Communities of Practice as Work Teams to Knowledge Management

Communities of Practice as Work Teams to Knowledge Management

Celia Zárraga-Oberty (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Spain)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-802-4.ch003
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In today’s competitive environment, it is widely accepted that knowledge is a key strategic resource. Nevertheless, to be a source of competitive advantage, the knowledge embedded in individuals must be transformed into organizational knowledge. This chapter defends the idea that this process can happen in work teams, but only if they have the necessary characteristics to be considered communities of practice. These characteristics are: self-managed teams whose members have individual autonomy, heterogeneous and complementary skills, a common understanding, with a leader that encourages work teams and a climate of trust which favors knowledge management.
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In the last two decades, knowledge has received increasing attention in strategic management literature. In fact, some authors (e.g. Grant, 1996b; Nonaka, Toyama & Konno, 2001) claim that knowledge is the main source of sustainable competitive advantage. In the business context, knowledge can be defined as relevant information that is applied and based partially on experience (Leonard & Sensiper, 1998). Nevertheless, knowledge, especially its tacit dimension, is embedded in the individual, and to be a source of competitive advantage it must be transformed into organizational knowledge (e.g. Grant, 1996a, 1996b; Nonaka & Konno, 1998; Teece, 1998; Powell, 1998). This is the essence of knowledge management and to achieve this goal, organizations must provide a context of shared identity which favours this process (Kogut & Zander, 1996; Szulanski, 1996). But, how does the firm create this context?

The field of management practice shows that the past two decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the use of work teams (e.g. Cohen and Ledford 1994; Goodman et al, 1988; Kirkman and Rosen 1999; Kirkman and Shapiro 1997, 2001; Kirkman et al, 2001; Nicholls et al, 1999; Trist et al, 1977; Wall et al, 1996; Wellins et al, 1990). From Grant’s (1997, 2001) point of view, this new tendency of organizational design could be considered a way to access the tacit knowledge of the organizational members and thus, a way to create the appropriate context for knowledge management.

However, for individual knowledge to become organizational knowledge, it is not enough to organize the firm around work teams because formal corporate structures may be insufficient for the development, application and spread of knowledge (see, for example, Cabrera and Cabrera (2002), who address social dilemmas). Thus, in recent years scholars and reflective practitioners have turned their focus to the emerging theoretical concept of communities of practice in hopes of better understanding the dynamics underlying knowledge-based work (e.g. Brown & Duguid, 1998; Ruggles, 1998; Lesser & Prusak, 1999; Asoh, Belardo & Neilson, 2002).

Lave and Wenger (1991) coined the term while studying apprenticeship as a learning model. People usually think of apprenticeship as a relationship between student and master, but studies of apprenticeship reveal a more complex set of social relationships through which learning takes place mostly with journeymen and more advanced apprentices. The term community of practice was coined to refer to the community that acts as a living curriculum for the apprentice. In other words, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better through regular interaction (Wenger, 2005).

In essence, the community of practice is a group of people sharing know-how, since people need to work in a group for their knowledge to be put into practice. Thus, its function is the development of a shared understanding of what is done, how to do it and how to relate it to other practices (Brown & Duguid, 1998 and 2001; Ruggles, 1998). But how can a firm create communities of practice?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Knowledge: Relevant information that is applied and that is based partially on experience.

Knowledge Management: Doing what is needed to create organizational knowledge from individual knowledge.

Explicit Knowledge: Knowledge which can be codified or contained in manuals, information technology, annual meetings, etc. So, it can be transferred easily among persons or units.

Tacit Knowledge: Knowledge embedded in the experience and skills of the organisation’s members and is only revealed through its application. It cannot be codified or contained in manuals and can only be observed through its application.

Work-Team: A group of interdependent individuals who solve problems or complete tasks within an organizational context. Interdependence can be defined as the extent to which the individuals depend on one another or are supported by the others in carrying out their work.

Self-Managed Work Team: A group of employees with all the technical skills, as well as the authority, needed to direct and manage themselves. Their members manage themselves, assign jobs, plan and schedule work, make production -or service- related decisions, and take action on problems.

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