deficiency that can be solved via training, but rather something in the environment that either is an obstacle to performance or even rewards non-performance (Mager & Pipe, 1970).

In the Design phase, the key task is to determine “the optimal instructional strategies, instructional sequencing, and instructional delivery media for the type of training objectives involved” (Clark, 1995, p. The Training System). One of the first and most important steps is to define the instructional objectives, or what it is the learner will be able to do after participating in the program. Elements of a well-prepared instructional objective include an observable behavior, conditions, and criteria (Mager, 1972). To not adopt a strictly cognitive or psychomotor focus in the design, it can be beneficial to also consider the different types of behavior introduced by Taba: values, attitudes, sensitivities, and feelings as well as knowledge, reflective thinking, and skills (as cited in Knowles et al., 2005, p. 128).

Once the objectives are defined, the next step is to sequence the instruction to build from easier to more difficult intellectual skills and strategies, e.g., from concrete concepts to rules and problem solving (Gagne & Briggs, 1978). Additionally, instructional strategies are defined; this can include the basic approaches of lecture, discussion, and case studies to more advanced techniques of accelerated learning, experiential learning, discovery learning, and goal based scenarios. Embedded in determining the instructional strategy is selecting the most appropriate delivery or media approach; some of the available options include self-paced instruction, classroom training, synchronous web conferences, asynchronous/recorded sessions, eLearning (with varying ranges of interactivity), and electronic performance support or job aids.

During the Design phase is where andragogy and other learning theories have significant influence. Behaviorism emphasizes that what is important is that the learner can actually display the behavior or perform. From this, comes the development of performance objectives that focus on observable behaviors, as well as performance gap analysis which identifies the differences between the current performance/observable behavior and what is desired. Andragogy is evident in the design of instructional programs that adhere to Knowles et al.’s (2005) principles, e.g., beginning a program with the rationale for why the learning is important; ensuring abundant opportunities for interaction and sharing of experience; and relating the learning to a challenge they are currently facing, and ideally having the learners use that problem to practice during the session. Behaviorism’s operant conditioning can be applied in the design of during and post-training activities that facilitate and reinforce the learning process. Cognitivism can be seen in such tools and techniques as advance organizers and discovery learning. Social cognitive theories contribute additional techniques with activities such as fish bowls and triads where learners observe and learn from each other. Constructionism contributes additional learning techniques with the facilitation of shared meaning, usage of dialogue, collaborative and cooperative learning, situated learning, and reflective practice.

In the Development phase, the program’s design is translated into materials to be used by the facilitator and learners. The form of these materials will be determined by the delivery approach selected during the Design phase; however, they often include such deliverables as a facilitator’s guide, student workbook, visual presentation materials, and supporting job aids or reference materials. While the previous phases are typically completed by someone who specializes in adult education or instructional design (working in collaboration with subject matter experts), additional specialists may be required during the Development phase, e.g., information designers, media developers, and programmers.

Implementation is typically considered the phase where the program is delivered. While this is certainly a critical phase, there are many items surrounding the actual learning event that need to be addressed when considering how to successfully implement an instructional program. In addition to delivery logistics, it is important to determine:

How will performance expectations be communicated to the audience and relevant others? Are there any conflicting expectations? How will the audience be held accountable for performance? What are the rewards for performing? What barriers to performance exist? What ongoing support will the learners, facilitators, or other stakeholders need? (Kucera, Hirsch, McBurney, & Hollister, 2004)

Here, behaviorism’s operant conditioning plays a role—such as when analysis reveals that a company’s rewards and recognition structure needs to be re-worked in order to ensure learning transfer. Andragogy becomes critical again during the implementation or delivery phase. The techniques that were envisioned in the design phase now need to be delivered by a skillful facilitator, most importantly ensuring abundant opportunities for interaction, sharing experience, and applying the learning to real-life problems. The facilitator also needs to ensure that the learning environment is comfortable from both a physical and interpersonal perspective (Knowles et al., 2005, pp. 118-120).

The Evaluation phase is one that should not wait until the end of the program design process; rather, it is something that needs to be considered throughout thereby enabling continuous improvement of the instructional program design process. From a learning perspective, “evaluation can tell us how to improve future programs,…determine whether a program should be continued or dropped,…[and] demonstrate that training has tangible, positive results” (Kirkpatrick, 1994, p. 20). The most well-known evaluation theory is Kirkpatrick’s (1994) four levels of evaluation including reaction (how did learners perceive the program), learning (what attitudes, skills, or knowledge did learners acquire), behavior (what behavior change occurred in the learner once back on the job), and results (what business impacts resulted from the learning).

Many theories play an important role throughout the instructional program design process. Knowles’s andragogy, Skinner’s behaviorism, Rogers’ humanism, and others all play important roles. Behaviorism acts as the bookends at the beginning and end of programs with performance objectives during Analysis and measurements during Evaluation. Humanism provides purpose to Analysis and Design with a student-centered approach and the goal of helping learners achieve self-actualization. The cognitivist and constructivist theories contribute various techniques and practices for how to Design and Develop a positive learning environment and experience. And andragogy provides guiding principles for how to Design and Implement effective programs for adult learners.

These and other theories and techniques have made valuable contributions to instructional program design and adult learning. Yet, the most important thing to remember as an adult learning practitioner is to carefully select which theories should be applied in a given situation depending on what is most appropriate for that particular adult audience’s learning needs and preferences. Thus the critical task lies in being able to Analyze the audience’s needs, desired behavior or attitudinal changes, and the context within which the learning is to happen—and then Designing, Developing, and Implementing via the theory(s) and technique(s) that will yield the best results (as measured via Evaluation).


Clark, D. (1995). Introduction to Instructional System Design. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/sat1.html

Gagne, R. & Briggs, L. (1978). Principles of instructional design (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Kirkpatrick, D. (1994). Evaluating training programs: The four levels. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. (Original work published 1973)

Kucera, J., Hirsch, D., McBurney, A., & Hollister, R. (2004). Training Roadmap. (Available from Equity Office Properties, 2 North Riverside Plaza, Chicago, Illinois 60606)

Mager, R. & Pipe, P. (1970). Analyzing performance problems. Belmont, CA: Fearon Pitman Publishers.

Mager, R. (1972). Preparing instructional objectives. Belmost, CA: Fearon Publishers.

Molenda, M. (2003). In search of the elusive ADDIE model. Performance Improvement, 42(5).

Rossett, A. (1987). Training needs assessment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

- Robin

Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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