Knowledge Brokers in Overlapping Online Communities of Practice: The Role of the Connector-Leader

Knowledge Brokers in Overlapping Online Communities of Practice: The Role of the Connector-Leader

Jocelyn Cranefield (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) and Pak Yoong (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
Copyright: © 2010 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-958-8.ch006
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This chapter argues that leaders need to better understand the roles played by informal knowledge brokers in connecting overlapping online communities of practice (CoPs). It illustrates how distributed individuals playing a key knowledge broker role – the Connector-leader – helped to drive transformative professional change. The research context was a professional development programme for New Zealand schools that promoted a new, student-centric teaching approach. The research project explored how online CoPs facilitate professional knowledge transfer, focusing on how new knowledge is embedded in interpretive frameworks and practices. Connector-leaders spanned boundaries in the online community realm and had a strong online presence. As professional learners, they were strongly outward facing, identifying primarily as members of a distributed online CoP. As leaders, they were inward facing, focusing largely on the knowledge needs of local organisations and CoPs. This study extends previous research into the boundary spanner and knowledge broker, introduces new ideas about the nature of boundaries in CoPs, and promotes a system-level view of knowledge flows, emphasising the importance of both visible and invisible dimensions of online knowledge brokering.
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1.0 Introduction

When it comes to fostering innovation in a way that drives change, certain types of individuals have been found to play more significant roles than others. A key role is played by those people who introduce new knowledge in such a way that it becomes accessible to their peers and organisations, by translating, adapting, or converting it to work within the new organisational or community context. These people typically operate across the boundaries of organisations and/or communities, performing informal, but highly skilled and complex roles. They are known as knowledge brokers (Brown and Duguid, 1998; Davenport and Prusak, 1998; Harragon and Sutton, 1997; Wenger, 1998). In the twenty-first century, three significant trends can be seen as bringing the role of the knowledge broker into the spotlight, making it critical for managers to recognise and leverage the value of knowledge brokers.

The first of these trends is that the acquisition, cultivation and exploitation of knowledge is becoming increasingly valued, with flexible and relevant knowledge being viewed as a necessary foundation for innovation, agility, and success. This was once considered as primarily an organisational-level issue (Earl and Scott, 1998; Nonaka, 1998; Van Buren, 1999), but recognition of the strategic value of knowledge is also occurring at the level of nations; for example, as governments redesign their education systems to support the goals of economic transformation, innovation and sustainability. For example, in New Zealand (the setting for our research) the focus of education has been described as “…shifting from the transfer of specific knowledge to an emphasis on developing the skills to use and create new knowledge” (NZ Ministry of Education, 2008, p.5).

The second significant trend is that the internet, coupled with new web-based technologies and increasing bandwidth, is providing unprecedented opportunities for communicating beyond the former boundaries of the institution, enterprise and community. As a result, many organisations are placing an increased emphasis on the use of online communities of practice, designed to better connect people, share knowledge and create economies (Dubé, Bourhis et al., 2006).

The third trend of significance concerns the recent evolution of online communities of practice (online CoPs). Workers once typically belonged to exclusive, offline CoPs that spanned the boundaries of organisations (Lave and Wenger, 1991). More recently, so-called knowledge workers often belonged to closed, facilitated, platform-centric online CoPs. Today’s professionals, however, exist in a more open and complex online CoP system. They are more likely than ever to belong to multiple, overlapping CoPs, comprising both formal and informal, as well as online and offline dimensions. Today’s online CoP environment has been described by Castro (2004; 2006) as an online CoP ecology; a space comprising diverse, largely open overlapping communication spaces, within which individuals use a variety of online tools and resources. For example, the same individuals who contribute to online forums may be participating in less formal online settings, using blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 technologies.

In combination, these three trends can be seen as creating a new context for the knowledge broker: It is one in which the number of inter-community boundaries has multiplied and in which the ease with which individuals can traverse such boundaries is relatively high. At the same time, the level of organisational control over the online CoP environments within which their workers participate can be seen as diminished through the more open nature of the environment, and the increasingly distributed nature of content. This makes the role of the knowledge broker both more critical and more complex than ever before. In such an environment, it is important for leaders to understand the role of knowledge brokers, the nature of the work they perform, and how to manage and support them.

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