The Impact of Communities of Practice

The Impact of Communities of Practice

Katja Zboralski (Berlin University of Technology, Germany) and Hans Georg. Gemunden (Berlin University of Technology, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-556-6.ch039
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In today’s knowledge-based and networking economy, an organization’s ability to acquire, develop, and strategically leverage knowledge has become a crucial factor for global competitiveness (Drucker, 1993; Kogut & Zander, 1992; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Consequently, a growing number of companies have introduced knowledge management systems into their organizations. The purpose of these efforts is to use the resource knowledge more effectively and efficiently and thereby gain strategic advantages (Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Probst, Raub & Romhardt, 1999). In this context, the concept of communities of practice (CoPs) has gained considerable attention as one of the central means of implementing knowledge management. For more than a decade, the term community of practice (CoP) has been the subject of various discussions in theory and practice alike. The origin of CoPs lay in Lave and Wenger’s (1991) seminal research toward a social theory of learning. By investigating learning in groups, the researchers called a community of practice an active system about which members share their understanding of what they do and which are united in action and in the meaning this action has. The increasing popularity of the concept in the scientific discourse and managerial practice brought about various interpretations of the term. Therefore, no universal definition of the term exists. The same applies for the name of this organizational phenomena. Nevertheless, while different organizations use different names, they share the underlying idea. Existing CoP definitions commonly stress the activities of these learning communities: to work together; exchange information, knowledge, and experiences, and thereby, learn and generate new knowledge and common practices (Lesser & Storck, 2001; McDermott, 1999; Stewart, 1996; Wenger, 1998a). CoPs were initially understood as self-emerging and self-organizing organic networks in which everyone can participate (Wenger, 1998b). Current practice, however, shows that organizations strategically support existing networks and deliberately establish communities with managed memberships (Storck & Hill, 2000). In the following, CoPs are defined as a group of people in an organization who interact with each other across organizational units or even across organization boundaries due to a common interest or field of application. Their objective is to learn and support one another in order to create, spread, retain, and use knowledge relevant to the organization.

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