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Communities of Practice: Going Virtual

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With the current trends towards downsizing, outsourcing and globalisation, modern organisations are reducing the numbers of people they employ. In addition, organisations now have to cope with the increasing internationalisation of business forcing collaboration and knowledge sharing across time and distance simultaneously. There is a need for new ways of thinking about how knowledge is shared in distributed groups. In this paper we explore a relatively new approach to knowledge sharing using Lave and Wenger's (1991) theory of Communities of Practice (CoPs). We investigate whether CoPs might translate to a geographically distributed international environment through a case study that explores the functioning of a CoP across national boundaries.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
Communities of Practice: going virtual
Chris Kimble Paul Hildreth and Peter Wright
Dept. of Computer Science
University of York
Heslington
York YO10 5DD
E-mail: [kimble pmh pcw]@cs.york.ac.uk
ABSTRACT
With the current trends towards downsizing, outsourcing and globalisation, modern
organisations are reducing the numbers of people they employ. When people leave
organisational knowledge is also lost. Organisations now have to cope with the
increasing internationalisation of business forcing collaboration and knowledge
sharing across time and distance simultaneously. In this paper we explore how
knowledge is created shared and sustained using Lave and Wengers (1991) theory of
Communities of Practice (CoPs). We investigate how CoPs might translate to a
geographically distributed international environment through a case study that
explores the functioning of a CoP across national boundaries.
Keywords: Communities of Practice; Globalisation; Distributed Working
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
INTRODUCTION
As globalisation affects business, many organisations have taken steps to outsource
and downsize in an effort to remain competitive (Davenport and Prusak 1998; ODell
and Jackson Grayson 1997). Both downsizing and outsourcing mean a reduction in
staffing levels and as people have left, companies have realised that a valuable stock
of knowledge has been lost. Increasingly, this knowledge is seen as central to the
success of organisations and an asset that must be managed.
Several views of knowledge have been explored in Knowledge Management (KM)
literature most of them in the form of opposites. For example tacit/explicit (Nonaka
1991; Nonaka and Konno 1998); tacit/focal (Sveiby
1
Conklin
2
); know-what/know-
how (Seely Brown and Duguid 1998) and cognitivist/constructionist (von Krogh
1998) and work in practice and domain knowledge (Sachs 1995). Leonard and
Sensiper (1998) however prefer to view knowledge as a continuum rather than a pair
of opposites. They regard the two extremes as being tacit knowledge that is
unconscious and held within peoples minds, and totally explicit which is codified and
structured. They observe that most knowledge will reside somewhere between the
extremes.
In this paper, we will differentiate between hardand softknowledge. Like
Leonard and Sensiper we do not view them as mutually exclusive opposites, however
we also do not view them as a continuum. We view hard and soft knowledge as being
two parts of a duality. That is all knowledge is to some degree both hard and soft.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
Harder knowledge is in more formalised and structured; it is knowledge that can be
articulated and captured. For example, it could be technical domain knowledge. Soft
knowledge on the other hand is more subtle; it is implicit and not so easily articulated
and therfore cannot be captured so readily.
There are at least two forms of soft knowledge that can be identified. The first is
socially constructed knowledge. In anthropology, socio-psychological and
sociological work knowledge tends to seen as a product of social activity. Bruner
(1990) argues that we should move away from the notion of the individual merely as a
processor of information. Instead we should move the emphasis to meaning and how
this is negotiated in a community, as individuals cannot exist independently of their
culture. Similarly, Hutchins (1995) in developing his theory of Distributed Cognition
also notes that looking for knowledge structures inside the individual fails to
recognise that the social cultural environment always affects human cognition. The
second form of soft knowledge might be termed internalised domain knowledge.
Examples of this kind of soft knowledge might be skill, expertise and experience
which has become second nature. Winograd and Flores (1986) describe such
knowledge as lost in the unfathomable depths of obviousness. It is this form of soft
knowledge that is of prime interest in this paper.
