Communities of Practice: Context Factors that Influence their Development

Communities of Practice: Context Factors that Influence their Development

Edurne Loyarte (VICOMTech Visual Communication and Interaction Technologies Centre, Spain) and Olga Rivera Hernáez (University of Deusto, Spain)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-802-4.ch008


Many organizations have developed Communities of Practice and they are one of the most important vehicles of knowledge management in the 21st century. Organizations use Communities of Practice for different purposes, but both, organizations and Communities, are limited by different context factors. Therefore, different goals are achieved with them: sometimes the intended goals and sometimes unintended goals. With this in mind, this chapter focuses on the context factors that influence the development of Communities of Practice. To this end, we review different cases of Communities of Practice within various organizations. Our analysis provides: (a) a reflection on the Context factors in the process of integrating Communities of Practice, (b) an analysis of the impact of these factors on the development of Communities of Practice in different organizations and (c) the conclusions of the study. This study is based on the general idea that Communities of Practice are a valid management tool for organizations. This chapter is therefore based on the study of Communities of Practice from the perspective of organizational management.
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Wenger et al (2002) define Communities of Practice as groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in the area by interacting on an ongoing basis. Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, or who learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Kimble, Hildreth & Wright, 2000; Preece, 2004). This contributes to innovation and knowledge creation across an organization’s boundaries, creating, a good process flow of knowledge, which is usually well linked with the organization’s business strategy, in this way creating strategic benefits (du Plessis, 2008). In all cases, organizations are limited by their context factors and the changes they want to drive. So it is important for organizations to realize that they have choices to make when it comes to the cultivation of Communities of Practice and that they should use the formula that works best for their particular organization.

Identifying more limits to knowledge management, not only organizations are limited, Communities of Practice are too. From this point of view, an increasing number of studies in management literature have provided critiques of the Communities of Practice approach (Contu & Willmott, 2003; Fow, 2000; Handley et al. 2006; Marshall & Rollinson, 2004; Mutch, 2003). Roberts (2006) also argues that there are clearly unresolved issues and difficulties in the Communities of Practice approach. Issues concerning power, trust and predisposition such as Communities of Practice size and spatial reach involve challenges that have to be studied.

In this chapter, the authors approach Communities of Practice from an organizational point of view, including a study of Communities of Practice, which have considerable influence in organizational approaches. The authors of the present study have developed a cultivation model (E. Loyarte & O. River, 2007) in which Communities of Practice are clearly seen as a knowledge management tool which can be applied in certain cases within organizations. Although both Communities of Practice and organizations have their limitations, it now seems important to go one step further, and reach a stage where it is possible to analyze in a uniform way the different contexts in which Communities of Practice coexist and how they influence the groups they encompass, as well as the organization itself. With this in mind, the authors have focused on answering the following research questions:

  • What kinds of businesses undertake the cultivation of Communities of Practice? What size are these businesses? Which sectors do they belong to?

  • What objectives drive the cultivation of Communities of Practice within organizations?

  • What kind of organizational environment is beneficial to the creation of Communities of Practice?

  • Is organizational restructuring essential in order to promote Communities of Practice in organizations?

  • What attitude should the members of a Community of Practice have in order to ensure its success?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Communities of Practice: An active system in which its participants share knowledge based on their daily tasks. They share the meaning of this knowledge in their life within the community. The participants of the community are united in the community are united in the community’s practice and in the meaning of said practice, both at the community level and at broader levels ( Wenger, 1998 ).

Knowledge Management: Managing the corporation’s knowledge through a systematically and organizationally specified process for acquiring, organizing, sustaining, applying, sharing and renewing both the tacit and explicit knowledge of employees to enhance organizational performance and create value (Davenport, 1998 AU72: The in-text citation "Davenport, 1998" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ).

Cultivation Model: A model of evaluation for communities of practice in the process of cultivation that makes it possible to estimate the probabilities of success for the proposal of creating communities at a specific moment and under a specific situation is included. The cultivation and integration of communities is a continuous process, due to which its evaluation must be performed periodically.

Case Studies: A detailed intensive study of a unit, such as a corporation or a corporate division that stresses factors contributing to its success or failure.

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