Against Hierarchy and Chaos Knowledge Coproduction in
Nets of Experts1
(Fraunhofer ISST Berlin, Germany
(Fraunhofer ISST Berlin, Germany
Abstract: Communities of Practice (CoPs) are among the most promising
concepts to promote the genesis, evolution and exchange of knowledge in
organizations. However, there is a gap between CoP theories and their implementation
in companies. Our case studies of four attempts to introduce CoP-related
structures show that the different underlying management principles can
systematically be analyzed in at least two dimensions, technology "vs."
the social and exchange "vs." production. We argue that the choice
is not contingent, but that emphasis on the social and the creative production
of new knowledge leads to more productive structures in the area and in
the sense of knowledge intensive services. For the conception of such approaches
we show that it is useful to think in terms of another structure between
"teams" and "communities", which we call "nets
Keywords: Communities of Practice, Nets of Experts, Case Study,
Siemens, Volkswagen, Deutsche Telekom, WiKo
Categories: K.4.3, K.6.1
It is now business folklore that any "management" of knowledge
has to take into account the social and cultural aspects of the genesis,
evolution and exchange of knowledge, and that in business life Communities
of Practice (CoPs) are among the most promising concepts for achieving
that. However, there is a gap between theory and practice of CoPs, or,
in other words, between discourse and implementation. Actually, at least
four levels of dealing with CoPs can be distinguished: the research community,
decision makers in organizations, the level of technical implementation,
and every day use by members of the organization. Concentrating on the
scientific point of view it becomes apparent that neither axiomatic theories,
which postulate abstract properties for CoPs, nor synthetic theories characterizing
CoPs by their basic elements can explain the variety in a systematic way.
Only an analysis of the different approaches taken in organizations under
the "CoP" maxim will help bridging the gap.
preliminary version of this article has been presented at the IKNOW '03
(Graz, Austria, July 2-4, 2003).
And special attention must be paid to the different environments knowledge
production takes place in. Knowledge and sharing take on a different meaning
depending on the branch. Sometimes privacy is considered more valuable
than creativity, and quite often effectiveness more than both. If thoroughly
considered, this can help to bring light to the theory instead of confusion.
This paper investigates the gap between theories and implementations
by extracting implicit strategies from the approaches taken (see chapter
4) via case studies of four CoP-related approaches in major German
companies (see chapter 3). Based on a sketch of the
field of CoP theories as a blueprint to set up the level of analysis (chapter
2), we try to map back the analysis of two dimensions of the implicit
strategies to the structure of the organizations. This allows us to draw
links to the characteristics of different fields of application, thus narrowing
the mentioned gap (chapter 4). It even yields the possibility
to evaluate which strategy fulfils best the requirements of the knowledge
intensive services sector (chapter 5).
In chapter 6, we provide an outlook to a project
conducted at the Fraunhofer ISST in Berlin which tries to learn from these
results, followed by a short conclusion (chapter 7).
2 Theories of CoPs
Following the general perception during the second half of the Nineties
that there is no such thing as "the" knowledge management system
for a given company or organization, let alone all of them, there has been
a shift towards the concept of Communities of Practice. The term itself,
coined by anthropologist Lave and IT consultant Wenger (see [Lave,
1991]), stems from learning theory. The definition is built upon the
participation in a system of action with shared identity and motivation,
learning being "legitimate peripheral participation", a sociological
concept. The characteristics of a CoP can be stated clearly: a common interest
in the area of knowledge, emphasis on exchange and creation of knowledge,
voluntary participation, and self organization [see Wenger,
One major early source for CoP theory was XEROX's Parc institute (see
[Brown, 1989]), stressing common work from a CSCW
perspective with axiomatic role models and community structure blueprints
(see [Brown, 1998]). We call these the "idealistic"
or "axiomatic" theories, because they construct the notion
of a CoP on axioms abstract from practice, like in "A CoP defines
itself along 3 dimensions: (1) its joint enterprise as understood and continually
renegotiated by its members, (2) the relationships of mutual engagement
that bind members together into a social entity, (3) the shared repertoire
of communal resources [...] that members have developed over time."
