Community of practice (COP) is a very popular concept among knowledge management academics and practitioners and often seen as the key to the success of knowledge management initiatives1. “Communities of practice are informal groups of people who have same work-related activity in common”2. Out of definition one can find communities of practice within a company as well as beyond organizational boundaries.
Communities of practice differ from organizational work groups or teams in that respect that they do not represent a part of the formal organizational structure, developed out of communication and interaction and that membership is voluntary. As communities of practice are informal, autonomous, based on interpersonal relations and self-managing such communities has been historically treated hostile by senior management, who feared that these groups may undermine formal structures and systems.
However, recently the attitudes towards communities of practice have changed and management deliberately supports and develops them due to their perceived benefits. Communities of practice provide the possibility of situational learning. In Volvia there are no “official” communities of practices, but the sales meetings within the different shifts can be seen as one way of working with COP. They live up to the three characteristics, and since they all work individually with the same tasks they have different ways to address a problem.
In If it seems that they have come a bit further by sending their evening and weekend shift to meet the telemarketers. Communities of practice are highly dynamic as new members enter into a community and existing members leave. To become a legitimate member of a community newcomers have to go through a process of learning and socialization. Apprentices learn from watching and communicating with the master and other members of the community; they start as peripheral members, participating initially in relatively straight-forward tasks.
Over time, as the apprentices become competent with these basic skills, they gradually become introduced to more complex tasks. Through this process newcomers acquire the knowledge required to be a community member. In both companies we can find these relations between the old and new employees when looking at the by-sitting. When the experienced operator thinks the new-comer is competent enough, he get introduced to the more complicated tasks.
In Volvia we can also see, in respect of the time spend in the company, that when the employees are ready for a greater responsibility, they get individual education in new, more complex tasks. We can also see the importance of taking care of the two elderly women in Volvia, because they act as informal teachers in the organization. Informal learning from other group members is a key element of this process – or seen differently, one can say that learning is more a question of socialization then of formal learning.
Communities of practice have the potential to provide two main benefits4: (1) it can support and encourage creation, development und use of knowledge, and (2) it can facilitate individual and group learning as well as the sharing of knowledge within the group because of the common knowledge possessed by its members and their sense of collective identity and shared values. Communities of practice, when successful, produce and sustain trust-based relations, creation social conditions that are conducive to knowledge-sharing.
In Volvia and If knowledge-sharing is very important, this is because it isn’t an innovative company, at least not in the call-centre, and therefore the knowledge of the operators and the ability to help is a large part of the companies concept. As discussed above, communities of practice are informal and emerge often ad hoc. It is therefore difficult to explicit manage them. Possible activities contain5: Emphasize practice-based, peer-supported learning methods rather than formalized, classroom-gased methods as this reinforces the existing ways that communities learn and share knowledge
Avoid privileging formal objectified knowledge, as this leads to a neglect of the ‘non-canonical’ tacit, practice-based knowledge developed by communities. Due to the significant length of time required for communities of practice to develop continuity is important. Overly discontinuous social relations are thus likely to hamper their development. Find, nurture, and support existing communities. One way of doing this is to strengthen their existing mechanisms for social interaction, and providing them with adequate autonomy to allow them to decide and control how knowledge is organized and shared.
Possible concrete activities for Volvia and If to improve cop: Because of the large workforce turn-over we can see that it is hard for Volvia and If to get the wanted continuity in formal communities of practice. If these communities are based on long relations and ability to build trust for each other problems might occur. We do think that they address these problems quite well, in the education mix and never the less in the way of finding, nurturing and supporting existing communities.
By this we mean the, in one perspective controversial, incentive to support and arrange parties for the shifts. Most of the employees are students, and everyone knows that students like to party. By helping the employees to come together and have fun, they strengthen the connections between the individuals and thereby increases the chance of socialization and sharing of tacit knowledge in the future. This is also shown because most management advises suggest that the best way to manage communities is to provide them the autonomy to manage themselves.
However, one can on the other hand find circumstances and situations where communities of practice fail to share knowledge. Obviously old-timers have more knowledge compared to newcomers. More knowledge often equals to higher power; therefore old-timers could hamper knowledge-sharing to keep this uneven distribution of knowledge and power-advantage. Another source of conflict within a community is the fact that members – even when they work together collectively – actually compete against each other for promotion opportunities or commission, etc.
These problems with not sharing “best practice” can in some aspects be felt in the Volvia’s and If’s organizations. Since their performances are measured and compared and thereafter reward with bonuses or prizes, like trips and event tickets the operators feels restricted in sharing all their best techniques. This was insinuated by the persons we interviewed, but not seen like a large problem. Though we think it is important for the management to consider this aspect in the future when talking about motivation tools and techniques.
But communities of practice do not in all cases have to work together and have a shared knowledge base, e. g. if people from different companies, like If and Volvia, work together or if they dispose of diversified and specialized knowledge, like Volvia has specific knowledge in car insurance for Volvo, Jaguar, etc and If has broader insurance-knowledge. To overcome the lack of shared knowledge base and understanding and lack of shared identity the persons of such a community must have a willingness to share knowledge as well as the ability of sharing this knowledge.
Especially if there is low common understanding problems can arise of transferring and sharing meaningful knowledge to others. Furthermore, to enable cooperation and knowledge sharing, building of trust is one key to success To overcome all these hurdles concerning intercommunity knowledge processes the management has the opportunity to manage the social relationship between the various groups and members.