Computer Mediated Communications and International Communities of Practice

Paul Hildreth, Chris Kimble and Peter Wright


Knowledge has recently been recognised as being an important asset to an organisation, and as such the management of that knowledge has become a hot topic (Amidon 1996, Berghel 1997, Kidd 1994, Lucier 1990, Tricker 1992, Wathne, Roos and von Krogh 1996). A variety of types of knowledge have been discussed, for example tacit and explicit knowledge, (Nonaka date), embodied knowledge, formal knowledge (Fleck and Tierney 1991) and supra individual knowledge (need ref ).

A key part of Knowledge Management is the identification, sharing and development of knowledge (Maglitta 1995, 1996) much of which is an unrecognised resource held in the minds of workers. Supporting the sharing and development of this knowledge provides a new challenge for Information Technology (Manville and Foote 1996). The interest in this paper is not simply the transmission of facts and figures, or codified knowledge but is more to do with how people interact. There is surely a role here for E-mail and other computer mediated communications technologies.

In this paper we are interested in exploring support for one channel of knowledge sharing, namely that which is found in so-called Communities of Practice (Lave and Wenger 1991, Lave 1991) where knowledge is often shared through an apprenticeship system, that is, through shared practice.

Lave and Wenger’s (Lave and Wenger 1991, Lave 1991) examples of Communities of Practice are an example of groups which have a feeling of community due to a common purpose.

Members will probably have some shared background or experience and will share a common language. As new members join the group they learn from the existing members as they work. In such groups the informal lines of communication have been shown to be important for learning to take place and for new knowledge to be created – members will swap experiences and anecdotes and learn from each other (Goldstein 1993, Orr 1990, Sachs 1995). Lave and Wenger’s analysis concerned non-IT settings (tailors, midives etc.) More recently, Seely Brown and Duguid (1996) have shown similar communities evolving around IT technologies such as an Object Oriented Multi User Dungeon (MOO).

Globalisation is also an issue currently affecting many organisations. Global forces are affecting every area of business as well as private and public activities (Manheim 1992, Castells 1996). Some companies are having to restructure themselves to compete on the global basis Sachs 1995, Karimi and Konsynski 1991, Ives and Jarvenpaa 1992). Working in a distributed environment will affect communities in that they will lose many of the opportunities for informal communication. Working in a more internationalised context places strains on the way a Community of Practice may work as they not only have to cope with geographical distance but also time, culture and, possibly, language differences.

As business becomes ever more international the use of teams and communities will become increasingly important (Manheim 1992, Sachs 1995). The knowledge available to an organisation will be ever more distributed. Therefore we need to study the process by which individuals learn from a Community of Practice. We also need to find out how well technologies fit into this process and help overcome the spatial and temporal difficulties imposed by work in a global environment.

The key research question is: Can a Community of Practice exist in a virtual environment? These are the results from a study of CMCs in a modern international company. The preliminary analysis of the data suggests the existence of Communities of Practice and also suggests that they exist across international boundaries. This paper will explore the media used by such communities to support their work, which media are preferred and why and the impact of the media on their work. The aim of this is to examine how CMCs can support or hinder the work of a distributed Community of Practice in an international context. Key aspects will be the use of the media to overcome the physical limitations of time and distance placed on such a group and also the extent to which the media support informal communications. To this end the paper will also explore the content of such communications, for example ‘war stories’, collaborative problem solving and learning from each other despite being in different locations.