(see [Wenger 1998a]).
Another category of theories give "instructions" for community
building, e.g. the approach of "building blocks for Knowledge Management"
(see [Probst, 1997]) or Wenger's "types of communities"
(see [Wenger, 1998a]) or "types of leadership"
(see [Wenger, 1998b]). Theories of this kind seem
to be more concrete, superficially. But since they are by no means related
to the organization's history and culture, they also represent an idealized
view on atomic units social entities are said to consist of. We will call
this kind of theories "pseudo-concrete" or "synthetic".
What is missing from the theoretical perspective is an analytical approach
to the CoP phenomenon drawing insight from analyzing the variety of grown
social structures: In practice, organizations have their unique history,
and therefore culture, encompassing organizational and social properties
(see [Ackermann, 2003]). From this it becomes evident
why in practice very different approaches are taken. The Archimedean point
is the self-contradiction of "voluntary self-organization as a steering
concept". If, by definition, CoPs cannot be enforced, three possibilities
remain: just motivate, build onto existing grass root structures, or use
force at start up only. Put the other way around, this implies that different
realizations of the CoP concept in practice should lead to a better understanding
of social interaction. Variety does not necessarily blur theory, but can
help to enrich it.
3 The Case Studies
For taking a closer look at the gap between theory and practice, we
conducted four case studies among three major German companies in the knowledge
intensive services sector. The choice was random insofar as virtually all
major companies have in one form or the other tried CoP approaches until
today. It is not contingent as far as from this set a distinction according
to two dimensions can be drawn: on the one hand, the dialectics between
technology and the social, and on the other hand the balance between exchange
of knowledge and creation of new knowledge.
3.1 Siemens KN
Relatively early, in 1997, Siemens networks division ICN created its
"Knowledge Networking" (KN) department for the 8,800 employees
of German Sales and Service. Based on simple technological means like browsers
and database, KN encompasses a multitude of functionalities like extensive
yellow pages with communication aid, a database of competitors, consulting
and controlling around networking issues, e.g. the calculation of the "KN
indicator" of employees, off-the-shelf processes for the systematic
collection of field workers' knowledge, the integration of job specifications
und management instruments, as well as its own editorial board to coordinate
and condense information.
To start KN, a big effort was necessary: a special PR department for
slogans, logos and events, a heavyweight system of incentives like travels,
musicals and jewelry vouchers, questioning of employees and in some cases
the obligation to enter data. By these means, participation could be highly
increased in the beginning, at least in the Service area, but in Sales
the intrinsic logic of incentives hindered a march through success. All
in all, a heavy burn-out could be observed, and new knowledge was hardly
ever created. Today KN goes on working, while ShareNet (see 3.3)
has long ago become company standard.
3.2 Volkswagen ww.deck
In 1998, the in-house consultant firm of the Human Resources Department
VW Coaching in collaboration with VW's IT section K-DO was assigned the
task to introduce the concept of Communities of Practice to 330,000 employees
In "world wide development and exchange of corporate knowledge",
experts from around the globe are linked in so-called expert rooms for
about 50 "job families" like "varnishing" or "smell".
Experts and moderators are chosen by their superiors, as is the structure
of expert room content, but then the experts are left to themselves. The
constitution of the community is encouraged by trust building measures
like start-up workshops. Motivation only works on a social basis, by being
appointed as an expert in the expert room and in daily work surroundings.
The technological part of ww.deck stresses usability over features:
yellow pages, bulletin boards, versioning, encryption and a document management
system for project reports, information and best practices were implemented.
Reportedly crucial to the success is the possibility of offline work, because
work in ww.deck is not paid as such. Apart from that there are additional
projects for "knowledge transfer" to new employees and, promoted
by the German Ministry of Research, "knowledge balance" on the
evaluation and management of knowledge.
On the one hand, ww.deck has been considerably enlarged since its foundation,
on the other hand, it is still restricted to R&D and Production, as
it is not an explicit goal to incorporate more than about 10% of the employees.
A special problem is said to be the company's standard language English
that cannot be strictly enforced, so that techniques of automatic translation
are being evaluated.
