RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
IN HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

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Raub, S. (2002). Communities of Practice: A New Challenge for Human Resources Management, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 10(2), 16-35.

Communities of Practice: A New Challenge for Human Resources Management

Steffen Raub

Abstract

None.

Introduction

Today’s business environment is essentially knowledge based. While this may seem commonplace, it will be argued in this paper that human resource professionals may be surprised about the degree to which knowledge management affects their daily business and, vice versa, the degree to which HRM can play a substantial role in implementing and supporting knowledge management initiatives. The link between HRM and knowledge management becomes particularly obvious in the context of communities of practice – one of the most recently discovered and potentially most promising territories of knowledge management.

While management researchers and practitioners alike are quick to acknowledge the importance of knowledge as an organisational resource and a (potential) source of competitive advantage, many may yet have to discover how diverse the challenges of a knowledge-based economy really are. The point can be made that its full scope and the number of different ways in which it will affect business as we know it, are likely to be underestimated. For instance, executives are operating in an environment of increasing information overload (Arthur Andersen, 1996; Reuters, 1996) which requires them to deal with a paradox. On the one hand, most recognise that they need massive amounts of information to do their jobs. At the same time, they complain about the difficulty of finding the proverbial needle in the ever-increasing haystack. The phenomenon of information overload has been a starting point for a number of early knowledge management initiatives. These focused on creating ‘transparency’, for instance, by identifying experts and entering relevant contact information into ‘corporate yellow pages’.

A comprehensive understanding of knowledge management, however, goes far beyond the information-based effects of technocratic approaches (North et al., 2000). An excessive focus on information technology has been exposed as running counter to the true intentions of knowledge management (McDermott, 1999a). Viewed from a more holistic perspective, knowledge management involves all processes that contribute to improving the knowledge base of an organisation. These include the definition of knowledge goals, the upgrading of the knowledge base through the acquisition or development of new knowledge, the sharing and use of existing knowledge and the evaluation of knowledge (Probst et al., 2000). The strategic implications of effective knowledge management range from the protection of an existing competitive advantage, to the creation of entirely new knowledge-based business models (Boynton & Marchand, 1999). In any case, it implies continuous change and learning for the organisation (Garvin, 2000) as well as lifelong learning for the individual (Read, 2001).

It has been argued at the outset of this paper that HRM should play a predominant role in knowledge management initiatives and that there could be an enormous yet undiscovered potential in a close integration of human resource activities and communities of practice. In order to substantiate this claim, this paper will follow a step-by-step approach. The first section defines communities of practice and provides some examples of communities in action. The following section will be used to illustrate what specific contributions communities of practice can make to an organisation, as seen from an HR perspective. The third section presents a model of community of practice evolution. Finally, the fourth section attempts to shed light on what HRM can do to support the successful evolution of communities of practice.

What are Communities of Practice?

The state of knowledge on knowledge management has evolved considerably over the past 20 years (Raub & Rüling, 2001). In the course of this evolution, processes of knowledge sharing have been brought to the fore as a key lever for the effective management of organisational knowledge. The notion of ‘practice’ plays an important role in this context, as witnessed by the substantial literature on the transfer of ‘best practices’ (Szulanski, 1996) or ‘strategic organisational practices’ (Kostova, 1999).

The concept of the transfer of organisational practices can be described by a number of distinctive characteristics. Practices are seen as a combination of individual skills and organisational routines (Winter, 1995), which are routinely used in a part of the organisation. In addition, “best” practice implies that the superiority of a given practice as compared to alternatives within or outside the organisation is confirmed. A transfer of a practice is seen as “a dyadic exchange of organisational knowledge between a source and a recipient unit” (Szulanski, 1996, p. 28). (Top) management typically mandates this exchange and the transfer process be monitored by a “transfer coalition” (Kostova, 1999, p. 317), composed of key managers of the source and the recipient unit. The focus of a practice transfer is on the “exact or partial replication of a web of coordinating relationships connecting specific resources” (Szulanski, 1996, p.28), i.e. on the reconstruction of existing knowledge in a new context. The “Institutionalisation” of the old practice in the new context may be used as a criterion for the success of the practice transfer (Kostova, 1999). The creation of new knowledge is typically not a part of the process.

The characteristics of the traditional concept of practice transfer pose a number of problems. Effective transfer of (best) practices requires transparency about what level of performance is to be considered a best practice and where this practice resides in the organisation, two conditions which in most organisations are at best partially fulfilled. Decision-making by a “transfer coalition” involves people who may be insufficiently informed about the practice and imperfectly motivated to support the transfer. The very concept of “best” practice focuses on the here and now, on existing and identifiable knowledge, thereby ignoring the potential for the creation of new and better knowledge that is inherent in every exchange between specialists from different parts of an organisation. Finally, best practice transfer focuses on the direct, measurable benefit of performance differentials. Abstraction is made from the impact of the exchange process on the motivation of participants and the potential benefits for the attraction and retention of human resources.