MANAGING HARD AND SOFT KNOWLEDGE
Much of the debate in KM centres on the validity of different view of knowledge:
knowledge as information (hard knowledge) or knowledge as embedded meaning and
culture (soft knowledge). Much of the KM literature still takes the view that
knowledge is hardand concentrates on the capture-codify-store cycle. In this sense,
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
KM does not seem to have moved on from what was previously termed Information
Management. For example the view of knowledge as being hardthat is codifiable
has led to attempts to extract knowledge from one group of 'experts' so that it can be
used by another less skilled group. The results of such systems however have been
disappointing (Roschelle 1996; Schmidt 1997; Davenport and Prusak 1998). Despite
its evident problems, the management of hardknowledge is now well established
and there are many tools and frameworks available for this form of KM.
The soft knowledge embedded in the day-to-day working practices of communities is
however much less amenable to a capture-codify-store approach. Sierhuis and
Clancey (1997) are explicit: they state that knowledge cannot be separated from the
people and the situation. Wenger (1998) too stresses that information stored in
explicit waysis only a small part of the picture and that knowing is primarily
something which comes about by participation in communities. Clearly, we need to
understand soft knowledge how it is created sustained and shared. The recent work of
Lave and Wenger (1991) provides a starting point. The process they suggest for this
is a Community of Practice.
COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
Lave and Wenger (1991) first introduced the concept of a Community of Practice in
1991. Although the examples given (non-drinking alcoholics, Goa tailors,
quartermasters, butchers and Yucatan midwives) were concerned with apprenticeship
the central concept is not restricted to this form of learning.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
Lave and Wenger (1991) described a Community of Practice as "a set of relations
among persons activity and world over time and in relation with other tangential and
overlapping CoPs" (p98). In such a community, a newcomer learns from old-timers
by being allowed to participate in certain tasks that relate to the practice of the
community. Over time the newcomer moves from peripheral to full participation.
They regard a Community of Practice as "an intrinsic condition for the existence of
knowledge" (p98). They do not see the learning that takes place in such communities
as narrow situated learning where instances of practice are simply replicated but as
Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).
LPP is both complex and composite. Lave and Wenger (1991) explain that the three
aspects, legitimation, peripherality and participation are indispensable in defining
each other: they can not be considered in isolation. Legitimation and participation
together define the characteristic ways of belonging to a community whereas
peripherality and participation are concerned with location and identity in the social
world. LPP is not merely learning situated in practice but learning as an integral part
of practice: learning as "generative social practice in the lived in world" (p35).
Although the composite character of LPP is important, it is useful as an analytical
convenience to consider the three components and their relationships separately.
Legitimation is the aspect that is concerned with power and authority relations in the
community. In the studies, legitimation is not necessarily formal. For quartermasters,
tailors and butchers there is some degree of formal legitimacy from hierarchy and
rank but for the midwives and alcoholics legitimacy is more informal.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
Peripherality is not a physical concept as in central and peripheral nor is it a simple
measure of the amount of knowledge that has been acquired. The terms peripheral
and full participation are used to denote the degree of engagement with and
participation in the community. Lave and Wenger (1991) note that peripherality
"must be connected to issues of legitimacy of the social organisation and control over
resources if it is to gain its full analytical potential" (p37).
For Lave and Wenger (1991), participation provides the key to understanding CoPs.
A CoP does not necessarily imply co-presence socially visible boundaries or a well-
defined or identifiable group. However, it does imply participation in an activity
where participants have a common understanding about what it is and what it means
for their lives and community. The community and the degree of participation in it
are inseparable from the practice.
Extensions to the Community of Practice Concept
Many companies are increasingly turning to international teams (Castells 1996;
Lipnack and Stamps 1997; West, Garrod and Carletta 1997) to improve their
effectiveness when operating in the modern distributed international environment.
Teams are regarded as an effective and flexible means of bringing both skills and
expertise to specific tasks and problems. Partly as a result of this the concept of a
CoP has been extended from Lave and Wenger's (1991) model to include a wider
range of definitions (Stewart 1996
3
; Orr 1990; Seely Brown and Duguid 1991, 1996).
