Communities of Practice: An Integrated Technology Perspective1
(Hyperwave R&D, Graz, Austria
Abstract: It has been observed that for a Community of Practice
(CoP) to be successful, a significant amount of time shall be devoted to
understanding the needs of community members. Furthermore, a tool to support
the CoP shall be selected based on the kind of activities that are most
important for that CoP. Since many of the tools available today place emphasis
on a single type of application such as e-learning or document management,
unplanned selection may rise unwanted barriers. In this paper, we examine
the benefits of integrating some of the following types of technologies
into one single technological platform and their impact on CoP: (1) content-
and document Management, (2) collaboration / groupware, (3) web conferencing,
and (4) e-learning.
Key Words: Communities of Practice, Knowledge Management, e-Learning,
Information Technology, Intranet, Extranet, Personalization, Enterprise
Categories: A.1, C.2.4, H.4, H.5, K.6
Wenger defines Communities of Practice (CoP) by stating that "members
of a community are informally bound by what they do together from engaging
in lunchtime discussions to solving difficult problems and by what they
have learned through their mutual engagement in these activities"
[Wenger, 1998]. CoP develop their shared practice
by interacting around problems, solutions, and insights, and building a
common store of knowledge [Wenger, 2001]. CoP are
different from teams, because they do not necessarily have a clear focus
or a clear deliverable, and because they are not limited in time to a single
project [Carotenuto, Etienne, Fontaine et al, 1999].
In the mid 1980'ies there were early online communities for education
[Preece et al 2003]. According to one recent survey,
almost half of those organizations having knowledge management initiatives
underway have at least initiated CoP within the organization [Kok,
2003]. However, CoP have had a moderate track record in the private
sector, although some successful examples exist (such as IBM and Shell)
[Smits et al, 2004]. In contrast, the public-sector
"culture" is considered to be more conducive to CoPs [Santenello
et al, 2003].
1 A short version of this article was
presented at the IKNOW '03 (Graz, Austria, July 2-4, 2003).
For example, [Fennessy, 2002] has studied Knowledge
Management and CoP within the context of evidence based health care within
a large teaching hospital in Melbourne, Australia. [Milakovich,
2002] proposes a model to employ the internet to increase citizen participation
in government. Furthermore, Kok anticipates a shift towards customer facing
communities to facilitate knowledge sharing with suppliers and partners.
Technology support for CoP has progressed over time: [Preece
et al 2003] point out that the earliest technologies were e-Mail (developed
in 1972) and list servers (invented around 1975). In the late 80ies, chat
systems and instant messaging were introduced. In the early 1990´ies,
the World-Wide Web facilitated the widespread use of web sites and the
development of online community groups. After that, graphical representations
started to appear. Recently, voice over IP as well as web conferencing
has started to become more widespread.
In reality a Virtual Community typically builds on what members of community
commonly have (e.g., e-mail, Internet chat rooms, list servers) [Caldwell,
2001]. Within the organization, intranet communities may use collaborative
network and groupware infrastructure similar to virtual teams. [Wenger,
2001] points out that tools exist to support CoP approaches from many
angels, but no technology is available to fully support CoP. In this paper,
we will aim to bridge the gap between different types of technology.
2 Community-oriented Technologies
There are numerous technologies to support CoP including knowledge bases,
knowledge worker's desktop, project spaces, website communities, discussion
groups, synchronous interactions, e-Learning spaces, access to expertise
[Wenger, 2001]. These can be summarized as (1) content-
and document management, (2) collaboration / groupware, (3) web conferencing,
and (4) e-learning. Naturally, each type of technology has their strengths
and weaknesses: in many communities, text chat is currently the preferred
means of real-time live service. While text only communications is good
for basic communications, it is not a replacement for graphics or images
for many purposes [Tyndale, 2002]. To deploy Voice
over Internet Protocol (VoIP) their computer must be equipped with an Internet
phone that accepts VoIP calls. Existing technology makes it possible to
achieve a live link via VoIP, but there remain several practical obstacles
to widespread use. Security and privacy remain concerns. In addition, bandwidth
for VoIP has to be sufficient.