The emerging notion of “communities of practice” addresses most of the shortcomings outlined above. Communities of practice have been described as “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise” (Nenger & Snyder, 2000, p. 139). The concept of communities of practice takes its roots in theories of “situated learning”. Situated learning proposes a new perspective on the relationship between practice and learning. Rather than viewing “practice” as a simple, replicate element of a learning process (such as practising a golf swing, for instance) it is understood as an ongoing social process of which learning, in turn, is an important element (Lave, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991). When seen from this viewpoint, learning happens through “legitimate peripheral participation” in a community of practice, with the ultimate goal of moving towards “full participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 37). Thus, learning is not restricted to a context of teaching but happens as a continuous and integral element of social practice.

The parallels to learning in organisations are obvious. The exchange of best practices, i.e. a pure “teaching” process, is one element in the wide range of activities that communities of practice undertake. There are significant differences however, between traditional practice transfer and transfer processes in communities of practice (see Table 1 below). Moreover, effective communities of practice provide benefits that reach beyond the mere exchange of knowledge.

Table 1
Key characteristics of practice transfers vs. communities of practice
Transfer Of Best Practice Communities Of Practice
Nature Of Practice
  • practice identified
  • relative effectiveness of practice confirmed
  • in transparent set of practices
  • relative effectiveness unconfirmed
Impetus For Transfer
  • mandated
  • spontaneous
Responsibility
  • “transfer coalition” member
  • every community
Participants
  • dyadic relationship
  • multiple participants
Direction Of Transfer
  • source-recipient
  • multi-directional
Success criteria
  • replication
  • “full participation” in a practice
  • institutionalisation
  • satisfaction of community members
Focus
  • transfer of existing knowledge
  • creation of new knowledge
  • transfer of existing knowledge

A number of important characteristics distinguish working mechanisms and potential benefits of communities of practice from more traditional forms of knowledge sharing in organisations. First, while best practice transfer is mandated, communities of practice emerge in a spontaneous way. Learning and transfer of knowledge is a natural by product of work and mutual support within a community of practice (Lave, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991). Second, while best practice transfer is a unidirectional process from a source unit to a recipient unit (Szulanski, 1996) knowledge exchange in communities of practice is characterised by its multidirectionality. Within a community of practice each member and each unit can, in principle, learn from all the others. Third, while the participants in a best practice transfer are designated, membership in a community of practice is based on the principles of self-selection and mutual accountability. Fourth, while best practice transfer focuses on the replication of an existing practice, communities of practice concentrate as much on problem solving and the creation of new knowledge as on the transfer of existing knowledge. For instance, communities of practice may become involved in strategy formulation and new business development (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Finally, while best practice transfer is exclusively focused on considerations of organisational effectiveness, communities of practice put equal weight on the development of the professional skills of their members (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Table 1 summarises the differences between a conventional approach to the transfer of best practice and the concept of communities of practice.

Some examples of communities of practice in action may serve to illustrate, their most appropriate contexts and the benefits. DaimlerChrysler has been at the forefront of the community of practice movement and prides itself on possessing ‘the industry’s best practice model for building and sharing dynamic knowledge” (DaimlerChrysler, 1999). This claim refers to the so-called ‘Tech Clubs’ developed at Chrysler as a response to challenges that arose from the company’s car platform structure. Car platforms represent a cross-functional structure focused on different types of cars (for instance, small cars, trucks, minivans etc.) with the goal of reducing product development cycle time and R&D cost. While car platforms yielded significant benefits, they also created problems - lack of coordination in supplier relationships; multiple versions of essentially identical parts; communication gaps; lessons learned that did not travel from one platform to another; and individual expertise that quit the company. In a move to counter these threats, Chrysler came up with the Tech Club concept.

Tech Clubs are communities of practice that are organised along major disciplines in the product development process (e.g. body, chassis, power train, energy management.). Tech Clubs promote the sharing of lessons learned across different car platforms. Insights gained during Tech Club meetings are condensed and documented in so-called “Engineering Books of Knowledge” (EBoK) Subdivided in different chapters, for which individual Tech Club members take responsibility and available in electronic form, EBoKs represent the state-of-the-art of DaimlerChrysler’s knowledge on specific engineering issues. According to those responsible for communities of practice at DairnlerChrysler, attendance at Tech Club meetings is high because employees see value in the community activity for their own job.

