Growing Pains: A case study on the evolution of a Community of Practice in a rapidly-growing software company

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School of Business | Master's thesis
Degree programme
International Design Business Management
The study is concerned with how social learning and more specifically a Community of Practice underpinning a critical business function has adapted in the fact of rapid growth, and with it, significant changes within the case company. Communities of Practice was chosen after a review of other theories, namely organizational learning and organizational knowledge creation, concluded that they were less equipped to explain the nature of the case company’s service model. The study evaluated the three criteria of a Community of Practice (domain, community, practice) and asks separately of each whether, after prolonged periods of growth, it can still be said that a Community of Practice is enabling learning in the case company. The study uses a methodology drawing on multiple data sources, primary among them being nine semi-structured interviews with employees of the case company, supplemented with graphic elicitation to help interviewees express concepts that are otherwise difficult to verbalize, and wide-ranging access to internal, archival data from the case company. From the initial interviews, 15 frequently-raised concepts were identified. Following Gioia, Corley and Hamilton (2013), these concepts were in turn clustered into six second-order themes, which in turn formed three broad dichotomies aligning with domain, community, and practice. When paired with previous examinations of typologies with Communities of Practice, the study found that, though it could be said that the criteria were still satisfied, growth had created internal conflicts or misalignments that threatened to undermine the Community of Practice. For example, it was no longer entirely true that learning needs were shared within the Community of Practice; increased reliance on virtualized communication channels was making it more difficult for social bonds to form; cognitive overload had a negative impact on knowledge-sharing; and there was a risk of over-management stifling innovation within the Community of Practice. The overall finding about growth creating tension as a result of changing characteristics in the Community of Practice was significant, insofar as previous descriptions of typologies in Communities of Practice tended to treat various characteristics as independent variables, while the study concludes that a well-functioning Community of Practice will benefit from some characteristics over others, and that alignment between such features is needed.
Thesis advisor
Lehtonen, Miikka
communities of practice, growth, social learning, organizational knowledge
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