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: 10.4018/978-1-60960-783-8.ch514

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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).

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