The Roles of Peripheral Participants and Brokers: Within and Beyond Communities of Practices

The Roles of Peripheral Participants and Brokers: Within and Beyond Communities of Practices

François Grima (Université Paris 12 & Reims Management School, France) and Emmanuel Josserand (University of Geneva, Switzerland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-802-4.ch017
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The objective of our chapter is to gain a better understanding of learning trajectories connecting external and internal communities of practices. To do so we studied four internal communities of practice by actors belonging to a same external community. We realized semi-directive interviews in these communities supplemented by direct observation of meetings. Our results give a new perspective on participation to communities of practice. We describe how young members act as boundary spanners between the communities and the practice in their organization while more senior members act as unique facilitators with a balance between boundary spanning and buffering. We describe in detail the personal characteristics of these senior members.
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The image of a self-interested strategist gatekeeper is hard to reconcile with that of the community of practice, an open knowledge exchange space that can exist only as a 'neutral place' where members are supposed to be driven by passion rather than individualism. If we add to that the ambition of articulating internal and external knowledge exchange spaces, we must underline the difficulties that are to be expected.

Nonetheless, the empirical evidence we collected in our four case studies explores situations where the gatekeeper plays the role of boundary spanner between an internal and an external community of practice, thus creating especially rich learning trajectories that cut across internal and external boundaries of the organizations studied. Hence, these are case studies where boundary spanners, instead of using their privileged power situation to play with the creation or disappearance of practices in order to serve their own purposes, help members of the organization to craft and experiment their own practices while feeding the process from what they learnt in external communities of practice.

The objective of our chapter is to gain a better understanding of learning trajectories connecting external and external communities of practices. This involves understanding the conditions under which communities of practice brokers acts as boundary spanner rather than as gatekeeper and also to gain insight into the role played by other members of the communities of practice. In turn we will contribute to a better understanding of participation and answer to the call of Handley et al (2006:642) to better understand “what happens within and beyond” communities of practice.

Background: Learning Trajectories Within and Between Communities of Practice

Communities of practice can be defined 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 this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.” (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002:p4). This consensual definition clearly illustrates that their capacity to enhance learning is one of the key features of communities of practice. It is also an explanation of the success of the concept. Still, we argue here that many aspects of the learning trajectories within and between communities of practice still need to be revealed. This is especially the case of cross boundary learning trajectories. Despite the fact that organizations have been presented as constellations of practices (Wenger, 1998), we know very little about the connections between communities of practices (Handley et al, 2006) both within and between organizations. We will explore in this chapter three main aspects of communities of practice connected with the question of cross organizational learning trajectories: that of learning trajectories per se, that of the role played by peripheral participation and by key connecting actors within these trajectories.

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