2.1 Content- and Document Management
From a technical perspective, content- and document management technologies
include document handling throughout the content lifecycle, such as imaging
and workflow, storage, as well as records management, enterprise report
management/computer output to laserdisc, and web content management [Angerhausen
et al, 2003]. Examples for products with content- and document management
functionalities are Documentum, Hummingbird, and Hyperwave.
Some of the
benefits to the CoP are [Wenger, 2001] to associate
documents from the corporate knowledge base with the CoP and vice versa,
associate document folders with a community, or to have multiple hierarchical
file structures (i.e. in one taxonomy that helps community members think
about their practice, in another perspective to include a project's view,
2.2 Collaboration / Groupware
Collaboration support has evolved from internally focused groupware
systems to web-based products targeting flexible and distributed teams
[Hayward et al, 2002].
The core functionality of team collaboration support products is the
ability for a team to share documents and conduct discussions around those
documents. Collaboration tools also help capturing and preserving knowledge,
managing collaborative processes, managing projects and resolving issues.
They support cross-functional or geographically dispersed project teams
[Wilson, 2002]. Examples for vendors of collaboration
tools are eRoom / Documentum, Intraspect, and Hyperwave.
[Shelhamer, 2002] distinguishes between five collaboration
models: library, solicitation, team, community, and process Support. Collaboration
tools enable community members with various ways of seeing what is going
on and who is involved in what [Wenger, 2001]. For
example, they provide a list of who is on: presence awareness is usually
associated with a capability for instant messaging so you can interact
with people you see present. Most project spaces have facilities for multiple
people to work on one document, by checking it out to avoid version conflicts.
2.3 Web Conferencing
Since the mid 1990`ies it is possible to conduct telephone calls over
the internet [Adams et al, 2003]. Today, web conferencing
tools often use a combination of media, including audio and video, to provide
an experience of co-presence. Some use physical analogies, such as auditorium,
conference center, or building [Wenger, 2001].
There are various applications of web conferencing: (1) to (partially)
replace traditional telephone lines to achieve cost savings, (2) to supplement
telephone calls and -conferences with media material such as presentations
or pictures, (3) to conduct meetings and presentations "virtually"
to limit the need for travel, (4) in technical customer support call centers
to support clients or staff on site, or offer services out of call centers,
and (5) as part of e-learning.
Typical applications of web conferencing for the CoP are virtual auditorium
(one-to-many), moderated meetings, informal meetings (few-to-few), synchronous
conversation (any-to-any chat servers), and chat-oriented virtual community
space (many-to-many) [Wenger, 2001]. Examples of vendors
offering web conferencing tools are WebEx, Lotus, and Hyperwave.
In technical terms, an e-Learning system typically consists of the following
components: registration capabilities, management of curriculum and courses,
skills and records management, student interfaces to courseware, administration,
and external system application programming interfaces [Lundy,
[Kriaucioniene et al, 2002] point out that e-learning
communities are a powerful tool for knowledge integration and exchange
between the actors with separate knowledge bases. Many e-learning tools
provide courseware thereby contributing to conscious learning (i.e. the
learner is aware of the fact that he or she is learning). Then, there are
various ways of more unconscious learning (i.e. such as browsing the web,
searching a knowledge base, or communicating with peers). Some tools such
as Hyperwave support both conscious and unconscious learning, for example
by tying learning resources to work processes, or letting learners help
learning content progresses over time through annotations. Other vendors
of e-Learning products are Docent, and Saba.
3 An Integrated Technology Perspective
There is one type of community-oriented technology which is exceptional
in the sense that it is an integration technology by itself: enterprise
portals. They offer the promise of a single, personalized gateway to an
enterprise's application software, databases, and unstructured information
from disparate sources. Most portal products are able to connect employees,
customers, business partners, and others in a browser environment [Bullinger
et al, 2002]. From a CoP perspective, enterprise portals provide an
enterprise level window to list all communities [Wenger,
2001]. Furthermore, they allow to adapt the presentation to individual
needs, to facilitate access for an outside person to the CoP and its knowledge
base. For example, non-members would be recognized as such and provided
with extraneous information (like summaries) when browsing through the
knowledge base. Vendors offering portal tools include Plumtree, SAP, and
One question that arises is whether CoP require extraneous technology.