A similar approach is followed by the food company Unilever with its
"Knowledge Mapping and Structuring Unit" (see [Andriessen,
3.3 Siemens ShareNet
In the aftermath of a study of the Boston Consulting Group, which had
criticized the centralistic organization of the transnational company,
Siemens ShareNet was kicked off in the beginning of 1999. Started in the
ICN and ICM divisions (networks and mobile) for the sake of decentralizing
the world wide exchange of knowledge, today ShareNet has become the standard
system for all knowledge management activities in all Siemens divisions.
ShareNet was first introduced for Sales and Service, not so much for R&D,
where up to this day a strong centralization is prevalent.
ShareNet is a personalized, world wide, English language intranet open
to all employees, where on the one hand codified knowledge called "knowledge
objects" (projects, customers, markets, competitors or solutions)
can be stored, and on the other hand personalized knowledge like bulletin
boards, news, chat and ads are communicated. The most favorite channel
within ShareNet is Urgent Requests with a medium answer time just below
13 hours. On the technical side, ShareNet abounds in features: filters,
universal comments, alerts and other pushing techniques, an archive for
everything that was not updated following a reminder, and a complex recommender
system. The latter also serves as the basis for the initially considerable
incentive system (travels, mobile phones). The major problem besides distortions
caused by the incentive system is the lack of workflow control. There is
a "global editor", but only a formal check is performed, while
no examination of content by authoritative departments takes place. Of
course, over the years a threatening heap of "dead knowledge"
has piled up, which is probably one of the worst problems ShareNet is facing
today. ShareNet's priceless advantage is that due to the international
aspect of the exchange competitive struggles in Sales and Services are
Communities at the petroleum multi Shell work similarly, but with a
strategic clustering of small communities in bigger groups (see [Andriessen,
3.4 Deutsche Telekom "virtual forms of labor"
It is a long time goal of Europe's biggest telecommunications company
to introduce new forms of communication to its divisions. With "MyTeamNet",
the Deutsche Telekom does have an elaborate intranet, but its two main
characteristics are still top- down structure and information overkill
(>1000 servers, >4 million pages). Under the label "virtual
forms of labor", the corporate part of Telekom tries to modernize
company culture from the top by offering technology and organizational
concepts to "grass root" initiatives.
The offer encompasses virtual rooms for special goal-oriented projects
or less streamlined teams with topical orientation. Technology is supplied
and adapted to needs, organizational concepts, coaching and facilitation
are provided, while the teams and projects have to develop in their departments,
either initiated by a sponsor or out of employee initiative. The structures
in store range from definitions of roles for coordinators, moderators,
administrators and back officers together with the specification of respective
access rights, to phase plans of a community cycle: initiation (choice
of participants), kick-off (determination of goal, roles, schedule, rules,
structure of topic), work phase (moderation, virtual and conventional methods,
techniques of coordination like collection, debate, voting) and conclusion
(result, feedback, lessons learned, presentation). The technology is supposed
to require no special resources for development, but is integrated into
the general restructuring of the intranet. Today there is not even yet
a single place where all communities are registered. In the international
context, anything alike has failed so far due to diverse "problems
A similar approach of cultural sponsorship of Communities of Practice
is practiced, e.g., by the petroleum company BP Amoco (see [Andriessen,
4 Implicit Strategies
These approaches provide a good comprehensive overview over the bandwidth
of the CoP concept: Generally, our case studies show that not only the
introduction of CoP-related structures into organizations starts in some
substructure, rendering ways of speaking like "Knowledge Management
@ Siemens" highly inaccurate, but also that in complex organizations
usually different approaches compete for budgets in such a way that there
is little transparency, making "If Siemens knew what Siemens knows"
"If Siemens at least knew what knowledge management activities Siemens
is pursuing". From outside, visibility is even worse. Apart from a
handful of success stories, hard figures are hard to find out.
Speaking about the differences, two dimensions have proven to be useful
to the analysis, the first concerning the degree of technology used to
control the genesis and evolution of communities, and the other the probability
that truly new knowledge is created rather than merely passed on (see Fig.
