Online Communities of Practice and Professional Change: a Three-Tier View of the Knowledge Embedding Process
This interpretivist study, in the field of information Systems, investigates the process of transformative professional change using a knowledge management lens. The goal of the research was to understand how online communities of practice (CoPs) facilitate the transfer and embedding of professional knowledge. It was guided by the question: How do online CoPs facilitate the transfer and embedding of professional knowledge? This topic was of contemporary and strategic significance in New Zealand: The government had embarked on a strategy to transform teaching in NZ schools, aiming to leverage a major investment in IT infrastructure, using online CoPs to help embed a new paradigm of studentcentred, ICT-enriched learning at system level. There was, however, no research to suggest how this might occur. Despite the increasing use of online CoPs by organisations, and an expansion in the number of tools available for this purpose, there is little understanding of how online CoPs can facilitate knowledge transfer. The way in which knowledge embedding (deep transfer) occurs, and the role online CoPs may play in supporting this process, is particularly poorly understood. This is significant issue in this internet-rich era, when developing nations are aiming to cultivate knowledge economies. I conducted the research using a case research strategy, qualitative methods and an inductive process of theory generation. The research case was a national professional development programme for schools, with five CoP subunits: Four were regionally based school cluster CoPs and one was a distributed blogging community. (Membership of this community overlapped with three of the cluster CoPs.) Based on my analysis of data, and on feedback from participants, I found that three complementary mechanisms were operating simultaneously, facilitating the embedding of knowledge at meso, micro and macro levels. The result of my study is a threelevel explanatory theory. At the meso (school) level, knowledge embedding followed a six-stage cycle, with different activities and issues characterising each stage. Online CoPs played a different role at each stage. At the micro (individual) level, knowledge embedding was driven by teachers' crossings of multiple engagement spaces (communication contexts) in a polycontextual environment. Crossings drove personalisation and facilitated the linking of theory and practice, leading to deep individual understanding. At the macro level, the embedding of knowledge was driven by the brokering function of a middle layer community in a system of overlapping, tiered CoPs. Key roles were played by two kinds of knowledge brokers: connector-leaders and follower-feeders. All three embedding-facilitating mechanisms promoted five fundamental knowledge embedding processes: focusing, persuading, aligning, adapting, and owning (developing ownership).