Supporting Facilitators in Communities of Practice via Design and Technology

Supporting Facilitators in Communities of Practice via Design and Technology

Halbana Tarmizi (University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA), Gert-Jan de Vreede (University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA) and Ilze Zigurs (University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-110-0.ch006
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Organizations have the potential to achieve advantage through communities of practice (COPs) initiatives. However, establishing and sustaining COPs is a challenging task. Facilitation is needed to help COPs overcome difficulties throughout their life stages. Facilitators take on leadership roles within these virtual communities, yet little is known about the challenges related to their roles. This paper contributes in helping to improve leadership in COP by highlighting challenges in facilitating COP and by providing potential solutions addressing those challenges. A recent survey of facilitators reveals challenges faced by facilitators in performing their tasks within COPs. The issue of participation was identified as the main concern in COP facilitation. Several design and technology initiatives are discussed for their potential to help facilitators in coping with the participation issue and providing essential leadership roles within communities of practice.
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Communities of practice (COPs) have become an important part of an organization and are increasingly recognized as valuable organizational assets (2001). COPs have been identified as playing a critical role in the promotion of learning and innovation in contemporary organizations (Swan, Scarbrough, & Robertson, 2002). However, establishing and sustaining COPs in organizations is a challenging endeavor and COPs are likely to face various challenges and/or difficulties throughout their life-cycle (Tarmizi & de Vreede, 2005).

Design and technology are two factors that are important for a community. Community design affects how people can interact, the information they receive about one another and the community, and how they can participate in community activities (Ren, Kraut, & Kiesler, 2007). Technology, on the other hand, is the one that makes COP possible as it connects people from different locations and different time zones. At the same time, we believe that the introduction of a facilitator could help in promoting a sustainable COP, since a facilitator can play a crucial role in addressing the challenges of establishing and nurturing a COP (Fontaine, 2001; Kimball & Ladd, 2004). In general, facilitation can be defined as “making things easier by using a range of skills and methods to bring the best out in people as they work to achieve results in interactive events” (Townsend & Donovan, 1999, p. 2). The facilitator role entails a wide variety of behaviors, including leadership behaviors (Schuman, 2005; R. Schwarz, Davidson, Carlson, & McKinney, 2005).

Leadership in communities of practice could be involved in various activities including facilitation and coordination (Stuckey & Smith, 2004). The concept of leadership has been viewed in many ways over its history, including in terms of leader characteristics or traits, leader behaviors, typologies, sources of power or influence, and situational contingencies (Bass, 1990). In virtual environments, leadership is an especially interesting phenomenon because of the distributed nature of the context in which leadership must be exercised (Avolio, Kahai, & Dodge, 2001). Traditional forms of exercising leadership are changed in virtual environments, where the usual face-to-face influence is not possible. Thus, it may be that COP members look to a facilitator to exercise leadership to a greater extent than in other kinds of virtual entities because COPs typically do not have an assigned leader.

Although the concept of facilitation has been acknowledged to be applicable to communities of practice (Johnson, 2001, p. 49), the role of the facilitator in COPs is still under-researched, in contrast to research on facilitation in other fields (Tarmizi, de Vreede, & Zigurs, 2006). Facilitation has been extensively studied and documented in the field of Group Support Systems (GSS) (Clawson & Bostrom, 1996; de Vreede, Boonstra, & Niederman, 2002; Dickson, Limayem, J., & DeSanctis, 1996; Griffith, Fuller, & Northcraft, 1998; Niederman, Beise, & Beranek, 1993; Romano, Nunamaker, Briggs, & Mittleman, 1999). COPs could draw benefit from those extensive studies, although there are differences in the nature of COPs and GSSs that should be taken into consideration. Based on the GSS literature, Tarmizi and de Vreede (2005) proposed a facilitation task taxonomy for COPs. This taxonomy took into consideration key differences between facilitation in COP environments and in GSS-supported meetings. Furthermore, the taxonomy included several tasks that reflect leader behaviors within groups, e.g., providing information, encouraging group members, keeping the group focused, and managing conflict.

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