Siemens Knowledge Networking is not really yet an actual CoP approach,
but rather a previous step. The emphasis lies on codified knowledge, or
even knowledge as a trading good that can be managed contrarily to the
interests of employees.
Of the typical CoP characteristics at least one, self-organization,
is violated. This accounts for the short-winded success, especially when
related to the effort taken.
With Volkswagen ww.deck and Siemens ShareNet, we face two typical descendants
of "second generation Knowledge Management": by supporting the
natural phenomenon of knowledge communities, processes like internalization,
externalization and socialization of knowledge are supposed to be promoted.
The important difference is that ShareNet relies more on the set-up of
technology, infrastructure and global steering through incentives, with
the social element developing freely within this frame, while VW imposes
social structures and topics locally, with technology, motivation and workflow
being negotiated on the micro level. The former brings the disadvantage
that unstructured content starts to grow without bounds so that "unnatural"
means of control have to be taken, while the latter sacrifices the creative
potential of free genesis, evolution and dissolution of CoPs to a higher
stringency. Whereas ww.deck neglects the influence of the negative side
of participation (exclusion), ShareNet preemptively discards the benefits
achievable through (social) self-organization. This is reflected in the
partial successes and failures of the approaches.
Figure 1: Dimensions of analysis
With some justification, the approach of the Deutsche Telekom could
be labeled "second generation CoPs" (and with that, "third
generation Knowledge Management", as it were). Here, neither communication
and exchange are understood as ends in their own right, to be supported
with maximum technological and economical driving force, nor are communities
seen as manageable entities that can be "bred".
Instead, organically evolving communities are given organizational,
technological, structural, financial and - equally important - time and
space resources to promote their development. But while as an idea this
seems consequent, at the time when our study was conducted it was still
questionable if this approach could (be) spread within an entire organization.
Here, without neither a technical nor a managerial hierarchical apparatus,
the paradox of management becomes especially critical. But in our opinion
this only shows we are moving in the right direction.
Taken for granted that communities - and in business life obviously
most preferably CoPs - are the approach to introduce when knowledge is
supposed to develop in a given organization, there is nonetheless no canonical
way of mapping the abstract theoretical concept onto a certain company
with its unique history, culture and physical body. But that does not necessarily
mean that generalization is impossible. Rather, community approaches should
be thought of in the dialectics of at least - as proposed here - two dimensions:
technology "vs." culture and exchange "vs." production.
Thus, strategies in this field are tightly linked to the historically grown
culture of an organization, and to general principles of management.
Hierarchical structures like KN or ww.deck where the respective lower
levels in the hierarchy are directed from the top - tend to hinder creativity
by being "contra-intuitive" or simply against local interests.
Even if VW's expert rooms are locally pseudo-self organized, the benefit
is rather for collaboration requiring a limited amount of creativity (or
a high degree of privacy, as in automobile research). On the other hand,
Siemens' anarchic approach wastes intelligence and natural social structure
by arranging an uncontrollable flow of information according to simple
"mechanical" rules. This giant machine can for a while yield
surprising results, but mostly for standardized processes like in the telecom
sales business. The most promising image is that of cultural sponsorship
(backed by technical and structural support, of course), bundling, linking
and promoting "natural" initiatives and so bringing together
voluntary elements with the power of enforced structures. For knowledge
intensive services this "cultural" approach seems to be the most
appropriate one, but practical results will still have to show odds and
6 Implications for Practice
The WiKo (KNowledge COproduction) project of Fraunhofer ISST in cooperation
with the Fraunhofer FIT and industry partners (see [Fuchs-Kittowski,
2003]) aims at overcoming the disadvantages of one-sided approaches.
In the course of our studies of work processes we found out that often
dichotomized thinking in terms of teams for output-oriented work
and communities for creative collaboration that is not aimed towards
a common goal does not represent the real, let alone the optimal workflow.
[Fuhr, 2003] we describe the structures visually as
octopus, net and root for the hierarchical pyramid,
the anarchic dynamic exchange and the grass root sponsorship approach,
WiKo describes a structure termed net to be the missing link
between the two: Individuals dynamically form a net with people from
different communities across their standard teams to solve a
problem. This way, the artificial and contra-productive separation between
"experts" and "non-experts" is dissolved, and inputs
from different professions can stimulate each other.
