Managing Complexity via Communities of Practice

Lai Ling Ng, Jon Pemberton

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Globalisation, liberalisation of trade, internationalisation of financial markets, and the information technology revolution are but some of the developments that organisations have had to contend with in the last few years. There are, therefore, huge challenges for business leaders in the wake of constantly shifting global competition and ever-increasing change, underpinned by complexity, unpredictability, instability, and ambiguity (Nixon, 2003). In dynamic and complex environments, it is essential for organisations to continually create, validate, and apply new knowledge in the development of their products, processes, and services to ensure they add value (Bhatt, 2001). In essence, organisations seek to differentiate themselves on the basis of what they know, and managers of successful organisations are consistently searching for better ways to improve performance and results. Indeed, frequent disappointments with past management initiatives have motivated managers to gain new understanding into the underlying, but complex mechanisms, like knowledge, which govern an organisation’s effectiveness (Wiig, 1997). Knowledge is, however, not a rigid structure that excludes what does not fit—it can deal with complexity in a complex way (Davenport & Prusak, 2000). A variety of approaches to knowledge management (KM) exist, many relying heavily on technology. However, the focus of KM has moved from an early emphasis on technologies and databases to a keen appreciation of how deeply corporate knowledge is embedded in people’s experience. Organisations have learned that technology is the easy part of supporting knowledge creation; the difficult aspect is working with people to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing (Allee, 2000). To sustain long-term competitive advantage, an organisation needs to ensure a fit between its technological and social systems. In effect, technologies can be used to increase the efficiency of the people and enhance the information flow within the organisation, while social systems facilitate better communications and understanding of complex issues by bringing multiple viewpoints to a variety of situations (Bhatt, 2001). This socio-technical view of KM has spawned a number of initiatives in recent years embracing organisational, cultural, and individual issues (Pemberton & Stonehouse, 2000). One in particular, the notion of a community of practice (CoP), has played, and continues to play, a significant role in knowledge exchange and creation. Indeed, CoPs are KM’s mechanism of choice and are a valuable means of unlocking this hidden treasure (McDermott, 2000). In this sense, CoPs have an important role in the management of complexity within organisations; this is the focus of this particular article.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Communities of Practice in Information and Knowledge Management
EditorsElayne Coakes, Steve Clarke
PublisherIGI Global
Number of pages7
ISBN (Electronic)9781591405580
ISBN (Print)9781591405566
Publication statusPublished - 2006


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