“Why Communities of Practice succeed or fail” – Journal Paper

Reference: Probst, G., & Borzillo, S. (2008). Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail. European Management Journal, 26(5), 335–347. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2008.05.003

This paper examines the reasons for the success and failure of CoPs within organisations .

It investigates 57 CoPs from major European and US Companies. This led to a discovery of “10 commandments”that lead to the successful development and sharing of best practices and it also identified 5 reasons for failure.

A questionnaire was sent to 57 CoP leaders and the results revealed the following:

Successful CoPs

  • 10 governance mechanisms linked to strategic objectives
  • an active collaboration between “sponsor” from top management and the CoP leader
  • networking routines
  • a risk-free environment
  • the measurement of CoP’s success

Failure of CoPs

  • absence of a core group
  • weak one-to-one connections between members
  • rigidity of competences
  • lack of identification with the network
  • practice intangibility

The Argument

Initially CoPs were presented as spontaneous, self-organising and fluid processes that management cannot intentionally establish. However later works in this field suggest that CoPs are amenable to manipulation and this must receive institutional support for strategic advantage. This has caused a growing tension in the literature regarding CoPs manageability. In most recent studies they suggest that while organisations need to foster and participate in CoPs to leverage their full potential, they cannot fully own or control them.

The Research Question

through which specific governance mechanism are communities of practice successfully guided

A CoP is defined as successful when it’s members exchange specific knowledge, practices and/or experiences that contribute to developing a practice.

Perception analysis of CoP leaders using ‘elite interviewing’ technique to collect data.

Data Collection (February 2007 – May 2007) 

1st Phase – Qualitative Research – yielded 45 successful CoPs and 12 unsuccessful CoPs

How was the success of a CoP assessed?

  • “proven” or “best practices” were regularly posted on the community’s shared database
  • members regularly posted their feedback on the database having used one of the best practices in their organisational unit
  • leaders reported that members regularly jointly developed common insights, created common approaches and compared the practices

2nd Phase – Semi-directed interviews with the 45 successful leaders – asked theory driven questions related to the positive impact that governance might have on a CoP – leaders had to support their evaluations with concrete facts from their CoPs

3rd Phase – Semi-directed interviews with the 12 unsuccessful CoP leaders – leaders were asked why they thought their CoP failed

The 10 Commandments (successful CoP)

  1. Stick to strategic objectives
  2. Divide objectives into sub-topics
  3. Form governance committees with sponsors and CoP Leaders
  4. Have a sponsor and a CoP leader who are “Best Practice Control Agents”
  5. Regularly feed the CoP with external expertise
  6. Promote access to other intra and interorganisational networks
  7. The CoP leader must have a driver and promoter role
  8. Overcome hierarchy-related pressures
  9. Provide the sponsor with measurable performance
  10. Illustrate results for CoP members

The 5 reasons for CoP failures

  1. lack of a core group
  2. low level of one-to-one interaction between members
  3. rigidity of competences
  4. lack of identification with the CoP
  5. practice intangibility

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