Although the theme of learning was a prime driver for the concept of a CoP in its
initial form, it is the extended concept that is of interest in this paper.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
There have been several attempts to define CoPs in the commercial environment and
some attempts by consultancies to formalise them. Seely Brown and Solomon Grey
4
offered:
At the simplest level, they are a small group of people whove worked together
over a period of time. Not a team not a task force not necessarily an authorised or
identified group They are peers in the execution of real work. What holds them
together is a common sense of purposes and a real need to know what each other
knows
Seely Brown and Duguid (1991) applied Lave and Wengers (1991) ideas to an
ethnographic study previously undertaken by Orr (1990). In his work, Orr studied a
group of photocopier repair technicians from the perspective of their collective
memory. His explanation of how the technicians repaired the photocopiers was based
on their ability to share soft knowledge in a CoP by the telling of war stories. When
a technician could not complete a particularly difficult repair by simply following the
manual, he called his supervisor and the two worked together until the problem was
solved. They did this by telling 'war stories' about similar problems they had
encountered.
The process of story telling enabled them to exchange their soft knowledge and arrive
at a solution to the problem. Over time, this solution was passed around other
technicians and became part of the communitys stock of knowledge. They had not
only solved a problem but had also created new knowledge and contributed to the
development of the community. War stories serve to legitimate a newcomer as they
move from peripheral to fuller participation. The stories they tell and the stories in
which they feature are used to assess memberscompetencies.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
We can discern three methods of soft knowledge construction in such communities.
Firstly there is the gathering of domain knowledge (for example how to solve a
particularly tricky problem). Secondly, the construction of knowledge of work
practices specific to the community (for example knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of
an individual machine and how they are catered for). Finally, there is the knowledge
that the community constructs about the competencies of its members (for example
through the appraisal of their war stories).
These three methods could be regarded as being the softequivalent of the capture-
codify-store approach of hard knowledge management. In the CoP if a problem had
to be solved the members would gather the domain knowledge by interaction and
working together to solve the problem. On the other hand, hard knowledge would be
gathered a lot more easily because it is of the form that can be expressed and
articulated so it could be transmitted a lot more easily. It can then be codified – for
example into a database or an expertsystem. The soft knowledge in the CoP
however is not codified as such but it may become embedded in the practices of the
community. Finally, hard knowledge is stored for example in databases, books or
reports from where it can be retrieved easily. Soft knowledge can also become stored
in the community – in the relationships between the members as the members get to
know each other and develop confidence in each other.
Communities of Practice are central to the maintenance of soft knowledge but all the
studies in the literature (for example, Seely Brown and Duguid 1991; Lave and
Wenger 1991) describe co-located communities. The internationalisation of business
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
means that many organisations now function in a distributed international
environment. This raises the question: can CoPs continue to operate in such an
environment i.e. can a CoP be virtual? For example, could war stories be exchanged
over the Internet? Similarly, as LPP is central to Lave and Wengers (1991) notion of
a CoP, a major issue is how LPP would translate to a geographically distributed
environment. Learning undertaken with LPP is situated, as is some of the knowledge
created during problem solving. The reason for the situatedness will have some
bearing on how easy it is for a CoP to move into the geographically distributed
environment. If co-location is necessary simply because members share resources
such as a document then it should translate to the distributed environment relatively
easily. However, if the learning is situated because the face-to-face element is
essential for learning how the job is done then the distribution will have more impact.
Moving to a virtual environment also raises the question of whether it will be more
difficult to gain legitimacy in such a community but perhaps the most difficult area
will be the facilitation of participation. Participation is central to the evolution of a
community. It is essential for the creation of the relationships that help to build the
trust and identity that define a community. We will now investigate how CoPs
translate to a geographically distributed international environment through a case
study that explores the functioning of a CoP across national boundaries.
THE CASE STUDY
The case study is of the operation of the IT support management team in the research
arm of a major international company. The CoP consisted of two core groups: UKIT
and USIT. One core consisted of four co-located members in the UK: Bill (the UKIT
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
manager); Steve (manager of the Informatics team); David (manager of the network
team) and Michael (manager of the PC support team). They had equivalents in the
other core USIT in the USA. There was one member of the CoP in Japan. The CoP
as a whole adopted the unofficial title IITMan(International IT Management Team)
as their group identity.
