Incubating innovation: the case for communities of practice

A Corporate Client Solutions white paper

1. Knowledge impact: innovation and productivity

In the most challenging and competitive business environment ever seen, the strategic application of knowledge is driving innovation in the modern “knowledge economy”. Knowledge is now a primary strategic asset in all contemporary organisations, commercial or non-commercial, large or small.

We have known since Kenneth Arrow’s influential paper on experiential learning in the early 1960’s that, with an ever- shortening “half-life” of validity, knowledge and the learning that underpins it is a precious resource, both for organisations and for the world beyond them (1).

Today then, organisations constantly need to strive to adapt and flex in this rapidly changing, globalised knowledge economy (2). Success in this environment hinges on the capability to learn and apply new knowledge effectively, the key to delivering tangible, measurable value and competitive advantage (3). The fundamental aim of executive and management development is to augment this capability.

Acquiring, applying and developing knowledge in any organisation relies on effective and proven practices, based on well-established theories of knowledge management and learning, such as David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Kolb’s model, tested and validated over the last several decades, envisages learners following a four stage developmental process:

Concrete Experience - a new experience is encountered, or an existing experience is reinterpreted.

Reflective Observation – the experience is evaluated for inconsistencies with existing conceptual understanding.

Abstract Conceptualization – new ideas, know-how or modifications of existing conceptual understandings emerge from the experience.

Active Experimentation – application of the new ideas or modified concepts.

The process is then carried out again, with further reflection and analysis of the experience of the innovated applications (4).

What the experiential learning model demonstrates is the practical application of knowledge, together with the creation of new knowledge in a context of innovative practice. It is the value derived from this innovation that delivers tangible beneficial impact to the productivity of the organisation, whether in new and/or improved products or services, or efficiency gains in organisational processes.

2. Unleashing knowledge through communities of practice

Knowledge and learning then are key drivers in improving organisational performance. Given that the richest repository of knowledge application is to be found in the people in and beyond the organisation, the big question facing organisations today is how to maximise the value and impact of this embodied knowledge.

Knowledge management expert Etienne Wenger believes that communities of practice offer an answer to this question – he calls them the “social fabric of knowledge” (5). Wenger’s ground-breaking research shows how informal or “situated” learning occurs within the context of a practitioner group in “the process of becoming a full participant in a sociocultural practice” (6).

Wenger has extended this concept of situated learning in more recent work on communities of practice in large organisations. His focus has been on how such communities provide the key to improving performance via a form of “collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour” (7).

Wenger suggests that organisations need to recognise that these communities are groups of people who share a “concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (8), and that they need a definite sense of purpose – “intentionality” in Wenger’s terms.

In addition, in order to sustain communities of practice and increase the likelihood of successful outcomes, Wenger identifies three necessary characteristics:

  • Domain – there must be a commitment to and valuing of a shared competence on behalf of member practitioners.
  • Community – the joint activities and discussions that help to share information help to form and cement relationships that enable collective learning.
  • Practice – the members of a community of practice are practitioners who develop what Wenger calls a “shared repertoire of resources”. Building and maintaining such a repertoire requires sustained interaction over time by all members of the community (9).
3. Energising communities of practice

Recent research suggests that the benefits of communities of practice can be scaled by cultivating a “constellation” of interconnected groups of practitioners, each one focussed on core competencies of the organisation. This helps to provide “stewardship” for competencies that represent much of an organisation’s value and potential. 

The “collaborative inquiry” engendered by membership also helps sustain an investment in professionalism amongst participants, benefitting both the individual and the organisation. This professional identity is important because, as research shows, “in a sea of information, it helps us sort out what we pay attention to, what we participate in, and what we stay away from.” (10). Communities are also repositories of knowledge deployed in the various forms of artefacts that members create, including media, products, technology and processes.

But, researchers warn, knowledge cannot always be easily captured even using the most sophisticated technologies as “People are active sense-makers who often share common views but also conflict and disagree”. Therefore organisations need to be aware and sensitive to the tacit aspects of knowledge, the nuanced complex issues that are so often critical to success and that rely on the deep knowledge of expert communities that only emerges through sharing in informal networks (11).

4. Supporting communities of practice with networked learning

Here at Aston much of our own experience of supporting knowledge development in communities of practice has taken place in the context of our executive development programmes. We employ a networked learning framework and carefully selected digital tools to enhance our participants’ application of learning and reflection on its impact – as in Kolb’s experiential cycle described above.

Our executive development team provide an online community tool, a permanently accessible layer of engagement that enhances scheduled face to face sessions. The tool has high usability, is clear and easy to use, and is also – importantly – very reliable and secure. Participants access the tool through a web browser or through its own dedicated apps for mobile devices, for anytime, anywhere connectivity.

