Collective Expertise: Ways of Organizing Expert Work in Collective Settings

By Koivunen, Niina | Journal of Management and Organization, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Collective Expertise: Ways of Organizing Expert Work in Collective Settings


Koivunen, Niina, Journal of Management and Organization


ABSTRACT

Two gaps appear in the theory of 'expertise': expert work as an individual endeavor; and, researchers and managers understanding little of expert practice. To bridge these gaps, 'collective expertise' can describe ways of organizing professional expert work in collective settings. This study analyzes 'collective expertise' in three Scandinavian cases using ethnographic methods: a product development process at Volvo; a description of computer programmers' work; and an analysis of nano physicists' organizing practices. The empirical results are used to build a 'collective expertise' theory, based on seven factors identified as contributing to collective expertise: concrete work routines, minimal structure, generosity and gift giving, narratives and story-telling, aesthetic capabilities, room for individuality, and mixed practice zone.

Keywords: collective expertise, knowledge management, ways of organizing, communities of practice, action nets, ethnography, Scandinavia

1. THE INCREASINGLY COLLECTIVE NATURE OF EXPERT WORK

Expert work is often defined as an individual property, as independence and autonomy are central characteristics of expertise. Treating individuals or even organizations as separate entities (entitative or possessive individualism) is typical of mainstream organization studies (Hosking, Dachler & Gergen, 1995). However, while expert work becomes more complex, virtual and technological, collaboration of experts has become necessary. Not only is collaboration now critical, but also collective building of new knowledge among experts, who often come from different educational backgrounds, is necessary. Thus researchers need to study and organizations need to develop and employ such work practices that facilitate cooperation between professionals (Parviainen 2006; Koivunen 2005). That is, ways of theorizing about expert work in collective settings are now needed.

A second gap in the literature, and the purpose of this article, is to bring actual work practices of experts into focus (Barley and Kunda, 2001). Knowledge management concepts may be too removed from organizational context or formulated as dichotomies, such as Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) elaboration on Polanyi's (1962) tacit and explicit knowledge, or individual/ collective, abstract/concrete, theory/practice. Many authors (e.g. Tsoukas & Vladimirou 2001; Werr & Stjernberg 2003; Gherardi 2001) question these dichotomies and four-by-fours by suggesting models that integrate them. Others focus on concrete work practices or draw attention to actual ways of organizing instead of theorizing about organizational structures, boundaries or actors (e.g. Czarniawska 2004a; Hosking et al. 1995). My literature review on knowledge work identified a shift from dichotomies to contextualized and situated approaches to knowledge and presents details of integrative approaches.

This article aims to address two gaps in the literature by proposing the concept of 'collective expertise' to illustrate changing work practices in postbureaucratic society. Collective expertise is defined here as an ongoing processual ability to function together with other experts and create new knowledge. 'Organizing' is understood here as a grass root activity where the participants themselves develop their working practices as opposed to top-down managerialist managing and organizing. This article seeks evidence of concrete work practices of expert work in various forms of collectives: groups, teams, networks or communities of practice.

While it is questionable if knowledge - or experts for that matter - can be managed in the first place, professional work and expert organizations can be studied using ethnographic research and observation. Such studies on expert organizations in Scandinavia were analyzed from the perspective of collective expertise (e.g., Byrkjeflot 2003 and Czarniawska & Sevón 2003), including descriptions of expert work in various settings; three case studies were chosen for a more detailed analysis. …

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