Comparing Communities

A professional organization or community is a structure of membership for members of  who are part of a sector of society that provides a highly regarded and specialize service (for example, doctors, lawyers, economists, scientists).   Professional community characterize an organizational structure that is used to govern or supervise the process of creating and valuing knowledge, as well as setting up the basic requirements for membership. Membership is controlled and often requires some level of educational attainment and  passing a tests which then lead to membership credentials.  The community creates  boards that oversees appropriate practices,  licensing,  and sanctioning process (for example the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association).  Professional organizations control themselves and therefore rarely have a need for labor unions.  In the sixties and seventies there was extensive debate about how to characterize professional organizations (Bucher & Stelling, 1969); and more specifically if teaching, which has some properties of professional organizations but also some properties of non-professional service occupations, should teaching be considered a profession (Darling-Hammond & Mclaughlin, (1995)? 

A community of practice is a multi-generation group of people who come together to engage in building shared knowledge, refining a set of activities, preserving shared values, and developing skills that make up an occupation or avocation.  This side steps the issue of who defines which sectors as professions.  The practice is identifiable (e.g. nursing, tailoring, or skiing) and the community is defined by organizational structures of membership.  It might be the people that who subscribe to a journal, attend a conference, pay dues, or are participants in activities organized online.  The term was used by Lave and Wenger who sought to describe how people move from "legitimate peripheral participation" on the borders of a community to full membership and perhaps leadership in the organizational structure over time.

Learning communities are neither professional communities or communities of practice.  A learning community is a group of people who share a common interest in a topic or area, and intentionally engage tools and sense-making approaches for building collaborative knowledge, and valued practices and products.They are instead smaller units that either of these community organizations might use to achieve a specified outcomes.  Learning communities are groups that form around specific goals with definite timelines.  Riel and Polin (200x) describe three types of learning communities, product-based, practice-based and knowledge-based depending on the focus of the intentional learning of the group.  

Learning circles are a structure for designing learning communities.  In the Learning Circle model we have described, they are generally a product-based learning community but some of the other linked models have a knowledge or practice-based outcome.


Bucher, R. & Stelling J. (1969) Characteristics of Professional Organizations.  (American Sociological Association Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), pp. 3-15.

Darling-Hammond, L. &   Mclaughlin, M. (1995) Policies That Support Professional Development in an Era of Reform Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 76, 1995

Greenwook, R. Suddaby, R. & Hinnings, C. (2002) Theorizing Change: The Role of Professional Associations in the Transformation of Institutionalized Fields,  Academy of Management Journal. 45(1):58-80.

Riel, M., and Polin, L (2004). Learning Communities: Common Ground and Critical Differences in Designing Technical Support. In S. Barab, R. Kling, & J. Gray (Eds.). Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.