In fact, [Caldwell, 2001] has observed that communities
often build on the technology they already have. This holds particularly
true for internet communities and CoP in academia. As pointed out above,
within organizations there are co-existent types of collaboration such
as team, community and process [Shelhamer, 2002]
which may have overlapping but different requirements. For tools to support
the most important activities of the CoP [Wenger, 2001]
the needs of community members shall be studied carefully [Cothrel
et al, 1999]. From an organizational perspective, overlaps between
otherwise autonomous tools lead to an unwanted cost and administration
overhead. Thus, the term of Smart Enterprise Suite has been coined which
offer a set of integrated tools which are believed to substantially reduce
integration costs [Shegda et al, 2002]. However,
many of the community-oriented tools available today highlight specific
kinds of applications such as e-learning or document management. In this
chapter we will discuss the benefits of combining applications into one
"umbrella" type of tool.
3.1 Content- and Document Management
From a CoP perspective, what are the benefits of adding content- and
document management capabilities to collaboration / groupware, web conferencing,
e-learning, and portal, respectively?
Deploying content- and document management combined with collaboration
tools links knowledge creation and capture, is particularly suitable for
communities with a high amount of collaboration around documents. Knowledge
desktops integrate knowledge and work to make participation in communities
seamless. Some collaboration tools (such as team collaboration) offer limited
degree of document management. One example is Microsoft SharePoint which
is aimed at smaller groups where security is not an issue.
Combining web conferencing tools with content- and document management
facilitates the expansion of the knowledge base by storing and finding
conferencing sessions. Furthermore, content can more easily be (re-)used
as background material for conferencing sessions.
Lotus and Hyperwave are some of the surprisingly few vendors who have
combined e-Learning with content- and document management technology. This
type of integration reduces the cost of learning material "creation",
turns learning material into evolving objects and bridges the barrier between
conscious and unconscious learning.
3.2 Collaboration / Groupware
Collaboration and conferencing are two closely related types of technologies:
web conferencing is also referred to as synchronous communication (because
there is no delay in communication between community members). In contrast,
collaboration tools are often said to provide asynchronous communications
(e.g. e-mails remain in a "mailbox" until they will be read).
Some vendors such as Open Text and Hyperwave offer both types of technology.
Although there is some overlap (also in the objectives for deploying these
technologies for CoP) web conferencing is becoming popular only now such
that we can expect to see enhanced products in the near future.
When it comes to integrating collaboration with e-learning we need to
distinguish between special purpose learning spaces and fully fledged workspace
tools: for example, many of the e-learning vendors offer discussion forums
to enable dialog between learners. On the other hand, there are tools to
support collaboration in work teams where all work resources (including
documents and staff) can be identified through that work space. When integrated
with e-learning such a collaboration tool connects instruction-based learning
and working-based learning with each other.
3.3 Web Conferencing and e-Learning
Some e-learning vendors offer web conferencing as part of their virtual
classroom product. However, the emphasis is more on conference / presentation
rather than meeting / discussion.
Modern e-learning systems not only allow the delivery of static web-content:
the integration with Knowledge Management provides the learner with access
to the corporate knowledge base, peers, experts, etc. Integrated Knowledge
Management technology is well suited for a "modern" approach
to learning [Yager, 1991]: In simple terms, learning
is steered by the learner who will on demand pull knowledge from peers
and codified knowledge in a database. Both the corporate knowledge base
as well as the CoP are invaluable sources for learning. Since integrated
Knowledge Management suites are capable of providing a unified knowledge
base, members of the CoP as well as other employees have the ability to
gain access to those skills which they need for their everyday work, either
through documented knowledge in the database or through experts around
Table 1 summarizes the findings of chapters 3.1 - 3.3.
|Benefits of adding Content- and Document Management to ...
|Collaboration / Groupware
- Tightens the link between the processes of creating and sharing knowledge
(through interaction and negotiation in the context of conversations) and
the creation of a repository with documents to capture this [Wenger,
- Enhanced suitability for communities where collaboration involves a
degree of documents such as in engineering or in research & development
- Reduces need to purchase (or even build) overlapping functionality
such as document storage and access rights management in two separate tools
- Ability to retain conferencing sessions and expand knowledge base
- Have background material available for conferencing sessions
|Benefits of adding Collaboration / Groupware
- Possibility to choose the appropriate means of communication depending
on the situation: web conferencing for issues that need to be resolved
in a short period in time, more complex types of communication involving
e.g. gesture; asynchronous communications for simple queries, enquiries
to people who are "currently" unavailable, etc.