We use this approach to create an online community space for each programme cohort. This space offers networked participants opportunities to share knowledge by posting comments, engaging in discussion threads, accessing or sharing additional multimedia resources, and establishing their own distinctive professional identity within the networked community of practice.

In the case of the programme from which the exemplar data below has been drawn, our team created and maintained 28 individual and discrete online spaces, one for each of 28 participant cohorts, representing a total of 586 practitioners.

In the context of this particular programme, we used the online community space for four specific purposes:

  • Internal team communications and project management – verifying specific approaches to digital resources etc.
  • Planning programmes – delivery team only. Programme- specific projects set aside for team members to collaborate on developing materials, planning sessions etc.
  • Planning with the client – team plus client representatives, as above for the programme planning scenario but also as a demonstration and proof of concept.
  • Specific programmes and cohorts: online community space for participants – resource repository such as video, slide- casts, podcast audio, static slide presentations, documents, spreadsheets, graphics etc, and also discussion posts and response threads.

The following examples of participant responses are drawn from specific programme cohorts. Posts have been edited to highlight key indicative information, and while they may seem ostensibly simple examples, they capture great depth in both the process and progress of development.

4.1. Sharing tacit knowledge

Participant 1: Hi, my department's browser has blocked this so I can't view it at work.

Participant 2: I have the same problem. I emailed the link to my home email and it works fine on my home tablet.

Participant 1: Thanks, that hadn't occurred to me, I'll give it a shot :)

This is a straightforward example of sharing tacit knowledge in a social learning context – what Charles Jennings has termed the “70%” “peer-to-peer” element of his “70-20-10” ratio of work based learning (12). It can be observed happening regularly in organisations when people collaborate quite spontaneously and continuously to resolve minor issues.

In this case, the online environment provides a networked environment in which opportunities for basic technical issues to be raised and resolved might emerge. This obviates the need to refer such issues to any external expert persons or system for advice; a simple, pragmatic and verifiable solution is proffered by one member of the community of practice to another, to whom the solution had not occurred.

The level of trust implicated through, and implied by, membership of this community of practice is a factor in the verifiability of the solution: “if it’s good enough for him / her then it should work for me.” The fact that Participant 2 responds with “the same problem” immediately invokes this commutative trust factor, and suggests that the proposed solution is in all probability valid: this is indeed Participant 1’s response: it’s worth a shot.

It’s also interesting to note that, although this may seem a minor technical issue in itself, the proposed solution hadn’t occurred to Participant 1, and therefore the value of the solution to the participant in terms of time saved, far exceeds the superficial triviality of the problem it solves.

4.2. Accessing expert knowledge

Participant 1: I am looking for the day 2 slides - can you signpost me please. The title of the slide show would be helpful.

CED: Hello, I've posted the slides just now, both days are included in one document - it is called 'Leadership Issues'.

The participant is using the community space to actively search for and access resources from the face-to-face element of the module – a simple demonstration of networked learning in action. The interaction here between networked learner and facilitator demonstrates the potential for responsiveness among members of the community: in this case the posted request is picked up by a member of our executive development team, who acts on it by uploading the relevant materials and offers guidance on how to locate it.

This represents another good example of one the fundamental commutative attributes of networked learning, in which all members of the community of practice can share resources openly and make them available to all other members. There is no requirement for a help desk function.

4.3. Applying learning to domain activities

Participant 1. Since the first [face to face] session I've made a conscious effort to be a bit more organised with my team, trying to do a bit of forward planning. I have just completed a piece of work on delegation for my assignment - delegation is a development tool and not a dumping ground - so I make sure I constantly 'develop' staff by coaching on some areas of my work to then ask them to lead on it. Well worth the investment!

I also have an imaginary ball so when someone asks something of me or presents an issue/problem I make sure they walk away with the ball and not me. Investing the time in these areas means I have time for 1-2-1's monthly and a great team spirit. I hope it helps.

Participant 2. I have just started on coaching staff and giving them lead areas of responsibility; that's looking good so far. I like the ball idea also. I will give that a go!

In this discussion a reference (in Wenger’s terms) to “domain interests” when Participant 1 mentions application in terms of coaching their staff, affirms the positive impacts of this on their leadership of their team. This leads to an example of applied learning – in this case delegation – and its impact on leadership tactics, such as coaching and development for greater responsibility, and the idea of the imaginary delegation ball.

This response positively addresses the request for advice with some immediately applicable suggestions that are based on real practice, and show how such a discussion can very quickly discover valuable, exploitable information for practitioners, and help build trust and peer-respect. The response also supports Jennings and others in their championing of the ‘70-20-10’ framework where the networked community of practice forms a conduit for transmission of peer-to-peer instruction and advice – the “70%” in Jennings’ framework.