Table 1: Types of Collaboration Groups
Besides this "social transparency" WiKo also takes care of
the technical side by transparently integrating the different media used
for collaboration by certain groups, like instant messaging, documents,
mail, discussions, so that in the ideal case navigation is only by content
instead of form. The whole platform is embedded into personal work processes
to make use as natural and intuitive as possible. WiKo does not try to
impose a new structure (of organization, of thinking) onto a social system
but comes in from the bottom to technically lessen the gaps between different
forms of cooperation.
Of course it is not easy to introduce such a profound change of workflow
and even thinking into the everyday processes of an organization, but so
far, at the beginning of the evaluation phase, officials indicate that
the WiKo platform is successful in supporting the organization's knowledge
We have shown how it is possible to depart from a purely axiomatic or
synthetic level of theory of Communities of Practice by analyzing different
contexts of intensive knowledge production. The "paradox of management"
proves to be the Archimedean point apparently demanding a choice in two
dimensions, between social and technical control and between exchange and
production. And different areas of practice have different preferences
according to their secondary interests (e.g., secrecy directly after productivity
However, creativity can be nourished by a certain type of cultural approach.
Therefore it can be necessary to introduce a new type of collaborative
group, the so-called "net of experts", as we did in the Fraunhofer
ISST project WiKo. In this case the intensive process of case studies -
analysis - theory building - conception and implementation has been rewarding.
These results have been obtained in the course of the project "Cooperative
Knowledge Production in Knowledge Intensive Services" (WiKo, www.wiko-projekt.de)
of the Fraunhofer ISST Berlin, funded by the German Ministry of Science
and Education. The project was conducted in cooperation with Fraunhofer
FIT and industry partners IG Metall, Deutsche Telekom and processware GmbH.
[Ackermann, 2003] Ackerman, Mark; Pipek, Volkmar;
Wulf, Volker (eds.): Expertise Sharing: Beyond Knowledge Management, The
[Andriessen, 2001] Andriessen, J.H. Erik; Huis in
A't Veld, Mirjam: Group dynamics and CoPs, 2001, www-staff.it.uts.edu.au/~lueg/pospapers/Andriessen.doc.
[Brown, 1989] Brown, John Seely; Collins, A.; Duguid,
P.: Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning, Educational Researcher
[Brown, 1998] Brown, John Seely; Duguid, P.: Organizing
[Fuchs-Kittowski, 2003] Fuchs-Kittowski, Frank;
Stahn, Peter; Walter, Rolf: Wissensmanagement und E-Collaboration - Ein
Framework für Communities, Teams und Netze zur Unterstützung
kooperativer Wissensarbeit?, in: KnowTech 2003 - 5. Konferenz zu Knowledge
Engineering & Management München, 20.-21. Oktober 2003.
[Fuhr, 2003] Fuhr, David; Fuchs-Kittowski, Frank:
Root, Net and Octopus. Case Studies into the CoP Theory-Practice Gap, in:
Proceedings of I-KNOW'03, J.UCS, Graz 2003, 22-27.
[Lave, 1991] Lave, Jean; Wenger, Etienne: Situated
Learning - Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press,
[North, 2000] North, Klaus; Romhardt, Kai; Probst,
Gilbert: Wissensgemeinschaften - Keimzellen lebendigen Wissensmanagements,
in: io management, no. 7/8 (2000), 52-62.
[Probst, 1997] Probst, Gilbert et al.: Wissen managen:
Wie Unternehmen ihre wertvollste Ressource optimal nutzen, Gabler, Wiesbaden,
[Reuter, 2002] Reuter, Patrick; Fuchs-Kittowski,
Frank: E-collaboration for knowledge intensive services, in: IM: Fachzeitschrift
für Information Management 17 (2002), no. 4, 64-71.
[Wenger, 1998a] Wenger, Etienne: Communities of
Practice. Learning, meaning and identity, CUP, 1998.
[Wenger, 1998b] Wenger, Etienne: Learning as a
Social System, 1998, http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml.