Do Workplace Learning Groups Have an Image Problem? Individual Mental Models of Organizational Communities of Practice

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Do Workplace Learning Groups Have an Image Problem? Individual Mental Models of Organizational Communities of Practice

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Article and Author Information

Sharon Bautista (MSLOC 2014) wrote this article in March 2014 for the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change Capstone Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Sharon joined the MSLOC program as a part-time student in 2011. She currently works at Discover Financial Services where she leads Marketing's Digital Design and Development team. In this position, Sharon leads the team of customer experience design professionals who oversee She and her team work closely with business partners and external agencies to support acquisition and customer engagement through the website and other digital channels. Sharon is currently serving on the Chicago Ideas Week Co-op, a group that sparks connections and breaks down silos across Chicago. Prior to joining Discover, Sharon worked at Blast Radius as a Senior User Experience Designer.


Large corporations are turning to organizational communities of practice (OCoPs) with increasing frequency to promote organizational learning, as well as innovation and competitive advantage. Consequently, OCoPs are becoming more embedded within these organizations, assuming characteristics historically associated with more formal work teams. The growing traction of OCoPs raises the question of whether employees are continuing to think about these groups differently than work teams or more similarly. Based on interviews with 10 individuals from different organizations and industries, the findings of this study suggest that employees maintain distinct mental models of OCoPs versus work teams for several reasons. For organizations and leaders interested in fostering OCoPs, this study suggests some tactics for conveying the benefits of and sustaining such communities.

Introduction of the Question and Methodology

Organizational Communities of Practice in the Spotlight

OCoPs are communities of practice (CoPs) situated in the modern workplace. CoPs were first defined by Lave and Wenger (1991) as locations for situated learning, or learning among groups of people with shared expertise that happens in the same place that the resulting, co-created knowledge is applied. "Organizational communities of practice" emerged as a term to differentiate centuries-old collectives of tradesmen and midwives from the CoPs in present-day work organizations.

Almost fifteen years ago, Wenger and Snyder (2000) called OCoPs "the new frontier," a vehicle for companies to: manifest strategy, develop new offerings, problem solve, transfer knowledge, and attract and develop talent. OCoPs have since grown more common and are being tasked with organizational priorities. Moreover, OCoPs are receiving more formal organizational support than ever before (Stewart, 1996; Ellis, 2001; Hughes et al, 2007; Cordery et al, 2009). The most recent discussions have focused on OCoPs, particularly in large, global corporations with dispersed workforces, as means of knowledge sharing and fostering innovation (Kirkman et al, 2013; McDermott & Archibald, 2010; Kimble & Hildreth, 2005).

The trend toward more embedded OCoPs raises the question of how distinguishable these communities are from work teams, that are also tasked with specific goals, receive organizational support, and interact virtually. Raven (2003) identified six dimensions of collaboration that set OCoPs apart from work teams. These variables are: emergent/mandated task missions, voluntariness of membership, emergent/defined leadership, level of task interdependence, internal/external accountability and sources of resources.

Figure 1

While the research of Raven and other scholars have set out to describe the behaviors of OCoPs, and while the literature on individual mental models of work teams and on shared and team mental models is plentiful, there has not been any empirical research on individual mental models of OCoPs.

Not everyone has adopted "organizational communities of practice" to refer to knowledge sharing and learning communities in workplaces. For example, though Heckscher and Adler (2006) make compelling arguments for why "community" is primarily a nostalgic and therefore problematic term. They opt for the phrase "collaborative communities" to refer to groups that sound much like OCoPs. Bushe and Chu (2011) use the term "fluid teams" to refer to enterprise-focused groups with dynamic membership. Another term used to describe groups similar to OCoPs is "parallel teams." Cordery et al (2009) describe these groups as persistent, innovation-oriented teams that exist outside of the explicit organizational structure. Cordery et al also mention "quality circles" and "continuous improvement teams" as precursors to parallel teams. McDermott and Archibald (2010) note additional terms: the two types of OCoPs focusing on safety at Pfizer are known as "councils" and "networks."

The purpose of this study was to determine individual mental models of OCoPs and like groups in order to determine how organizations can most effectively frame, support, and capture value from these communities.

