Social Software and the Establishment of Virtual Communities of Practice in the Tourism Sector
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The concept of Communities of Practice can be seen as a central model that supports informal learning processes especially in workplace surroundings. Based on the assumption that Social Software tools and models are well suited to support collaboration within virtual networks, this paper aims to present and analyse the experiences made in the process of establishing Virtual Communities of Practice in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) of the tourism sector in Europe (involving the application of Social Software tools).
SMEs can be seen as the backbone of regional prosperity and employment in Europe and their employees’ professional development is often seen as a precondition to achieve innovations and to compete with other companies. However, small enterprises are often not able to address their employees’ learning needs by developing or financing formal learning initiatives individually. Recent ideas on ICT-based learning include a blend of learning and working, resulting in the concept of learning at the workplace. These kinds of informal learning processes in organisations are aimed at learning around concrete problems.
Empirical research carried out in the framework of the Leonardo da Vinci project Work&Learn Together (WLT) shows that Social Software can indeed facilitate and support communication processes within Communities of Practice. However, these tools are often rather to be seen as an additional channel of communication. The idea of establishing purely Virtual Communities of Practice in the tourism sector actually proved to be quite difficult. The feeling of competition in the sector was found to be much stronger than the actual need to learn collaboratively.
Nevertheless several fields in which Virtual Communities of Practice could be established to support existing structures of communication and learning as well as meet learners' needs were detected in the tourism sector. One central motivation for the implementation of Virtual Communities of Practice – especially in SMEs – is the fact that there is a need for tools which allow learning during working hours and at the workplace. Thus the attendance of formal training sessions, which often involve impractical traveling to training centres for employees in rural areas, can be avoided.