Holcim, one of the world’s leading cement producers headquartered in Switzerland, has also been experimenting with the community of practice concept. At Holcim the first communities developed out of the problem of sharing experience in the area of plant maintenance. Individual plants developed a shared vocabulary and derived key performance indicators for creating a more cost effective maintenance process. Sharing of these experiences has become the concern of the maintenance community (MAC) which continues to improve knowledge and documents its progress on a dedicated MAC website.

Another example of a successful community of practice is the so-called Polysius team. A number of Holcim plants, which had installed Polysius roller mills, experienced problems with the equipment. The Polysius community shares insights into how to solve this problem across a variety of countries as diverse as Argentina, South Africa, Lebanon and the U.S. The encouraging results of these communities has led Holcim Group Support (HGRS) to develop detailed manuals on how to develop and support communities of practice. Today, this approach forms a cornerstone of knowledge management at Holcim (Büchel & Probst, 2000).

Both examples illustrate that communities of practice have an impact on individual community members and the organisation as a whole. At organisational level the benefits of communities are to be expected primarily in the area of knowledge transfer. The identification and seamless transfer of best practices are mentioned as major benefits in most studies on communities of practice (e.g. McDermott, 1999b; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). An additional benefit at organisational level that goes beyond the transfer of existing knowledge is linked to the innovation drive that communities of practice may generate. As McDermott (1999a) has pointed out, new knowledge is created at the boundaries of the old. Given the fact that communities of practice are composed of organisation members who share a strong interest in a particular topic and frequently work at the cutting edge of current knowledge, a frequent by-product of their interaction is the creation of entirely new knowledge. This may take the shape of a new solution to an existing problem, a new technology, a new product or an entirely new business. Consequently, communities of practice are at least indirectly expected to contribute to the competitive advantage and growth of the organisation.

The spontaneous and informal aspect of communities of practice highlights the importance of the individual level outcomes they generate. Organisation members decide to participate in a community because they see it in their individual interest to do so. Individual outcomes may reside at a number of different levels. First and foremost, the thrill of participating in an exchange of ideas with like-minded colleagues who share a common interest and common skills may be seen as a major boost to organisation members’ motivation and satisfaction at work. The feeling of belonging to a group, and the particular value of recognition by peers who are perceived as competent judges of one’s own ideas, and performance may come to reinforce this benefit.

In a more utilitarian sense, organisation members are likely to derive a variety of work related benefits from community membership. The possibility of honing existing skills and developing new ones through participation in community activities is an obvious plus tor individual performance and may improve the likelihood of rapid career advancement. An additional benefit of communities of practice resides in their function as a “shop window” for talented employees. Thus, community membership not only contributes to the development of an organisation member’s skill portfolio, but may also facilitate the showcasing of individual performance towards a relevant audience.

What can Communities of Practice do for HRM?

Communities of practice have been met with very high expectations. This may partly be due to the rather immodest style in which the concept has been promoted. Communities of practice have been hailed as a way of “reinventing” companies and their alleged benefits span anything from strategy development, corporate growth through innovation and creativity, to better knowledge management (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). While some of these benefits are likely to remain elusive, communities of practice can indeed provide very real contributions at the level of human resource management. Moreover, a link between HRM and communities of practice is likely to be mutually beneficial. The task of human resource managers may be facilitated by the activities of communities of practice, while at the same time human resource professionals may be able to play an important role for the development of new communities.

The links between HRM and communities of practice are manifold. Potential benefits of communities of practice can be identified in most major HRM functions - internal and external staffing, evaluation and compensation and, finally, training and development.

The first contribution is to be found in the context of internal and external staffing. Communities of practice operate on the principle of self-selection. They attract participants in two different ways - members who feel competent and interested in a particular area may decide to join a community spontaneously, or existing members of a community purposefully recruit others who are perceived as having meaningful contributions to make to the community. The result is a high concentration of expertise around a particular topic.

While the community may have very specific goals, a useful by product for HRM is that community membership increases transparency about individual expertise. This information may be extremely useful when internal staffing needs arise. It provides a precious supplement to information obtained through performance evaluations or via the superior. Community information is particularly useful when it concerns expertise that may never or only rarely be called upon in the daily work environment of a community member.

Communities of practice support staffing in two directions. Human resource managers can search communities of practice for appropriate candidates when a job opening occurs. Community media may also be used for precisely targeted job posting. Moreover, community membership is very much akin to an “indirect” job bidding process. Being a member of a community has a dual effect - it signals interest and expertise in a particular topic. Thus, community membership may be used as a tool for building ‘the brand called you’ (Peters, 1997). The combined effect of both processes is that internal transparency is increased and the supply and demand for internal staffing are more likely to meet.