Research Methods

This study was qualitative in nature, relying on semi-structured, 1:1, in-person interviews to gather insights about individual mental models of OCoPs.Qualified participants were individuals currently employed in organizations (i.e. people who do not work in a solitary fashion), and interested participants were recruited from the researcher's professional and social networks. (See Participant Profiles in Appendix.) All participants completed a written consent, and interviews were designed to last no longer than an hour. All interviews were audio recorded, transcribed by the researcher for purposes of analysis.

The interview script consisted of 12 questions. The first three questions allowed the researcher to collect demographic information, namely the industry of each participant's work organization and the participant's role in the organizational hierarchy. Given that the term "communities of practice" is not necessarily in consistent or widespread use, the next questions were intended to get participants to describe workplace groups more broadly. The remaining questions of the interview script were intended to gauge whether individuals perceived their workplace groups as more like OCoPs or more like formal teams, using Raven's dimensions of collaboration (2003). The last question of the protocol was intended to allow subjects to share any additional thoughts they had about groups within their organizations.

For the analysis of the data, a phenomenological approach was used to generate a set of codes. This approached allowed for identification of patterns and outliers that emerged from participants' accounts of work groups.

Analysis & Results

Types of Workplace Groups

All workplace groups described by participants displayed characteristics of both OCoPs and teams. Categories such as "functional teams" and "project teams" were used verbatim by participants in their responses. Other categories such as "advocacy and compliance groups" were designated by the researcher, extrapolated from analysis of participants' responses. Most groups skewed strongly toward either OCoP or team dimensions.

Groups that most resembled OCoPs included: smaller organizations with regular all-employee meetings, performance-oriented, professional development groups, and social committees. The most team-like groups included: regular meeting groups, functional teams, project and side-project teams, advocacy and mentoring groups, and charitable work teams. Four of the 10 participants mentioned groups made up of individuals external to their organization (e.g. offshore software developers). The four participants, however, did not in their roles interact closely enough to provide detailed descriptions of the external groups.

Figure 2

Barriers to Organizational Communities of Practice

The data from the 10 interviews suggests four key barriers to the formation of OCoPs and like groups.

1. Employees perceived lack of time and resources. Nine of the 10 participants noted a lack of time and/or resources for voluntary learning and professional development. For some participants, this lack of time and resources was not due to lack of organizational support for such development but rather due to the organization's non-profit status and industry. The middle manager working for a university hospital, expressed frustration at the discrepancy between the organization's espoused support of employee collaboration for the purposes of innovation and resources allocated in practice.

"Well, you know, I think every organization, even for a non-profit, you know, says that they want to support cross-functional team interaction and innovation and growth, and they'd like you to do it, but they'd like you to do it on your own time...There's no support for that in the organization. So it's very difficult to pursue it when there's no resources dedicated to it."

Other participants echoed this kind of frustration. The same hospital middle manager obliquely compared her organization's resources to that of technology giant Google:

"...I think there's something, too, about the fact that, we aren't a business who you know a lot of these ideas that, you know, all of the great ideas of Google came out of those kinds of side projects. There's not the impetus to support them from a fiscal perspective necessarily."

This participant's observations suggest that individual mental models of OCoPs and other groups focused on learning and professional development may include a kind of benchmarking due to the visibility of highly successful organizations, those companies' workplace cultures, and the ways in which they promote innovation.

Another participant suggested that organizations assume learning and professional development to be part of their operating model than as distinct priorities with separate budgets and other support. When asked if there were any professional development opportunities within his organization, the mid-level engineer at a manufacturing company explained the logic of their apprenticeship model,

", but they'll work. We always figure that even in the first year someone is not profitable because they're learning their job. We like lose money on a new hire for the first year… It's more of a master apprenticeship type set-up rather than classroom set-up."

In this participant's organization, learning is, in a sense, built into every employee's career trajectory. Employees learn on the job.

2. Groups with unclear value propositions. Another participant suggested that a lack of resources does not necessarily mean an absence of budget or people. Rather, the scarcity takes the form of teams with unclear value propositions. The senior manager at a global consulting firm described the dedicated innovation team in her business area:

"I mean, I sort of know what they do, but I don't totally know create cool tools, and they think a lot and like brainstorm a lot."