The study concentrated on the UK core, which was identified as having a number of
features of a CoP:
A sense of common purpose;
an official group that evolved from a need but which is driven by the members
themselves;
a strong feeling of identity;
having its own terminology (group specific acronyms and nicknames).
Previous work (Hildreth, Wright and Kimble 1999) has shown that distributed CoPs
appear to evolve in a three-stage process:
1. The distributed CoP evolves from an initial informal contact between its members
or from an official grouping. It develops into a CoP because of the way the
members interact and work together.
2. A co-located CoP may develop links with individuals in other locations who are
doing similar work. These people may also be members of other CoPs.
3. The developing CoP may then link with a similar group possibly in another
country.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
This process is evident in the study where the UK core has developed links with the
US core to the point where the members of both consider themselves a Community of
Practice.
In order to explore the interaction, communication and collaboration within this CoP a
participant observation approach was used to get first hand observations. As part of a
long term study, a week was spent with the UK members observing their day to day
work and the interactions between the CoP members.
The data from the observations was analysed by creating five models to provide
different views of the data (see Beyer and Holtzblatt 1997 for further details). The
creation of an Affinity (Beyer and Holtzblatt 1997) allowed the identification of
themes and categories and the relationships between them. The analysis of the data
yielded several interesting insights into the workings of a distributed CoP.
Three days in the life of an international distributed Community of Practice.
Monday
Steve returns to his cubicle and updates his palmtop computer from his PC so that his
MS Exchange files are synchronised. His next job is to work on the planning
document. He has lists of objectives from the other members of the UK management
team and he wants to merge them into a common form to feed into the planning
document. He scans the documents, and spends 20 minutes correcting errors from the
Optical Character Recognition (OCR). David arrives and informs Steve that Bill and
Michael have not arrived yet for the next meeting. David and Steve discuss briefly
what Steve is doing with Davids objectives list, what David agrees with, and where
he would prefer it be handled differently. Their conversation then moves onto the
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
forthcoming e-meeting with their American peers, and how the planning document
will help them. David suggests using the same headings as a similar document
produced by the American group. They compare the two documents to see how they
can adapt theirs so that there is consistency. After this informal interruption, David
and Steve go to the meeting with Bill and Michael. The planning document is the
topic of this meeting and Steve hands out the updated version on which he has been
working. Bill wants to discuss the latest version that Steve has prepared and move
from that to how they can present it to their American colleagues. They take the
document as the starting point and discuss how to prioritise. From there, the
discussion moves to what the drivers for the projects are; then to whether the
emphasis should be on development or consolidation, and then to the Year 2000
problem, which is a major element of the planning document. The planning
document again becomes the focus of the discussion and this cycle continues - issues
arise and discussed; problems are flagged up, and discussions continue around the
document. They talk round the problems and arrive at solutions or plans of action,
always bringing their attention back to the document: the focal point of the meeting.
Michael is paged. He is due at an e-meeting with the overall manager of IITMan. He
leaves. David, Bill and Steve remain chatting informally for a few minutes and then
adjourn intending to continue the meeting the following morning. Steve returns to his
cubicle. With only fifteen minutes to go before leaving for home, Steve synchronises
his lap top with his PC. He then packs up to go home where he spends more time
melding the remaining objectives and documents into the single planning document.
Tuesday
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
The day starts with a continuation of yesterdays meeting. Bill summarises what was
said in order that they do not go over it again. Steve explains that he has done some
more melding and got the raw data in. He explains the structure that he is aiming for
which will make it easier to use in the meeting with the American group. They
continue the discussion about priorities and the Year 2000 problem and then work
their way down the document looking for immovables and externally imposed
deadlines, making notes on their individual copies of the document. As they work
their way through the document, it fires up discussion about different issues, technical
problems and issues of timing. The aim of the document at this stage is to be able to
use it in the forthcoming e-meeting with the American colleagues so that they can
show what they have done in trying to identify areas for collaboration. At the end of
the morning, they break for lunch. Steve will continue to work on the document
taking into account what was discussed in the meeting.