Beyond the internal staffing aspect, communities of practice can contribute to recruiting from external sources. Some communities of practice reach beyond the boundaries of a single organisation to include for instance, experts from research institutions or professional associations. Tapping these sources may not only generate substantial contributions to the communities but can also be exploited for detailed leads to potential recruits (Probst et al., 2000).

A second major contribution of communities of practice lies in the area of performance evaluation and compensation. Community members share an interest in a given topic and often display similar types of expertise. Thus, they are in an exceptionally good position to judge the quality of professional contributions made by their peers. Their judgment should certainly not replace traditional forms of performance evaluation, however, it may contribute an important piece to the evaluation mosaic in the spirit of a 360° philosophy.

The link to compensation is equally obvious. More and more organisations resort to knowledge sharing activities as an important component of compensation. Rewards for knowledge sharing may be obtained as an immediate result – for instance, participants in Siemens’ ShareNet platform receive “ShareNet shares” akin to frequent flyer miles which can be redeemed for attractive prices (Gibbert et al., 2000). Compensation may also be obtained through periodic performance evaluation. An increasing number of companies, with large consultancies at the forefront, determine up to a third of total compensation based on an employee’s performance in knowledge sharing activities (e.g. Hansen et al., 1999, p. 113).

Potentially the most obvious contribution of communities of practice is to be found in the area of training and development. Indeed, individual skill development is one of the defining elements of a community of practice. Skill development within communities overcomes the traditional separation of learning and work. Learning in communities occurs in the form of “legitimate peripheral participation”. Thus, it is a by-product of discussion, problem-solving and knowledge generation, which form the core of a community.

Once more, community based training should be seen as a complement to, not a replacement for, traditional training activities. Its benefits, however, are obvious. The attitude and intrinsic motivation of community members is likely to produce an extremely conducive atmosphere for learning. Learning from other experts in the domain involves contents and problems at the cutting edge of current developments while at the same time being extremely business-focused. The flexibility of communities of practice means that almost every training need can be catered to and even organisation members with peripheral areas of interest can find a forum for discussion and personal development. Finally, learning in communities liberates training resources that can be brought to bear on other target groups and on more fundamental issues.

Table 2
Benefits of communities of practice for HRM
HRM Function Potential Contributions From Communities Of Practice
Internal Staffing
  • Improved transparency
  • Communities as a lalent pool
External Staffing
  • More attractive work environment
  • Leads for targeted recruitment
Evaluation
  • Peer evaluation by community members
  • Complementary information for 36O approach
Compensation
  • Direct rewards
  • Community membership as evaluation criterion
Training and Development
  • Individual skill development
  • Overcoming the separation work-learning
  • Longer retention of qualified employees

In a larger context, communities of practice create more interesting work environments. While this has a direct impact on the motivation and satisfaction of employees, it is also becoming an increasingly important argument for the recruitment of new employees and the retention of existing ones. Communities of practice may even turn out to be the ultimate weapon in the ever-fiercer competition for talented employees (Economist, 2000; Fortune, 2000). Table 2 summarises the benefits of communities of practice for HRM.

How do Communities of Practice Develop?

Most of the existing work on communities of practice claims to be targeted towards a managerial clientele. It praises the benefits of a community environment for its self-selected members – measured mainly in terms of motivation, identification with the work environment and the development of individual skills. It also very frequently elaborates on the contributions of communities of practice at the organisational level – including strategy and business development as well as knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. Despite the apparently abundant evidence of these benefits, one finds only scant reference to the initial conditions and processes likely to promote the successful development. This section will attempt to provide a comprehensive framework of community of practice development.

Important variables that have an impact on the success of communities of practice can be derived from a variety of sources, including the fields of strategic management (e.g. research focusing on knowledge management and knowledge flows in organisations) and organisational behaviour (e.g. research on team dynamics and dispersed collaboration). The framework of community of practice success outlined below (and summarised in Figure 1) posits that the success of communities of practice depends on a set of structural characteristics and evolutionary processes.

Structural characteristics that are hypothesised to play a role in the development of communities of practice include the perceived need for knowledge sharing the organisational context for knowledge sharing as well as the specific infrastructure for knowledge sharing. Key processes in the development of communities of practice include establishing links, building trust and engaging in ongoing exchange of knowledge. In the following paragraphs each of these concepts will be illustrated in more detail, starting with the processes of community development and then moving backwards to the structural characteristics that are likely to facilitate community development.

Figure 1
Key variables in the evolution of communities of practice
Key variables in the evolution of communities of practice

Processes of Community Development

The processes that contribute to the development of communities of practice in organisations are the most neglected topic in current research. It is suggested that community evolution can be conceptualised in terms of three successive stages. The first stage involves establishing links between potential members of a community. The second stage focuses on the crucial issue of building trust amongst community members. The third stage results in an ongoing exchange of knowledge in the context of the community.

