Conditions and Key Success Factors for the Management of Communities of Practice

The author begins by questioning whether the very idea of "managing" a community of practice (CP hereafter) is an oxymoron. The point of a CP is to permit the participants the greatest possible latitude in discussions, with the sole restriction being that discussions should be relevant to the topic or purpose of the community. With this in mind, attempts to manage or moderate would seem to be counterproductive.

A "public" CP generally has this latitude, but when a company sponsors a CP, it is generally aimed at certain organizational objectives and is heavily moderated, which has been seen in many cases to be counterproductive: when there are potential negative consequences for individuals whose use of the CP is not clearly on-target, and when there are political ramifications for expressing ideas contrary to corporate norms, participants censor themselves, often more heavily than the sponsoring organization would allegedly prefer. And yet, organizational CPs do not seem to be able to refrain from controlling, moderating, and managing the CP they create.

This chapter seeks to explore the concept of "management" within a CP, and seeks to define the conditions and success factors that lead to a productive "medium" between the extremes.


Historically, the Internet itself was a communication medium among different organizations (academic, primarily) in which individuals communicated in a decentralized and unmanaged fashion. The establishment of mailing lists and Web sites devoted to specific topics were an early and unregulated attempt to create focused "communities" within the context of the larger medium.

Theorists seem focused on the CP as an academic phenomenon, but they exist in many more places. Any social group of individuals generally has at least some of the functional qualities of a CP, even when the "theme" or sahred interest taht unites the group is a seemingly leisure interest.

From a theoretical perspective (social learning theory), people a re "social" beings and the development of practical knowledge is not developed in a vacuum (though some work can be done in isolation, it is not "practical" until it is shared. Within a societal or organizational context, "knowledge" is a shared resource, and the organization does not advance until knowledge propagates through the community.

Traditionally, CP have emerged "spontaneously," in that people who have similar interests or activities tend to discuss those interests and activities with one another, generally as a mode of social communication, but it evolves into a more practical and purpose-driven mode. Note the order: existence, interaction, organization.

(EN: When a CP is "created", it is often in expectation that this process will work in reverse: the establishment of an organization will cause interaction, which will bring knowledge into existence).

One theorist (Wenger) suggests that there are three key characteristics for a CP:

Once formed, a community of practice becomes dynamic: the members freely interact, and may deviate from or purposefully change the focus of the community. While this would seem contrary to the goals of the community, it's been found that communities that have a forced purpose and are moderated to prevent evolution do not persevere. The evolution of a community is similar to the evolution of knowledge: if nothing "new" is introduced and canonical conceptions remain unchallenged, knowledge cannot be created, and the community is reduced to controlling or attempting to prevent knowledge from emerging.

In the evolution of a community, "communication nodes" tend to form. These are members of the community with a shared interest in a particular subtopic, or may take a slightly different perspective. Members of the community generally gather around these nodes (think of them as "active" speakers with an audience of lurkers), and if they gather mass, they may alter the character of the community (or break away to form a separate one).

There is a sense of "motion" among CPs, where individuals begin on the periphery of a group and move closer to its core, though it's not a matter of straight-line migration: an individual may move back and forth, and may eventually move out of the group altogether. This is generally dictated by the level to which the individual ascribes to characteristics if the group that may be incidental: shared values and believes, common history or interests, the value of interactions, interpersonal relationships with other group members, the respect/accommodation given to minority points of view, etc.

The author defines four kinds of leadership within a virtual community (noting that the list is not comprehensive), noting that they may arise formally or informally:

One of the keys to effective leadership is service to the community. A leader who appears to eb controlling or manipulating the group to suit outside interests (even the sponsor) may be rejected by the community, or members of the community may leave or cease to participate.

Organizational CP

In instances where a CP is the artificial creation of an organization (rather than a natural evolution of the group of users), it must certain functions must be addressed:

Individuals should be appointed in leadership roles to ensure these functions are addressed. Of importance is a distinction between management and leadership, as the first implies authority and control which can be destructive to community.

A community is not created by fiat, but depends on the voluntary cooperation of individuals. The author categorizes the motivation of participants as being intellectual (an interest in exploring ideas), emotional (the desire to help others and belong to a group), and social (being recognized and rewarded because of participation in the group). The first two motivations are intrinsic, but the third is extrinsic, giving the organization that wishes to foster community the ability, through recognition, to reward those who participate and fulfill supporting tasks.

(EN: I have some resistance to the notion of an organization providing "recognition" to employees who participate in communities. My sense is that this creates a community of people who are active for the sake of being visible, but don't have much to say. It may be that some level of recognition is necessary to ensure participants that the company endorses the effort they spend on the community, that it isn't viewed as a waste of their time, but it must take care to avoid turning it into a confederacy of toadies.)

The author defines four facets to consider when attempting to cultivate communities:


The author sought to find instances in which organizations promoted the use of communities of practice. A lot of detail is provided about the methodology and selection process for cases to consider, and some common themes are presented:

The Creation of Communities

According to the background theory, communities "must" be spontaneous or organic, in which people decided to associate themselves and form a community rather than a community being artificially created and then populated afterward. Case studies were found in which companies provided the tools and allowed communities to evolve on their own, and others in which the company took a more proactive role in creating a community and recruiting members.

The language of the evaluation is a bit convoluted, but seems to suggest that both approaches are possible, and the result is that a created community is more focused, but has less longevity, and as such is more likely to evolve into a different "knowledge mechanism" that is more appropriate to one-way rather than interactive communication.

Can Communities of Practice be Structurally Designed?

This seems similar to the previous topic, but pertains to a more low-level consideration of whether the content and resources of a community can be purposefully organized. In this instance, the conclusion is a more unequivocal "no." The nature of discussion is organic, and any attempt to impose patterns creates barriers that obstruct learning and discovery. A company can nourish community, but cannot control the way in which it will grow without interfering with growth, often to a detrimental outcome.

Interest in the Creation of Communities of Practice: Individual or Organizational?

The study considered cases in which a community was created by an individual versus being created by the organization. It's noted that the former approach leads to greater initial adoption, but the latter is necessary to sustain participation. Consistent with earlier findings, the organization can do much to promote and nourish a community, but it depends on the sustained interest of key individuals. Also, there's some care to be taken, as too much "encouragement" from the organization becomes a kind of interference that can quash a community.

Is Motivation for Individuals or Tangible or Intangible?

A key question for organizations is: what factors motivate a person to share their knowledge? Companies may offer tangible rewards for participation (compensation), but motivation is stronger due to intangible rewards: camaraderie, communication, recognition, self-esteem.

(EN: My sense is that companies should also focus on the barriers to motivation. There is certainly great interest on the part of organizations to extract information from employees, but an individual takes considerable risks by participating: the employee loses a competitive edge over their peers (which is significant when considering promotions and layoffs), a manager loses the power of information over his staff, the organization may no longer value the employee after the knowledge has been extracted from them, and the organization may react negatively against any knowledge that is contrary to the company's internal politics.)

Technology Support vs. Control

When a company implements a community, it provides a specific technological platform (a software solution), which itself is a limitation in that it has specific features and capabilities (the members are not free to choose a solution that suits the needs of the community) and may not be sufficiently user-friendly to gain the participation of those with subject matter expertise, but lack technical sophistication. When users reject the software, they reject the community.