Sub-theme 24: Theorizing practice in communities of practice

Fabio Fonti
Boston College, USA
Alessandro Narduzzo
Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy
Martha S. Feldman
University of California, Irvine, USA

Call for Papers

Since the ground-breaking work of Lave, Wenger and Orr (Lave, 1988; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Orr, 1996) organizational scholars have explored the vital role that communities of practice (CoPs) play for organizations. CoPs have been hailed as the locus of organizational learning instrumental for innovative activities (Brown and Duguid, 1991), repositories of disciplinary knowledge (Orr, 1996), and modes of governance within and among organizations (Grandori, 2001).

CoPs facilitate learning and innovation by promoting the emergence and circulation of knowledge. They arise naturally in many types of organizations as people who share similar passions or challenges interact and share the knowledge developed through the practices they enact. In comparison to the more constraining nature of formal organizational structures, the voluntary nature of CoPs encourages the free-flow of ideas, especially when their members are passionate and motivated to contribute to the conversation (Brown and Duguid, 1991).

Given their central role as antecedents of innovation and learning, CoPs have attracted the attention of both managers and scholars. However, while studies of CoPs have quickly diffused from anthropology to a variety of other disciplines, such increased popularity has not been matched by a similar increase in the understanding of the mechanisms that make CoPs successful in knowledge creation and dissemination and, ultimately, allow learning and innovation to emerge. There are a variety of reasons for this mismatch. Many studies have focused on the notion of community and have emphasized cohesion and shared understandings over the distributed nature of the knowledge embedded in and enacted through practice. Other studies fall short of providing empirical evidence of what leads to CoPs' success (or failure), trying instead to capitalize quickly on a few initial understandings of the processes underpinning CoPs effectiveness as a knowledge management tool (Contu and Wilmott, 2000). Having become disconnected from important features of the original CoPs conceptualization, a growing number of studies leave us without a systematic understanding of how CoPs operate and of the dynamics leading to learning and innovation.

To improve our understanding of how these communities emerge and function, we suggest focusing on practice and its generative qualities. In CoPs, the motivation for interaction is often the attempt to generate solutions to problems or to make use of practical knowledge and the outcomes are frequently new or modified ways of accomplishing tasks on part of community members. Therefore, recent research on routines that shows them to be forms of practice (Feldman, 2000; Feldman and Pentland, 2003) and sources of innovation (Miner, 1991) as well as flexibility and change, provides an important way of understanding the relationship between CoPs and their outcomes.

This session aims at deepening our understanding of CoPs and of the processes that are at work in them. Submission to this track will contribute to the development of systematic, theoretically based, empirically-grounded understandings of what CoPs are, how they work and what makes them capable of generating innovative ideas. In this vein, we invite contributions to the following areas:

  • What are the dynamics of practice in CoPs that facilitate learning and innovation in organizations?
  • What role does innovation play in the emergence of (as well as the outcome of) CoPs?

  • What is the relationship between competences, practices and routines, and the emergence of innovative solutions and learning within CoPs?

  • Are CoPs effective knowledge management tools? How are knowledge/knowing mobilized through practice in CoPs? Within and between organizations?

  • What factors lead to the emergence of CoPs? What efforts to encourage CoPs are, instead stifling them?

  • What role does the passion and motivation of CoP members play in sustaining CoPs? What factors facilitate the emergence of such passion and motivation?

  • What role do networks play in facilitating the emergence and nurturing of competences and routines in CoPs, which then result in learning and innovation?

While we will give priority to papers addressing these issues, other empirically-based studies of CoPs will also be considered. Due to the importance of empirical observation in developing this domain, we intend to prioritize empirically grounded studies, using either quantitative or qualitative methods (or both). Particularly strong theoretical works will also be favorably considered.


Brown, J.S. and P. Duguid (1991): "Organizational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation." Organization Science, 2, 40–57.

Contu, A. and H. Wilmott (2000): "Comment on Wenger and Yanow. Knowing in practice: A delicate flower in the organizational learning field." Organization, 7, 269–276.

Feldman, M. (2000): "Organizational routines as a source of continuous change." Organization Science, 11, 611–629.

Feldman, M. and B. Pentland (2003): "Reconceptualizing organizational routines as a source of flexibility and change." Administrative Science Quarterly, 48, 94–118.

Grandori, A. (2001): "Neither hierarchy nor identity: Knowledge-governance mechanisms and the theory of the firm." Journal of Management and Governance, 5, 381–399.

Lave, J. (1988): Cognition in Practice. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. and É. Wenger (1991): Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press.

Miner, A. (1991): "Structural evolution through idiosyncratic jobs: The potential for unplanned learning." Organization Science, 1, 195–210.

Orr, J. (1996): Talking about Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Fabio Fonti 
Alessandro Narduzzo 
Martha S. Feldman