The same participant cynically recounted learning that the innovation team's offerings overlapped with another functional group:

"But it's interesting because we also work with [the IT functional group] ... I could have probably worked with the innovation team, but I'm working with [the IT group]. And I don't know if it's because it's a huge project, or the innovation team was busy. I'm not sure. But there are some things like they'll ask me about things about the website and say, like, 'Oh, we could have helped you with that.' Oh, OK. Thanks for letting me know late."

This participant's experience suggests that even companies with resources to support organizational learning and innovation may have difficulty demonstrating returns on such investments if the resources are not framed clearly to the individuals and groups that might benefit.

3. Geographic distribution of employees and virtual ways of working. Two participants in this study also suggested that the geographic spread of employees and technology-mediated communication were barriers to the formation of communities of practice and like groups. The middle manager at a research and strategy firm explained,

"'s very rare that we're all in a room together so the way that group [a functional team] primarily interacts is an email to each other asking the question of, 'Can you help me think of an exercise for this?' or 'Can you send me some work that you've done with this client before?'"

This participant's experience suggests that geographically dispersed employees may settle for and adopt as routine more abbreviated forms of knowledge sharing in the absence of face-to-face time.

Another participant's experience suggests that the cognitive load of certain types of technology may limit organizational learning:

"Yeah, with the [voluntary professional development] groups like this I've never emailed out documents… With this, you'd maybe be a little bombarded if you got six emails with different [sample work]... I don't know how you would, I guess you'd open them, print them and go through them all, but that's usually not how we do these."

Eight of the 10 study participants cited email as a primary means of communication and knowledge sharing. One participant suggested that the reliance on emails for communication is so pronounced that individuals may conflate email listervs with in-person work groups.

4. Adoption of overarching operating models that resemble OCoPs. Data from this study suggests that a fourth impediment to the formation of OCoPs is organizational operating models that resemble such communities. The mid-level designer at a medical software company described the town hall, working session-like format of her organization's bi-weekly all-company meetings. She explained that employees are free to raise issues or things they would like to work on and that initiatives form based on votes from all employees and the willingness of individuals to volunteer to lead these efforts:

"Because even if there were initiatives and that were voted high, you know, people want these things to change, if nobody decides to volunteer, then that's it. Then that's the end of that road until somebody picks it up. So it's not like an executive or a middle manager puts it up, or it's...somebody has to volunteer to do it, to work on it."

The middle manager at a charter school elaborated on the importance of framing OCoP-like groups as opportunities rather than corrective measures:

"I think that fluidity is important within some of these groups so I want…teachers to feel kind of like they're flowing in and out of these groups based on what they need and what's most supportive, and I think that's tied to requiring people to work on something in a group can sometimes be seen as like 'I'm in this group because I didn't do something well, you know, like… And so making sure that people have the confidence to expose, you know, there's things that all teachers are working on so like being confident enough to be a leader with a group and expose challenges [is important]..."

The mid-level project manager at the risk and insurance software company described how her organization engages expertise similar to embedded OCoPs in the absence of a training department:

"Within the day-to-day...there's been some sporadic kind of inconsistent attempts at doing better training because we have no training let's step up, and let's form like a training committee…and help teach and mentor people around these areas... It was like sporadic, random projects where someone was like, 'Well, I put together a bunch of this documentation, and I did a one-hour training on this…"

In this case, the adoption of OCoP-like characteristic is not by design but rather a reaction to a perceived lack of resources. Edmondson (2012) effectively argues that organizations can and should operationalize characteristics reminiscent of OCoPs for the sake of competitive advantage via what the author calls "teaming":

"Teaming occurs when people apply and combine their expertise to perform complex tasks or develop solutions to novel problems. Often a fluid process, teaming may involve performing with others, disbanding, and joining another group right away. An episode of teaming ends once some or all of the work is complete, but teaming as a mindset—and approach to work—can continue indefinitely" (Loc. 1024).

The shift to a teaming approach described by Edmondson requires organizational transformation far greater than required by the formation of discrete OCoPs.

Figure 3

Interpretation and Recommendations

The data from this study suggests a number of ways organizations can support the kinds of knowledge sharing, learning, and innovation historically attributed to OCoPs. For companies with existing communities of practice:

Name OCoPs to facilitate employee awareness. Nine of the 10 participants described both formal and informal groups in their organizations that lacked known names. Participants referred to these groups with varying levels of detail based on their purpose or primary activities. Participant responses suggest that the creation of descriptive, even if humorous, names for OCoP-like groups would help frame these entities more clearly as resources accessible to employees.