Establishing Links

A necessary first stage in the evolution of a community of practice is the establishment of links between its potential members. Szulanski (1994) has compared this process to the “formation of a seed”. Creating the required transparency about where people with a certain expertise can be found in the organisation is not always a trivial task and its complexity rises exponentially with size. When it comes to establishing links, alternative knowledge management tools such as, for instance, so called “corporate yellow pages”, which list organisation members by their area of expertise, may actually facilitate the emergence of communities of practice. As a result of this first stage, potential members of a community of practice know of each other’s existence and they should be able to make a rough assessment of the possible benefits of forming a community, as well as of the likelihood of achieving a critical mass of community members.

Building Trust

The quintessential importance of trust for knowledge sharing is stressed in most contributions on the topic (e.g. Szulanski, 1996; McDermott, 1999a; Probst et al., 2000). Several characteristics of communities of practice make trust a particularly important ingredient. Community membership is based on self-selection; therefore accepting the contributions and suggestions of other community members requires a minimum of trust regarding their expertise. Conversely, given the similarities in their interests and skills, community members may find themselves in competitive situations outside the community. Thus, providing one’s own expertise to others requires trust as to their fairness in using this knowledge. The old adage according to which ‘knowledge is power’ certainly plays a role in this context.

Communication and media use are the most prominent levers for overcoming low levels of trust in early stages of community evolution. Successful communities typically evolve on the base of an early face-to-face meeting of potential community members. Once individual members get acquainted, subsequent communication and engagement in community activity are facilitated (McDermott, 1999b). The fact that trust is not to be taken for granted is illustrated by the fact that successful communities like to use a variety of media in their interactions. Communities at Holcim, for instance, rely on face-to-face meetings, discussion forums, Internet based libraries and databases as well as email and chat groups. At least some of these media should provide a sufficient degree of “richness”, i.e. the ability to provide (rapid) feedback and to communicate across multiple channels (Daft & Lengel, 1986).

Engaging in Ongoing Exchange

The true test for a community of practice is the ability to nurture an ongoing exchange amongst its members. Trust is one key prerequisite for achieving this. The second major difficulty of the “dispersed collaboration” that is often characteristic for communities, resides in the necessity to sensitise community members for the importance of context. Knowledge that is to be exchanged through a community of practice can hardly be understood in a de-contextualised way. It has been developed in a particular context and its application in another requires understanding of the differences between the “sending” and the “receiving context” (e.g. Szulanski, 1996; McDermott, 1999b). Cramton (2001) has framed this problem in terms of “mutual knowledge”. Mutual knowledge can be characterised as shared experiences, or close mutual understanding of the respective contexts of the individuals engaged in communication. When mutual knowledge is missing, communication partners tend to attribute each other’s actions to disposition rather than to the constraints of the situation and this dispositional attribution can create serious impediments for learning (Cramton, 2001).

Based on their study of global virtual teams, Maznevski and Chudoba (2000) proposed three rules for maintaining effective team dynamics, which can also be applied to the context of communities of practice. First, the richness of communication technologies used should be adapted to the complexity of the task. Second, a higher level of task interdependence should translate into the use of richer media and a higher frequency of interaction. And third, face-to-face interaction and other rich media should follow a regular rhythm, which helps to structure expectations.

Structural Characteristics

The ability to successfully build communities of practice that produce the expected individual and organisational outcomes will depend on a number of structural characteristics of the organisation - the need for knowledge sharing as perceived by members of the organisation, the organisational context for knowledge sharing and the infrastructure aspect of knowledge sharing.

Perceived need for Knowledge Sharing

Organisations and individuals are unlikely to invest resources and energy into the development of communities of practice without an overall perceived need of knowledge sharing. How strong this need is may depend on a variety of factors. Industry environment is supposed to play a major role as different industries differ in the degree to which they are inherently “knowledge-intensive” (Journal of Management Studies, 1993). Professional services firms are a case in point. Their competitive position depends to a large extent on the ability to leverage skills and knowledge from different parts of the organisation. Not surprisingly, many firms in this industry have been at the forefront of knowledge sharing. The need for knowledge sharing is also linked to the dominant type of knowledge to be transferred. Firms that depend in their competitive strength to a large degree on (hard to transfer) tacit knowledge are likely to feel a more acute need to develop effective mechanisms of knowledge sharing (McDermott, 1999b).

