Born to Be Wild: Using Communities of Practice as a Tool for Knowledge Management

Valérie Chanal and Chris Kimble


Communities of practice were originally described in terms of a set of emergent social arrangements, termed legitimate peripheral participation, that act as a vehicle for spontaneous and situated learning (Brown and Duguid 1991; Lave and Wenger 1991). Later, what was essentially a social dynamic within a relatively small group became, first, a theory of organizational learning (Wenger 1998) and was then presented as a tool for knowledge management (Wenger, McDermott et al. 2002), to be deployed by consultants as a component from their knowledge management toolboxes. The theory behind the ‘implementation’ of communities of practice, holds that it is possible to bring people together with the objective of sharing knowledge and then to ‘cultivate’ a community of practice that will produce a planned and predictable benefit for the host organization.

In our paper, we will portray this move as a shift from the spontaneous, emergent and creative groups described in the early work – to borrow a term from Hutchins (1995), communities that are ‘in the wild’ – to the cultivated, confined and controlled groups described in Wenger’s later works – in effect, communities that have been captured, tamed and domesticated.

This second view of ‘tame’ communities of practice has often lead them to being presented as a form of risk free, social-based technology for knowledge management (e.g. Lesser and Storck 2001). According to this view, traditional ICT tools will take charge of the more easily captured and codified explicit knowledge, while communities of practice provide a solution to the management of the more problematical tacit knowledge, which, because it cannot be transferred directly, is seen as a key source of competitive advantage (Grant 1996). From an organization’s standpoint, this view has some obvious attractions, but it is not without its problems.

Empirical studies of the ‘implementation’ of communities of practice suggest that it may not easy to create a community of practice to order. Gongla and Rizzuto (2004) note that when an organization ‘spotlights’ a community of practice and tries to manage it, the members may simply pretend to disperse and go underground. Similarly, Thompson (2005) provides an example of how a company attempted to ‘clone’ a community of practice and spread its example of ‘best practices’ throughout the organization. As with Gongla and Rizzuto’s example, in the end, the members of the group withdrew and the company only succeeded in stifling what it sought to nurture.

The objective of this paper is to examine the view that communities of practice can be used as a tool for KM by asking if it is possible to instrumentalize them. Within the context of our ‘wild’ vs ‘domesticated’ typology, the questions we ask are the following: can organizations instrumentalize communities of practice in order to create and share knowledge? What are the risks of instrumentalizing communities of practice? What (if any) part of communities of practice should stay wild and what parts can be domesticated in the service of organizational learning?

To answer these questions, we will use the findings of action research that was carried out in a small microelectronics firm over a period of two years (Cappe 2008). The company develops microelectronic systems for the medical, telecommunications, automotive and aerospace markets. An initial analysis of the knowledge management systems in this organization highlighted the limits of an existing intranet as a means of knowledge sharing. It appeared that the people who needed the technical knowledge it contained did not use it because the knowledge was not sufficiently ‘situated’. As a result of this study, the management of the company began to explore the possibility of setting up communities of practice to facilitate knowledge sharing in certain key technical and strategic areas.

The aspect of this case that is of particular interest and value is that it was possible to follow the design and development of two intentionally formed communities of practice from their very beginnings. These communities were formed around two groups of people who played a key role in the company: project managers and technical experts. Before this experiment, these two groups had little opportunity to meet and to exchange knowledge about their practices.

The results show that there were indeed some positive aspects to bringing people together in such a community of practice. For example, in the same way as the claims processors in Wenger’s study (Wenger 1998), it appeared to answer a deep demand for more social links between persons doing the same job in an organizational context of heavy control and tight quality management procedures. However, it also brought to the surface areas of friction, especially with the management of the company, with whom the conditions for the existence of these groups, their identity and their autonomy of action, had to be constantly negotiated.

The way an organization is capable of absorbing these tensions by redefining its own rules appears to be a key factor in the success of such an experiment. The outcome of the learning within a community of practice cannot be confined to the boundaries of the community. We observed that when the management resisted the group’s suggestions of improvement, this led to the demotivation of the members. This demotivation and resentment of the community’s members was linked to a search for legitimacy within a company where the only activities acknowledged as valuable were those that were project oriented.

Our conclusion is that the study illustrates that the instrumentalization of communities of practice is a managerial myth. Thinking of communities of practice as a safe and domesticated social-based KM technology is flawed. Rather we should think of the ‘implementation’ of communities of practice as an experiment that carries with it the risk of creating a potentially disruptive ‘untamed’ element that can act as a lever for unpredicted organizational change.

In the closing section of the paper, we indicate how this work could be developed further. We link the literature on communities of practice with that on organizational improvisation (Weick 1998) to argue that other forms of spontaneous social phenomena, such as storytelling (Salmon 2008), could be analyzed using a similar perspective. We believe that the connection between practice, often seen as a routinized way of doing something, and improvisation, usually seen as a creative and spontaneous act, is one that deserves further research.


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