What Organisational Development Theory Can Contribute to Our Understanding of Communities of Practice

What Organisational Development Theory Can Contribute to Our Understanding of Communities of Practice

Jim Grieves (University of Hull, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-556-6.ch099
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Organisational development (OD) is an approach to developing organisations through the application of behavioural science knowledge, practices, and processes. Essentially, OD enables organisations to achieve effectiveness through careful analysis and diagnostic techniques as well as through carefully considered intervention strategies. Although some of its earlier planned change practice was adopted by approaches to quality management and business excellence in the late 1980s, much of this adaptation is generally regarded as overly mechanistic and formulaic. Indeed, as social science disciplines developed, corresponding changes occurred to OD methodology. In this regard, while OD can be regarded as an attempt to improve the total organisational system, it has moved beyond its earlier functionalist and behaviouristic assumptions to embrace critiques of the planned change process. OD should therefore be regarded today as “an evolving mixture of science and art” (Cummings & Huse, 1989, p.1) that integrates strategy, structure, and process in the pursuit of organisational change. As organisational development matured over the past 20 years, it came to focus increasingly on organisational learning. Its main contribution to organisational learning is recognition that the quality of the diagnosis, interpretive judgments, and the sensitivity of the change agent to the nature of the intervention is much more important than the mechanistic application of planned change programmes. In order to explain this further, it would be useful first to say a few words about communities of practice and then, second, to illustrate some issues linking organisational development to the process of organisational learning. Communities of practice can be described as informal groups or networks of people who share similar interests and objectives. The identification and development of tacit and formal knowledge is therefore the central activity of a community of practice. This informality of practice is generated by a group of people who are motivated to acquire and share knowledge in relation to an agreed objective. Once this has been applied to organisations, social networks (and I include virtual networks in this definition), geographical and spatial communities, then we can begin to get a feeling for the types of interactions that are now likely to be generated. This, of course, has increased exponentially with the use of modern communication technology and the World Wide Web, in particular. While shared experiences and insights into best practice are essential to the activities of a community of practice, it is the desire to share a similar problem focus that brings us close to the heart of organisational development. While we can agree with those authors who argue that a community of practice is a knowledge exchange mechanism through informal learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998), this in itself would not make a CoP a satisfactory mechanism for an organisational development intervention because an effective diagnostic framework would require a methodological approach to the identification of an agreed problem. It is in this sense that we need to argue for the application of an OD methodology.

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