Another variable that can be hypothesised to have an influence on the perceived need of knowledge sharing is the distance between organisational units, in terms of the knowledge they possess. In their study on knowledge flows in MNCs, Gupta and Govindarajan (2000) have used the relative economic level of different subsidiaries’ host countries to conceptualise this aspect. On a more general level, it can be proposed that obvious (i.e. transparent) differences in the level of skills and knowledge in different organisational units will contribute to the perceived need for knowledge sharing. Top management leadership for learning and knowledge sharing can reinforce the perception of this distance. The importance of leadership for organisational change is widely recognised (Kotter, 1996). Thus, it can be assumed that targeted leadership activities will increase the perceived urgency of knowledge sharing. Holcim provides a case in point. The company’s vision encompasses the goal to become a “faster learning organisation” and to promote knowledge sharing activities at all levels of the organisation (Buchel & Probst, 2001).

Finally, the perceived need for knowledge sharing depends to a significant degree on individual characteristics of organisation members. Communities of practice provide a very particular type of context for knowledge transfer. Organisation members participate on the basis of self-selection, trust and mutual accountability. Individual benefits are as important as organisational benefits and communities typically reach across established structures and boundaries within the organisation. Thus, the willingness to participate in communities of practice depends on organisation members’ level of motivation and commitment to the organisation.

Moreover, multidirectional transfer of knowledge is an essential characteristic of communities of practice. Openness to learning, therefore, can be hypothesised to be a necessary individual condition for the success of communities of practice. The importance of a learning attitude for the quality of negotiation outcomes has been demonstrated empirically. In the context of an experimental study, Kahwajy (2000) has shown that a “learning attitude” (i.e. willingness of the receiver to be open and modifiable) yields significant benefits compared to a “proving attitude” (i.e. receivers being closed and unmodifiable) in terms of negotiation outcomes and mutual perceptions of the negotiation partners. Translated to the situation of communities of practice, this means that effective exchange of knowledge is likely to happen only when community members balance advocacy of their own knowledge with thorough and open inquiry into the potential benefits of alternative practices.

Organisational Context for Knowledge Sharing

Communities of practice emerge and evolve in a given organisational context. Therefore, fundamental characteristics of organisational design – such as the degree of centralisation and standardisation and the complexity of integrating mechanisms – can be hypothesised to play an important role for the success of communities of practice. Multidirectional knowledge flow is an important feature of communities. It can be assumed that design choices commonly associated with an “organic” structure (Burns & Stalker 1961) are likely to promote their evolution. With regard to centralisation, this implies a relatively high degree of decentralisation, setting the stage for individual responsibility and involvement. In terms of standardisation, low standardisation and a focus on mutual adjustment will be beneficial. Complex integrating mechanisms – i.e. the frequent use of liaison roles, task forces and teams (Galbraith, 1973; Nadler & Tushman, 1987) – contribute to the development of dense interpersonal networks and facilitate lateral communication and information flow.

Another important factor resides in the area of corporate culture. While the concept of corporate culture is typically hard to grasp, its importance for the success of communities of practice can be narrowed down to the aspect of organisational socialisation (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). A variety of mechanisms such as focused transfers across units (Edström & Galbraith, 1977) or corporate mentoring programs (Ghoshal & Bartlett, 1988) have been shown to increase familiarity amongst organisation members and to facilitate the creation of shared “cognitive maps”. Such socialisation mechanisms can be assumed to provide a fertile ground for the evolution of communities of practice.

An analysis of the organisational context would be incomplete without the aspect of motivation and incentives. Incentive structures have been hypothesised to play an important role for knowledge flows in organisations and the practitioner-oriented literature stresses the importance of incentives for knowledge sharing (e.g. Probst et al., 2000). Hansen et al’s (1999, p 113) blunt statement is a case in point: “People need incentives to participate in the knowledge sharing process”. In the light of empirical research the existence and direction of an “incentive effect” is less unambiguous, however. For instance, Gupta and Govindarajan (2000) expected the “incentive focus” of a subsidiary (i.e. subsidiary-based vs. network-based incentives) to affect knowledge inflows and outflows to and from the focal unit. Interestingly, three of their four hypotheses pertaining to the effect of incentives were not supported by their data.

Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing

Knowledge exchange in communities of practice is impossible without an appropriate infrastructure serving as a medium of communication between community members and a conduit for the flow of information. Thus, the quality of organisational communication channels can be expected to play a crucial role for the evolution and ongoing activity of communities of practice. The importance of information and communication technology in a context of distributed work is well documented (e.g. Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). The quality of communication channels can be framed in terms of “availability” and “richness”. “Availability” refers to the mere existence of communication media through which exchange in a community can happen. Media “richness” plays a particular role for the building of trust amongst community members and the transfer of contextual information that facilitates the transfer of knowledge.

