Sunday I watched zomergasten with Leon de Winter, (a writer) as guest on (Dutch) television. The guest can select his favorite TV/film scenes, show them again and comment. It's great how the program is presented afterwards on internet, you can click on each scene, get the introduction or debriefing of the scene.
Leon shows a scene of the hadj, with a discussion afterwards about his large number of publications about the arabic world. Leon explains that he writes about the arabic world with 'borrowed knowledge', by reading articles and talking to people. He has not been there in the past 20 years. The interviewer, Joris Luyendijk, has lived there, published a book and is surprised that you can write about something, and have an opinion without actually going there yourself. To which Leon de Winter replies that a surgeon doesn't need to have a braintumor to be able to operate one. He feels he can judge well by reading a wide variety of articles and use several sources.
This discussion was interesting to me, because I'm like Joris in seeing the need to feel and experience something to 'ground' it. But good to know that people may have a very different take on this.
Translating this to communities of practice: I see a difference, on a gliding scale, of CoPs which talk about their practice versus CoPs with members engaging in joint enterprises, with a lot of doing together. My sceptic attitude towards purely virtual CoPs stems from not grounding the conversations by seeing each other practice. I think groups that have a lot of joint projects may move faster towards a community of practice with common practices, for me a sign of a 'strong' CoP. So we we get into the discussion of what is a group and what is a community of practice...
An anecdote to support my strong feel for actual experience as it changes your perspective: when I was in Kenya, I used to think (like many other backpackers) that the Masai are a little 'spoilt' by tourism because they ask money when a tourist takes a picture. Now in China, so many chinese people wanted to take a picture of my children, see the picture in this blogpost, that in the end I felt like asking money too. By experiencing it, you experience that it is somehow a commercial kind of relationship. (people see you, want your picture, that's all there is to the relationship). So experience, as observing and sensing the atmosphere, does change your perspective. (but not everyone feels this is important as I do).