This participant then reflects on improvements they have begun to make in team planning since the face to face session, and also raises interesting issues of focus and ethos in multi-disciplinary teams. This contribution affirms the affordance for reflection on impact and application offered by the discussion, but also points to an opportunity for further encouragement, analysis and illustration on the part of the facilitators.

4.4. Reflecting on the impact of learning

Participant 1: [Having discussed involvement in a recent project] I found myself wanting to play a leading role - I was eager to make a difference - and so I suggested we pick out key elements of information which clarified the arguments for and against. It was important that each person should be allowed to make up their own minds.

We worked together, helping each other with information we didn't understand (it highlighted the need for simplicity in telling a story), and we were able to come to reach unanimous conclusions.

CED 1: What a fantastic story about how taking a step back and forming own opinion is so important and so valuable. Thank you for sharing and making a difference.

Participant 2: That is a great story, and example of good leadership in my opinion. Do you feel you took the stance you did due to your attendance, and learning, on this course? If so, well done to the tutors, and you for taking it on board and utilising it so well.

Participant 1: I can honestly say that I feel ‘empowered’ as a result of the course. Previously, I might have been content to sit back and let someone else do the work. I’m feeling more confident and dynamic, and prepared to take the lead – and I think this is down to the course.

CED 2: This is a brilliantly written story that has so many important messages in it. Inspired when I read it. Thank you!

In this example, Participant 1 initiates this discussion by narrating their experience in detail. They relate a need to collaborate in order to reach a decision in an allotted time scale, by reference to complex information. The participant suggests that it was their newly acquired understanding of leadership skills that allowed them to make a crucial intervention that resulted in beneficial impact.

CED practitioner 1 encapsulates the value of the post by drawing attention to the key lessons to be drawn from the story and how this relates to the theoretical approaches. Participant 2 is then keen to know how much of what happened is attributable to attendance on the course.

Participant 1 affirms that the course has given them as sense of empowerment that has improved confidence and dynamism in their role, and benefitted their overall leadership capability. CED practitioner 2 responds positively to the post, and confirms that it connects learning with leadership practice in significant ways.

5. Six principles for sharing knowledge to drive innovation

Thanks to the work of Wenger and others, we now know that knowledge sharing can be optimised by cultivating the “social fabric” of situated learning in communities of practice and other collective frameworks – the “shared domains” in Wenger’s terminology. To do this successfully means paying attention to, and providing support for, six key factors:

  1. Fostering a sense of collective purpose, or “intentionality” that builds on professional pride and passion as intrinsic motivations;
  2. Engendering a real commitment to membership of a domain of professional competence as an investment in professionalism;
  3. Supporting the collective activities and relationship building that sustain and develop professional communities;
  4. Helping communities to sustain interaction over time to facilitate transfer of tacit knowledge and to build a shared repertoire of practices.
  5. Connecting communities within an organisation in a constellation based on the core competencies, and the deep knowledge and sense-making of complex issue, that deliver real added value.
  6. Developing a networked learning framework using digital tools that support social and situated learning processes, provides access to shared knowledge, builds trust and communication, and sustains collaboration and innovation.

For any organisation then, the impact of innovation brought about through knowledge sharing is a strategically important asset – success involves cultivating knowledge acquisition and development through experiential learning and harnessing its power to drive innovation through reflective application.

No matter what the technological context, this strategy can only succeed through an organisation’s strategic approach to learning and knowledge sharing, the main source of value in today’s knowledge economy.

  1. Arrow , K. J. (1962) “The Economic Implications of Learning by Doing”, The Review of Economic Studies Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 155-173
  2. Lazanas, A. & Aggelopoulos, Y. (2011), “Exploiting Organisational Knowledge through Virtual Communities”, Conference Paper: 3rd International Conference on The Economies of Balkan and East European Countries in the Changed World (EBEEC 2011).
  3. Stiglitz, J. E., B. C. Greenwald, (2014), Creating a Learning Society, a New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. McLeod, S. A. (2013), Kolb - Learning Styles. Retrieved from
  5. Wenger, E. (2004), “Knowledge Management as a Doughnut: Shaping your knowledge management strategy through communities of practice,” Ivey Business Journal, Jan/Feb 2004.
  6. Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991), Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Wenger-Trayner, E. & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015), Introduction to communities of practice: A brief overview of the concept and its uses. Retrieved from
  8. Wenger-Trayner, E. & Wenger-Trayner, B., op. cit.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Lazanas, A. & Aggelopoulos, Y., op. cit.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Jennings, C. (2016), “70+20+10=100: The evidence behind the numbers”. Retrieved from