Finally, alternative mechanisms of knowledge sharing may have an impact on the success of communities of practice. Best practice databases, expert systems or user groups may be seen as alternatives to communities of practice. Their effect on the evolution of communities of practice will depend on whether they are perceived as being complementary, or rather mutually exclusive, approaches. For instance, “yellow pages” may serve as a starting point for community building. In a similar vein, a useful best-practice database may serve as a catalyst for a true community of practice in which members display a stronger level of common purpose. Conversely, in a context where knowledge sharing is largely focused on explicit knowledge, a simple user group may serve the purpose of organisation members and a community of practice may be perceived as an unnecessary luxury.

What can HRM do to Support Communities of Practice?

The benefits of communities of practice for organisations, in general, and for human resource management, in particular, have been outlined above. For the remainder of this paper, the perspective will be reversed - i.e. the focus will be on ways in which human resource managers may contribute to the success of communities of practice. One major argument for a deep involvement of human resource managers in communities of practice has something to do with the traditional role of HRM as an “idea scout”, a challenger of traditional approaches and an agent of change. Indeed, empirical analyses focused on the recent history of concepts such as organisational learning and knowledge management, have shown that human resource management has been instrumental in the propagation and diffusion of both approaches (Raub & Rüling, 2001; Scarbrough & Swan, 1999).

HRM can contribute to the development of communities of practice in two distinct ways. The first approach involves the design of traditional HRM functions. HR managers who are aware of the community of practice idea can contribute to the creation of organisational contexts and infrastructures conducive to the development of communities. The second approach focuses on the direct involvement of HRM in community building. Building on their traditional strengths as process consultants and coaches, human resource managers can provide various forms of support to organisation members engaged in the process of starting or developing a community of practice.

Support Through Traditional HRM Functions

The four most important HR functions that have an impact on communities of practice are likely to be career development, performance evaluation, compensation and training. Career development is a much-underrated function with regard to knowledge management at the corporate level. While traditionally seen from a personnel planning perspective – with career development pursuing the dual goal of ensuring a smooth career path for the employee, while at the same time making certain that the appropriate number of qualified people are available at the right time – it has been pointed out that career development can also make significant contributions to the development of corporate wide (informal) networks of employees (e.g. Edström & Galbraith, 1977; Harzing, 1995). While these contributions focus on the aspect of socialisation as a control strategy, the idea may justifiably be applied to the case of communities of practice.

Managerial transfers fulfil a vital function for the development of the organisational knowledge base. They improve corporate socialisation and thereby contribute to an organisational context conducive to knowledge sharing. Akin to a bumblebee carrying pollen, a transferred manager transports vital information with them (Harzing, 1995). In their baggage travels their individual expertise alongside their knowledge of one or several different organisational contexts. Spreading this information and creating “mutual knowledge” in larger circles of the organisation’s employees is an essential contribution that may pave the way for the emergence of communities.

As is so often the case, performance evaluation and compensation are likely to play a pivotal role for community building. The existing literature stresses the importance of including knowledge sharing activities in the catalogue of relevant criteria for performance evaluation, and of designing the right incentive systems that encourage participation in knowledge sharing in general, and communities of practice in particular. While on the face of it, these recommendations sound convincing, communities of practice tend to be “resistant to supervision and interference” (Wenger & Snyder, 2000, p. 140). In other words, while nurturing and support are vital, blunt and obvious interventions may have a counterproductive effect.

In the context of performance evaluation and incentive systems, the need for cautious interventions is highlighted by the “motivation crowding effect” (e.g. Osterloh & Frey, 2000). Crowding theory posits that external interventions (e.g. rewards or incentives) may raise, or indeed, reduce intrinsic motivation and thus work effort. In the context of communities of practice, this means that an excessive stress on external incentives for participating in a community may increase “perceived external control and the feeling of being stressed from the outside” (Osterloh & Frey, 2000, p. 541). Simply put this means that organisation members may decide not to participate in communities of practice due to the fact that participation is perceived as being mandated by top management, rather than an expression of one’s own interest and desire.

The ambiguous relationship between incentives and participation in essentially voluntary activities suggests a need for human resource management to proceed in cautious steps. Avoiding de-motivation through the design of incentive systems is of the essence. This could be achieved, for instance, by providing organisation members with a limited amount of working time to participate freely in communities of practice (e.g. 3M’s 15% work time employees are allowed to spend on innovative projects). A similar measure could avoid generating an impression of external control. At the same time it would create a context in which participation in communities of practice does not interfere negatively with measurable performance in day-to-day business activities. Thus, participation in communities of practice does not have a penalising effect and de-motivation would be avoided.