Wednesday
08.45. Bill arrives for the regular weekly meeting scheduled for nine oclock. He and
Steve chat about the planning document. Steve carried on working at home last night
and has the document as up to date as possible for this evenings e-meeting. He has
managed to keep it fairly consistent with a previous American document. Bill is
pleased with the result and feels that it is starting to take shape, making a suggestion
about the addition of a further column so it could be used as a communication tool.
Steve has also added an extra section, which meets with Bills approval. He feels that
it is already better than what they did the previous year.
The meeting gets under way. Bill recaps on the document, and what came out of it.
Before they get too far into discussing the document Steve raises a problem – Stewart
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
in his team will be away on holiday so they might have problems with the Exchange
server. How can they support it while Stewart is away? They conclude that although
they will not be doing any development, they will be able to work out how to support
it between them. If they are stuck, they can always call on their American colleagues
for advice. As a matter of course, Stewart keeps the American people informed.
While he is away, the UK people can keep an eye on it, and the American people can
keep a more distant eye on it.
The discussion moves on to the planning document. Bill now feels that it will make a
good communication tool but will not yet be adequate as an internal project tool.
Michael points out that the document has now lost detail of priority and who will do
what. Steve replies that it has not been lost there are sections for that but he has just
not had time to populate that area of the document. David asks what the significance
of the asterisks is. Steve replies that they are simply mistakes in the OCR reading and
he still has them to correct. They take the most pressing issue from the document -
the Year 2000 problem preparations. They had started discussing this yesterday and
carry on discussing the preparations in detail moving onto strategy. David outlines
the plans he has made for tackling the problem. One of his ideas is to create a dummy
infrastructure for testing. They could also collaborate with their American colleagues
on this. The discussion moves onto planning and timing. Referring to the planning
document Bill suggests a solution to how they might tackle the planning and timing
issues. They continue their discussion bringing it back to the document and trying a
different approach with the document. They finally decide to keep the Year 2000
problem as the single immovable and plan everything else around it. They move on
to comparing their planning document with the earlier document from America. The
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
meeting ends and Steve goes to adjust again the structure of the document that will be
used in the evenings e-meeting. They will emphasise that it is in a first draft stage.
4.00pm. The e-meeting is due to start. Bill is still setting up the equipment and, as he
does so, is chatting with the three people in California (Dan Linda Jim). Steve helps
set up NetMeeting. Michael helps set up the connections and checks with LA that
they can see what is on the smartboard. The equipment is almost ready. Steve is
working on NetMeeting and Michael is using a remote keyboard with the smartboard.
Now we get a picture of them on the smartboard. It is a small picture - not bad but
not wonderful. We see three people in the American meeting room. They wave.
They decide to move straight on to the planning document. Bill gives a bit of
background, but Dan interrupts almost immediately as he can see the scope for joint
projects. David starts going through the document, highlighting the parts which are
particularly interesting for him. As he goes through the items, they realise there is a
problem with encryption and US export regulations. Attention is turned to discussing
the problem; they find that LA can solve it. They continue working through the
document and come to the virus section. This triggers a debate. They discuss the
virus protection; decide to collaborate and work towards a common solution. Michael
hand writes this as an action item on the smartboard. They move on to the next item,
which is messaging. This is something where they are sending out different signals,
but they recognise it as an area where they would benefit from working together.
Michael writes this as an action item on the smartboard. They move to the next item,
but something Dan says moves LA off on a tangent. Dan raises another issue - a tool
has been launched by the organisation that might be able to help them. The UK
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
people had not heard of this, so he suggests that they go and look at some presentation
slides that are on the Intranet. He feels it might be an area where they could usefully
collaborate. Michael notes it as an action item. Bill is aware of the pressure of time
and pushes the discussion on. They move back to the planning document and
Michael starts going through his section. He reaches the part regarding the
organisations SpeedPushtechnology. This triggers questions from LA. Michael
goes through the rest of his section and then hands over to Bill who starts with the
auditsection. As they work through, they find other areas where they can
collaborate on joint action. When Bill has finished, Steve takes over. He reaches a
technical section on 16 bit obsolescence. This sparks a discussion, which leads to LA
deciding to do some joint work with people from UKIT so that they can leverage from
them. Michael again notes the action items. The UK team seems to be six months
ahead and they have the opportunity to work together to provide an IIT strategy. The
next item again sparks a debate, with several people trying to get in to say something.