Consolidate OCoPs with overlapping areas of focus. Five participants in organizations with OCoP-like groups explained the freedom that employees have to start a group based on any interest. Participants' responses suggest that too many OCoPs can lead to a lack of differentiation that may mitigate the appeal of specific OCoPs to employees with related interests.

Nominate or appoint members with exceptional knowledge. Two participants reported valuing the recognition that came from their work in OCoP-like groups. Also, four participants described OCoPs as one of the most common ways of garnering attention of executive leadership.

Companies interested in OCoPs but without the resources to initiate such groups may consider the following tactics for creating an environment in which learning groups can arise:

De-stigmatize self-initiated learning and professional development. Four participants in this study suggested that an important factor for the sustainability of OCoP-like groups was the organizational culture's acknowledgement of these groups as worthwhile time investments. Employees need to feel free to disclose that they are spending time on learning individually and in groups. OCoP-like groups also need to be framed as resources beneficial to everyone, not simply low performers.

Establish processes and set aside resources for OCoPs to translate conversations into business outcomes. Design processes that can accommodate exceptions for less formal groups. Organizations should also consider creating a budget that OCoP-like groups can tap should compelling business cases emerge from their work. Data from this study also suggests the importance of both explicit and implicit executive sponsorship for the sustainability of OCoP-like groups. Organizations might consider assigning sponsors for self-organizing groups, perhaps by setting the expectation that members of senior leadership should be identifying promising attempts at organizational learning and/or innovation.


The generalizability of this study's findings may be limited because participants were not representative of all working professionals. The sample did not include any entry- or executive-level participants, and the majority of participants were from of small- to medium-sized organizations, with only one participant coming from a global organization with over 200,000 employees.

Another limitation of the study is that participants may have been primed to identify in-person and virtual meetings as a type of organizational group due to the definition of workplace groups provided by the researcher via the interview script. The researcher defined these groups as, "any gathering of more than one employee that meets on a regular or irregular basis--i.e., more than one time in total." Seven of the 10 participants seemed to conflate recurring meetings and groups. For example, the mid-level engineer at the optics manufacturing company noted,

"...I don't know if this would be a group I mean the vice president calls the chief salesman everyday. He works from out of you know he works from [out of state] most of the year. So I don't know if that's a meeting or what. They call and discuss things everyday."

The mid-level designer at a medical software company explained,

"Then there's, I don't know if you'd classify it as a group, you said more than one that meets more than once, but I have for example bi-weekly check-ins with my [discipline's] director, so there's little one-off pieces."

The conflation of meetings and groups may also be due to employees simply being accustomed to thinking about their work commitments in terms of meetings on their calendars.

Areas for Future Study

The data from this study points to several topics for future research. Teams were the primary mode of working for eight of the 10 organizations described in this study. Future studies may explore whether individuals who work primarily alone, like school teachers or engineers on a small-scale manufacturing line, benefit more or less from OCoP-like groups for knowledge sharing and learning. Two participants in this study also suggested that early-career professionals may benefit more from OCoP-like groups than more experienced employees. Further research may help validate or disprove those claims. Finally, four participants cited the influence of executive leadership in the formation of workplace groups, but none of the participants in this study held executive roles. Additional research may explore executive leaders' mental models of OCoPs.


The findings of this study suggest that OCoPs will continue to be a viable means of learning and professional development for an array of companies wanting not only to support their employees but also foster innovation and competitive advantage. This research also suggests that one of the primary ways executive leadership, workplace learning, and organizational development professionals can cultivate OCoP-like groups is by understanding employees' perceptions of learning opportunities and providing clear definitions of existing OCoPs.


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McDermott, R. & Archibald, D. (2010). Harnessing your staff's informal networks. Harvard Business Review, 88(3), 82-89.

Raven, A. (2003). Team or community of practice: aligning tasks, structures, and technologies. In C. B Gibson & S. G. Cohen (Eds.), Virtual teams that work (pp. 292-306). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Wegner, E. C. & Syder, W. M. (2000). Communities of practice: The organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review, 78(1), 139-145.


Participant Profiles Appendix 1

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