The final aspect, training and development, refers to all HR activities that are designed to facilitate both individual participation in communities of practice as well as effective group dynamics within a community. Beyond conventional material on team building and similar activities, human resource managers can now access a variety of stimulating training materials designed to enhance key skills for effective participation in communities of practice. The “colour blind” game for instance is a problem solving exercise which may be used to great effect in order to illustrate work processes in (virtual) teams, effective communication and the difficulty of creating shared meaning or common knowledge (Future Factory, 1991). A variety of other games and exercises can be used to illustrate knowledge acquisition and knowledge sharing processes and to promote related skills. A stronger focus on these aspects in corporate training programs could certainly provide impetus for knowledge sharing and facilitate the work of existing communities of practice.

Support Through Process Consulting

The training and development aspect discussed in the previous section leads to the second approach through which human resource managers can provide support to communities of practice - the aspect of process consulting and coaching. Support of this kind is likely to play a crucial role, particularly in the early stages of community development. Process consulting for communities can take many different shapes, including both technological and methodological support in the start up stage of a community, the facilitation of community meetings and coaching of community members and community leaders, as well as continuous support for self assessment and renewal of a community’s results and working mechanisms.

HRM practices at Holcim provide again an illustration of this point. Holcim distinguishes between the communities of practices themselves – with their different levels of members, core members and community drivers – and a support structure, which consists of a community sponsor and different support departments. Within this support structure, the corporate human resources and corporate training departments play a key role. Both departments are the main support units and resource providers to be contacted when a community of practice is being initiated.

The support activities of the HR/training departments focus on several tasks. Initial assistance is provided through a structured methodological support tool illustrating the evolution of a typical community of practice. This model represents a generic approach similar to the one used by other companies (e.g. DaimlerChrysler, 1999) and structures community of practice evolution in five simple steps - defining the knowledge domain; establishing management support; initiating/developing the community; developing the practice; and reflection, self assessment, renewal. Within each of these steps detailed procedures and review questions provide invaluable help to managers engaged in initiating a new community of practice. In addition, both the HR/training department and the corporate IT department are available to facilitate meetings, provide methodological support or inform about available technological platforms that can be used in the development of a community.

A final area of the assistance is concerned with the difficult issue of measurement. The results of communities of practice are often difficult to express in quantitative terms. Thus “non traditional methods to measure value” (Nenger & Snyder, 2000) are required. Human resource managers are familiar with the problem of evaluating and measuring hard to quantify elements such as, for instance, the performance of an individual employee. Collecting stories and anecdotes, soliciting comments and evaluations from community members and those who benefit from a particular community’s work are imperfect, but nevertheless useful methods of measuring outputs. Bringing to bear their particular skills and experience on the issue of measurement and evaluation of the vital contributions human resource managers can make to the success of communities of practice.

The different foci of support activities that human resource mangers provide are illustrated as shown in Figure 2. The general functional activities of HRM are targeted mainly towards improving structural conditions for knowledge sharing. Process consulting activities provide focused support in the evolution processes of communities of practice. Finally, support on measurement and documentation centres around the various results that communities produce at the individual and organisational level.

Figure 2
HRM support for communities of practice
HRM support for communities of practice

Conclusion

The arguments forwarded in the preceding sections provide two main implications for human resource practitioners; one at an operational, the other at a more strategic level. At the operational level, what is striking is the degree to which communities of practice and human resource management complement each other. Communities of practice address concerns that are high on the priority list of every human resource manager, such as employee motivation and satisfaction in the workplace, competence and skill development, as well as the tricky issue of tying highly qualified human resources to the organisation. Conversely, human resource managers possess unique skills and functional levers that may prove very useful for all those engaged in community of practice development. Thus, the benefits from a close alignment of HRM and communities of practice are indeed likely to be mutual.

At a strategic level, the main implication may well be that communities of practice provide an opportunity to rethink the strategic role HRM has to play in knowledge based organisations. When human resource managers get involved in supporting communities of practice, two things may be hoped for. First, they may contribute to a significant improvement of knowledge management - in particular, knowledge sharing - activities in the organisation, which should lead to a competitive edge in increasingly knowledge intensive business environments. Second, and maybe more importantly, these activities may reinvigorate the perception that human resource management is a vital corporate function, working at the leading edge of management knowledge and making real contributions to the bottom line of the organisation. It may indeed be the first step from human resource management to the much larger role of “knowledge resource management” (Probst & Raub, 1997). In a nutshell; there is a lot of untapped potential in communities of practice. It is up to the human resource profession to seize this opportunity.

Author

Steffen Raub

Address for correspondence:
University of Lausanne
HEC
BFSH 1
CH-1015 Lausanne-Dorigny
Switzerland
Tel: +41-21-807.24.10
Fax: +41-21-807.24.12
steffen.raub@hec.unige.ch

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