LA has several concerns, but Michael points out that they are mistaken in their
understanding of how the technology under discussion works. Steve moves down
through his section of the document to multimedia publishing tools and raises a point
that has been causing a problem. Through discussion of the topic, they find that LA
has already has a solution to the problem. One more issue is flagged up which is
causing the Steves team a problem. Dan suggests that they have a local expert who
could perhaps help. They reach the end of the list and Dan asks if they can have a
copy of the planning document so they can track the revisions. Michael tries to send
it through NetMeeting – he explains the settings that LA have to change and he
transfers it into one of their directories. PA say they would prefer it to be e-mailed
round. They also decide to copy Chakaka (the Japanese member of the CoP) in on the
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
e-mail. They arrange the next meeting for three weeks later to start at 3.00pm UK
time and 7.00am Pacific Time. In the meantime, Dan would like to examine the
document more closely in order to see if they can integrate both the UK and American
planning documents into one document. He and Bill agree to get together
electronically before the main meeting to discuss this further. LA sign off. Bill,
Michael, Steve and David decide to book the room for an earlier time and set the
equipment up in advance next time. They lost twenty minutes of the meeting today
which represents a high proportion when they practically only have a two hour
window (from 4.00pm to 6.00pm) when they can expect to be in contact with their
American peers.
Findings
Shared Documents
The major point of interest to come out of the case study is the use of a shared artefact
for communicating and sharing soft knowledge within the community and across
national and cultural boundaries.
This happened in three ways: (1) the process of creating the document allowed the
members of the CoP to share their soft knowledge through interaction (2) some of the
individualssoft knowledge may be embedded in the document (3) when the
document was used to communicate with members of the US core it acted as a
catalyst to interaction, flagging up problems and issues for discussion, to which the
individuals then applied their soft knowledge.
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
During the week spent with the UK team, the sharing of documents proved a central
activity. One document was of particular interest: a planning document developed by
the UK core of the group. This particular document was of interest because it was
being created for one purpose but it was also used for other purposes. The shared
document was not essential to their work but it was more important than the group
had previously realised. The many roles of the document were interesting: in
particular its role in the creation and representation of knowledge.
The planning document represented the application of the soft knowledge both of the
management teams and of their vertical teams. Each manager had received input
from their team in the form of an e-mail or a formatted document. The individual
managers then merged the input and created a planning document of their own. These
planning documents were then brought to a management team meeting and discussed.
One of the team then merged them into a draft planning document. During the week
of the study, this draft document was the focus of three management team meetings
during which it went through two more iterations. It was also used by at least one
management team member to communicate with his team and drive a meeting.
The document was the subject of informal ad hoc discussion. Because of this, the
structure was deliberately altered to take into account the need to communicate with
the members in the US core. At the end of the week, there was a telephone
conference with some US members of the group
5
. The focus of this meeting was the
planning document that had been tailored for the purpose. During the meeting the
members worked their way through the document which acted as a catalyst (rather
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
than a vehicle) for the group members to apply both their domain and soft knowledge
for reflection for solving problems for discussion of issues and for planning.
A striking aspect of the document was its simulative quality. Not only did it stimulate
discussion of issues and the solving of problems but it also acted as a catalyst for
collaboration. The group used the document to highlight areas where they could
collaborate on projects where they could leverage from each other and where they
could get their teams to work together. After the week of the case study, the two
cores collaborated on the production of their two planning documents to provide a
coherent collaborative plan. The document has since reached the stage where it is
ready for consumption by other groups but it is part of an ongoing process of review
thus it is still central to the work of the group and has become a living ongoing
document.