- Reduces need to build / purchase overlapping functionality in two separate
- Connects instruction-based learning and working-based learning with
each other [Wenger, 2001]
- Reduces need to build / purchase overlapping functionality such as
discussion forums or bulletin boards in two separate tools Benefits of
adding e-Learning to ... Content- and Document Management
|Benefits of adding e-Learning to ...
|Content- and Document Management
- Reduce cost of learning material creation by re-purposing selected
documents as learning content
- Through annotations - turn static e-learning course into a knowledge
object evolving over time [Droschl et al, 2002]
- Break up the barrier between conscious learning and unconscious learning
[Farmer et al, 2004].
- Facilitate synchronous communications among peers
- Enhance learning content with multi media matrial (comments by peers)
Table 1: Benefits of combining Content- and Document Management,
Collaboration / Groupware, Web Conferencing, and e-Learning.
A key issue when introducing CoP is integrating it with the corporate
perspective. As pointed out above, there are various other forms of collaboration
that may co-exist such as dispersed project teams, process, and CoP [Droschl,
2003]. In the following, two popular knowledge management strategies
shall be considered: (1) codification (i.e. writing documents to express
people's knowledge and experience and distributing that information to
those who need it), and (2) personalization (i.e. channeling individual
expertise by linking people with people) [Hansen et al,
Ad (1) Codification: The building parts of codified knowledge include
office documents, e-mail, meeting protocols, project documentation, as
well as archived video and voice conferences, contributions to discussion
forum, instant messaging, and chat. These are "produced" throughout
the organization, in various projects, processes, knowledge networks and
CoP. From an organizational perspective, creating this information is desirable.
However, to the individual codification and documentation may appear as
a burden. Technology can help here by facilitating the re-use of messages
in discussion boards and the like.
Re-use of codified knowledge (i.e. information) is often at other places
than those where the information was produced. To facilitate distribution,
communities may be combined with the organizational perspective by providing
so-called multiple views on documents according to changing context: when
browsing the CoP context (or virtual CoP space [Carotenuto,
Etienne, Fontaine et al, 1999]) members would see all documents and
information related to the CoP. When browsing the organizational unit context,
staff in that business unit would have access to those documents relevant
to the business unit. Since some documents may occur in multiple contexts,
there are multiple views on these documents.
The merits of a codification strategy include the following: (1) documents
are valuable source for identifying subject matter experts. (2) When trying
to keep training content up-to-date and appropriate for the targeted group,
regular documents may easily be integrated into a online courses. According
to a personalization strategy training content is presented in a way which
is appropriate for each individual. For example, a project management course
may contain an optional part on software development aimed at one group,
and another optional part regarding industrial plant construction for another
group of people. In any case, knowledge networks as well as the technology
associated with it, will facilitate the interaction of learners in their
Ad (2) Personalization: A key benefit of the tools described above is
in connecting people via long distances. For members of a distributed community,
standard web browsers are sufficient to gain access to community technology.
Making discussions widely available through a central knowledge base facilitates
access to the CoP for non-members, simply because conversation from the
community can be browsed at anytime and in principle by anyone. Personalization
may facilitate access to the CoP for non-members. For example, while members
might see individual contributions to discussion in the CoP, non-members
(which could be all of those who have made not made contributions before)
will instead see summaries of collections.
Wherever desirable, access rights management allows to block information
for specific audiences (such as different organizations or competing business
Table 2 gives an overview of vendors offering community-oriented tools.
Most vendors focus on specific aspects, while Hyperwave is the only vendor
offering an integrated community-oriented product to provide clients with
the benefits discussed above.
|Type of Technology
||Vendors offering Community-oriented Technologies
|Content- and Document Management
|Collaboration / Groupware eRoom
||eRoom / Documentum
Table 2: Vendors offering Community-oriented Technologies
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