Supporting Communities of Practice in the Electronic Commerce World

Supporting Communities of Practice in the Electronic Commerce World

Charlene A. Dykman (University of St. Thomas, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-556-6.ch084
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The phrase communities of practice has entered the lexicon of our world today. It implies some sense of closeness, intimacy, and connection with people bound together through mutual interest in something (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). As the pace of change is increasing and technology and information overload is becoming an issue, the time available to nurture relationships in the real world is becoming threatened (Baker & Ward, 2002). At the same time, our need for answers and quick access to solutions through the exchange of knowledge and experience is growing exponentially. Knowledge management, as a practice, focuses on making effective use of the intellectual capital that is found in the network of relationships connected to a business or organization (Bate & Robert, 2002). This is a perfect match for the business that is engaged in e-commerce to provide its stakeholders with opportunities to build relationships, to find answers and solutions, to exchange knowledge, and to gain a sense of community deriving from the relationships with the business. This article discusses the potential for small businesses to develop and nurture their virtual communities on the Internet. There is also discussion of the technical foundation needed to make this happen. A virtual community is “an electronic meeting place where a group of people gather to exchange ideas on a regular basis” (Powers, 1997, p. 52). Such communities “allow broad communities of interest (e.g., all stakeholders) to coalesce around specific products and services” (Nambisan, 2002, p. 392). A community of practice is not necessarily always a virtual community. But virtuality greatly increases the potential for development of such a community that can be of great benefit to all stakeholders in this relationship. A virtual community represents more than just the activities involved in e-commerce or shopping online. Visiting a site and seeking information about a product may be the “portal” into involvement in a virtual community supported by that e-commerce retailer. Buttons and links to chat rooms, to Internet groups, and/or to similar retailers selling similar products are all part of the experience. Viewing the relationship with the business as the gateway to other relationships allows one to visualize the vast potential for community building through that gateway. If the business understands the potential benefits of providing this community building service, they will recognize the importance of sound technical infrastructure to support the efforts. A well-designed technical infrastructure provides a strong foundation to ensure flexibility, scalability, and adaptability to meet the changing user requirements of a virtual community and address inherent economic fluctuations in the marketplace. Managing the IS resources, including hardware, software, data, procedures, and support personnel, is a difficult task in a virtual community because they are subject to over and underutilization based on market changes that are difficult to predict and control. In his book, How to Program a Virtual Community, Powers (1997) defined five building blocks for a virtual community: inhabitants, places to see, things to do, a government, and an economy. Online members are inhabitants; often called avatars (or embodiments). A virtual community may have different places, locations, spaces, rooms, chat rooms, or even theme parks for its online members to visit. A community may also have different objects, props, and activities for online members, encouraging interaction among members who may be present at the same time.

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