Relationships confidence trust and identity - the extra half mile
The artefact in the form of the planning document was deliberately designed to
communicate effectively with the peers in the US crossing both the physical and
cultural boundaries. The UK core were able to do this partly by using an existing
document produced by UKIT, but also because they had already developed strong
relationships with their peers and felt that they knew them very well.
The relationships had been developed over time and in most cases were based on
having met the peers in a face to face environment. A lot of the communitys work is
undertaken within the UK and US cores but all the members meet physically on a six-
monthly basis. In between these meetings, they maintain communication via e-media
C. KIMBLE, P. HILDRETH & P. WRIGHT - Communities of Practice: Going Virtual, in Knowledge
Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
such as e-mail, voice mail, telephone, video link and Microsoft NetMeeting. The
group members felt that they were able to get a lot of work done during the face-to-
face meetings and that they developed relationships with their colleagues. They also
felt that during the periods of communication by e-media the momentum gradually
slowed until a physical meeting picked it up again. It has already been indicated in
the sectionExtending the CoP Conceptthat the development of relationships is
essential to a CoP and that participation is key to developing the relationships. It was
also indicated that participation might be a difficult aspect to maintain in a distributed
environment. The case of IITMan shows that they try to maintain their relationships
by the use of a range of e-media but that they also need to meet to refresh the
relationship. When they meet, they often find that they get through more work than is
otherwise possible.
There are some interesting implications of the importance of a face to face element in
a distributed CoP. The members felt they got to know each other better than they
could by e-media. Having a good personal relationship with the other members was
regarded as essential. A strong personal relationship was felt to be essential to carry
the community through the periods of e-media communication. The members gained
a greater feeling of unity and common purpose through knowing each other. One of
the respondents described it as you need the personal relationship if you are to go
the extra half mile for someone. It was also felt that a strong personal relationship
helped with issues of identity – the community members felt that they knew who they
were communicating with even if it was via e-mail. Because they felt that they knew
their partners so well, they were able to create the artefact that they wanted to share
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Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
with their peers more effectively. They also had confidence in what they were
receiving from them be it information, solutions to problems or simply opinions.
An essential point which arises from the study is that they do not consider CoPs to be
(initially at least) formally created. In a formal group, such as a project group team or
virtual team, legitimation comes from the groups formal structure. In a CoP,
legitimation comes from social relationships that develop. As members get to know
each other, they are better able to judge the information they receive from their
partners. This shows the human aspect of a CoP to be of major importance.
CONCLUSIONS
The literature has shown no reason why in theory a CoP might not be able to exist in a
distributed international environment. It has however also shown that there are some
aspects that might cause difficulty, for example, LPP in a distributed environment
could be problematic. The research outlined in this paper has shown that CoPs can be
maintained in the distributed environment although the CoP in the case study was not
totally distributed as it had co-located cores. The central problem that the case study
highlighted was that of sharing soft knowledge in this environment.
In the section on Extending the CoP Concept we saw that participation is central to
the evolution of a community and that it is essential to the creation of the relationships
that help to build trust. The case study of IITMan has supported this view for it
demonstrated the importance of relationship development and also showed that this is
easier through regular face to face interaction where participation is easier. A strong
relationship is important for the members of the community to go the extra half mile
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Management and Business Model Innovation, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey (USA)/London (UK),
Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
for each other. For all practical purposes, the relationship is made in a face to face
meeting: this enables the relationship to develop quicker and to go further.
Work by Li and Williams (1999) and Ishaya and Macaulay (1999) has also shown the
importance of face to face communication - even in the modern distributed
environment with a wide range of communications media. The findings of the case
study support this as they showed the continued importance of maintaining face-to-
face contact - it sustains subsequent e-communication but needs re-charging at
intervals. This re-charging of the relationship then contributes to further evolution of
the CoP as the relationship is grown further. As members of the CoP have increased
confidence and trust in each other, so they gain legitimation in each others eyes.
