Thursday, June 03, 2010

The dynamics of managing/nurturing networks of practice

Map of Online CommunitiesImage by D'Arcy Norman via Flickr

I received a beautiful article (thanks to Julie Ferguson!). Just got a tip through the comments that it's also online. This is the full reference to the article:

Agterberg, M., Van den Hooff, B., Huysman, M., & Soekijad, M. (2010). Keeping the Wheels Turning: The Dynamics of Managing Networks of Practice. Journal of Management Studies, 47(1), 85-108

The authors make a distinction between NoPs and CoPs; networks of practice and communities of practice. In their definition CoPs are co-located and NoPs are dispersed. I would not make that distinction, because the closeness between members does not depend on distance, people can really feel part of and identify with a community of practitioners who are based in different location all over the globe.

CoP or NoP doesn't matter, there are important insights into the management interventions to support NoPs (or CoPs I'd say...). The research question was: how can intra-organizational NoPs be managed without being 'killed'? Research has been done in a development organization founded in 1965 and headquartered in the Netherlands (Dutch people can easily guess :). Twenty-two NoPs were formalized with the goal of integrating existing, dispersed knowledge. Management created the formal position of a manager or functional line manager responsible for the NoP. This brings a central dilemma: how to balance emergent self-organization and autonomy on the one hand and some degree of formal management influence on the other hand?

I've never held the belief that communities are fully self-emergent and that you can not intervene/facilitate in communities of practice. Wenger has also written a lot about this management paradox and prefers to call it nurturing rather than managing. Managers should support and energize communities, not neglect and ignore them. (see also my previous post which includes an interview with Wenger).

What are the findings from the study of 22 NoPs in one organisation? Data reveal four sets of dynamics that influence the way NoPs function to integrate dispersed knowledge:

1. Organizational embeddedness
- the extent to which the knowledge shared is relevant for the organisation. It includes institutionalization, the extent to which outcomes of the network can be applied in the formal organization as rules, routines, strategies, trainings etc and relevance for the organisation- the extent to which knowledge in the network is considered valuable for the organization.

2. Embeddedness in practice-
the extent to which the knowledge being shared and created s relevant to and integrated in members local practices. It includes relevance to practice, as connection to daily local practices and common practices, extent to which the network members use the same practices.

3. Relational embeddedness-
the presence of strong social ties. It includes the group feeling, trust, reciprocity as willingness to help each other and face-to-face contact.

4. Structural embeddedness- The structure of connections among people. It includes connectedness and Know who is where and knows what (and how to reach them).

Personally I feel relational and structural embeddedness are very connected to each other and both relate to the level of social capital.

But what did the study find out about management interventions in all these types of embeddedness? Management can enforce the dynamics or degrade the dynamics (which Wenger call 'energize' or 'de-energize'). A few examples of enforcing/energizing interventions:
  • Translating experiences into formal publications and training
  • Informing members about relevant developments in the domain
  • Kick off meetings (to support relational embeddedness)
  • Formalizing networks
  • Providing tools like the E-group (online tool) and travel money to meet face-to-face
A few example of degrading interventions (de-energizing):
  • Asking the networks fo formulate strategies (lowers embeddedness in practice)
  • Setting the agenda (topics introduced by management were not the topics advisors perceived as relevant)
  • Requiring specific outputs from the network (lowers embeddedness in practice)
  • Making top-down decisions which counter the principles of commitment and organisational learning (lowers trust)
  • Giving assignments without focusing on social issues
  • Instruct people to attend a network meeting without the interest of advisors to be connected
  • Install a network without encouraging advisors to participate
In the end, management interventions can have both a reinforcing and degrading effect and it sometimes depends on the context what the effect is. A strong focus on organizational embeddedness denies the practice based and socially embedded nature of learning and turns NoPs into teams.

Another conclusion is that managers "who play the role of primus inter pares seem better able to intervene successfully, but it is no easy task to identify such people." This relates directly to CoP literature indicating that the role of coordinator should be taken up by a practitioner in order to be effective. CoP literature makes a better distinction between the role of the practitioner- coordinator as member of the CoP versus management who are outsiders/sponsors. Nevertheless, I find the list of management interventions very useful, concrete (and even recognisable from experience!).
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Howard Johnson said...

Hi Joitske;
Thanks for bringing this to my attention! My Library had a 1 year delay on this journal, but I found a copy at
The 4 forms of embeddedness on page 90 are consistent with my (abet limited) experience. My best COP experience was highly directed and began with a traditional type of training experience, but it was very effective and met all 4 form criteria. There is one criteria that I would add: a shared sense of purpose, commitment and engagement that is shared with the community and with management.
I do believe that NOPs and COPs are a natural way of organizing and learning in complex adaptive environments, but management style has not adapted yet and needs to change. Agile Leadership may be something that could be relevant to managing COPs see this article, especially the post heroic levels on p. 4.
PS I don't but into the NOP - COP distinction. I would call it COPs and networked COPS.

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

Hi Howard, thanks for the link (didn't think it was online!) and the new article which I'll definitely read.

Your new criteria: a shared sense of purpose, is it not in relationships? Are you talking about the domain clarity? You make me think indeed whether there are more criteria I'd add from experience... I tend to think in the direction of innovativeness/co-creation of new knowledge. Is the community cutting edge?

Howard Johnson said...

I have been thinking about this since George Siemens linked to this report:$FILE/08-59B_Baser_Morgan.pdf
Speaking about Capabilities (I think it's pp. 26-33), they separate relational capacity from engagement capacity; and that seems correct to me. This COP experience I mentioned involved the de-institutionalization of people with disabilities here in the US in the early 1990s. It was related to a sense of seeking justice for people and it was very easy for people to be highly engaged in that effort. This is also a theme of Umair Haque (His blog is here: ). He usually speaks of organizational engagement with customers as a 21st century imperative, but I believe these ideas are relevant to employee and COP engagement too! I think the core issue is for management to find the space for people to engage. Even if you feel your work is mundane, find the space for engagement because engaged people will always outperform the unengaged.