The most striking finding of the case study was the importance of a shared artefact to
the community and the range of uses to which it was put. It worked as a catalyst for
collaboration; it was the focus of meetings and discussions and thereby highlighted a
range of issues and problems; it was used for planning and co-ordination of work and
it was also used as a communication tool.
The importance of the shared artefact and the development of strong relationships
through participation strongly support more recent work by Wenger (1998) in which
he identifies participation as being the essential component of LPP. However, he
emphasises that participation is only one part of a duality, the other part being
reification. By reification, he means giving experience form by creating artefacts that
make the experience more concrete, for example, artefacts, books and stories.
Wenger (1998) emphasises that participation and reification are a duality and one can
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Forthcoming Fall, 2000. ISBN To be announced
therefore not exist without the other – there needs to be the correct balance between
the two so that each will counteract the others weaknesses. It is also important to
note that it is not the artefact per se which is important but the process involved in its
creation. This to is borne out by the case study, where the process of creating the
document and working with it is what was most beneficial to the CoP. They were
able to share knowledge by both participating in the process of creating it, and by
participating in the discussions and collaborations which resulted from it. Although
Wenger (1998) has modified the original concept of a CoP (Lave and Wenger 1991)
his examples are still in the co-located environment. The case study reported here has
explored the CoP concept in a distributed environment. Therefore, although the
primary aim of the planning document was to help with planning and co-ordination, it
was also intended that it would work as a communication tool with the US core. To
that end, it was designed to take into account that it would inevitably be crossing
boundaries.
In the case study there were different types of boundary which the artefact had to
cross – it passed between different groups (it was used to communicate with a vertical
team) it crossed the boundary between the cores and it had to cross cultural and
national boundaries. Star (1989) and Star and Griesemer (1989) developed the notion
of Boundary Objects to explain co-ordination work between communities. Boundary
Objects cross the boundaries between communities and retain their structure but are
interpreted differently. Boundary Objects show that although knowledge may be
embedded in artefacts it is not a simple matter of capturing the knowledge and passing
it on or of taking soft knowledge and making it hard: some abstraction takes place
and some of the soft knowledge is lost in the process. Artefacts still need to be
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interpreted that is some domain knowledge is still necessary to be able to use the
artefact and differing degrees of soft knowledge will enable to user to make different
inferences from the artefact. Wenger (1998) has also explored shared artefacts as
Boundary Objects as they crossed boundaries between communities.
In the case study as well as being translated across different groups and communities,
the artefact was also translated across different media. Input to the document came
from members of the vertical teams and was incorporated into separate documents
produced by three of the CoP members. These were then merged to form a first
version, which was discussed and adapted. The artefact also passed through e-mail
was worked on in different systems and was printed out for discussion that is it was
propagated across different states.
Although the shared artefact does not solve the problem of soft knowledge sharing by
taking soft knowledge and passing it on it has been shown that it can be of real benefit
play a variety of roles and be a catalyst in the sharing of soft knowledge even in the
distributed environment. The research of which this case study is a part has supported
Wengers (1998) notion of participation and reification by highlighting (a) the
importance and use of shared artefacts and (b) the importance of developing strong
relationships through participation. Importantly however it has moved CoPs forward
by exploring their operation in the distributed international environment and
demonstrating that Wengers (1998) notion of the reification/participation duality
could well provide a route forward.
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NOTES
1. Sveiby K. (no date). Tacit knowledge. Available
http://www2.eis.net.au/~karlerik/Polanyi.html [1997 February 18
th
]
2. Conklin E. J. (1996). Designing organizational memory: Preserving intellectual
assets in a knowledge economy. Available:
http:www.zilker.net/business/info/pubs/desom/body.htm [1997 March 27
th
]
3. Stewart T. A. (1996): The Invisible Key to Success. Fortune Online. Available:
http://pathfnder.com/@@V3AagAUAZyqOEYKS/fortune/magazine/1996.960805
/edg.html [October 4
th
1996]
4. Seely Brown J & Solomon Gray E (no date): The People are the Company. Fast
Company [Online] Available:
http://www.fastcompany.com/online/01/people.html [September 9th 1998]
5. This meeting also used a one way video link and NetMeeting.
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