Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Knowledge by Association: Communities of Practice in Public Management

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Knowledge by Association: Communities of Practice in Public Management

Article excerpt


How do public managers figure out ways to address the challenges they face? Public managers might start by learning about what peers do in similar situations - by seeking and sharing knowledge. Knowledge sharing has an established tradition in research, particularly on private sector organizations (Powell, Koput, & Smith-Doerr, 1996; Powell, 1998; Brown & Duguid, 2001). Knowledge sharing in the public sector tends to focus on connections across organizations that must coordinate to achieve a particular goal. Research in service delivery settings such as mental health (Provan & Huang, 2012), drug courts (Hale, 2011), and emergency management (Waugh & Streib, 2006) are among the examples. However, public sector organizations may not necessarily need to coordinate to achieve a particular goal. Rather, organizations may simply need to know what others know in order to achieve their own goals. Knowledge sharing in such settings has had limited attention in research on public sector organizations. In research on organizations more generally, communities of practice (CoPs) are presented as one venue for such exchange of knowledge among peers (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Yet, existing research on communities of practice has a largely private-sector orientation with few studies applied to the public sector (e.g. Hatmaker, Park, & Rethemeyer, 2011). In addition, this work focuses primarily on communities that have developed within organizations, with limited attention to communities that have developed among organizations. Furthermore, while this work articulates the ways that communities of practice enable knowledge sharing, detailed accounts of the actual structures, behaviors, and processes embedded in communities of practice that facilitate knowledge sharing is limited1. To build on this work, this study takes an inductive approach guided by the broad research question: How does a community of practice facilitate knowledge sharing across public sector organizations?

This question is examined by studying a particular community of practice, StatNet. StatNet is a group of U.S. municipalities interested in performance measurement. Data from five years of participant observation at StatNet meetings and events along with supplementary interview data reveal the content of the structures, behaviors, and processes that facilitate knowledge sharing in a community of practice. This study contributes to existing research on communities of practice in two ways. First, this study answers Bechky's (2006) call for empirical work that provides "thick description" of a community of practice that spans organizational boundaries. Second, while communities of practice reseach is predominately focused on private sector organizations, this study focuses on a community embedded in a public sector context. This study also contributes to public administration and management research more broadly by focusing on knowledge sharing among organizations that are not working towards a common goal or delivery of service, but rather simply need to know what others know. The findings raise additional questions on knowledge sharing in public sector organizations as well implications for practitioners.

To frame this study, research on knowledge sharing and communities of practice drawn from management scholarship and public administration scholarship are integrated. Next, the context of the study, StatNet, and methods of data collection and analysis are described. Findings are presented and discussed along with a model that emerged from the data analysis. Finally, the study concludes with implications and directions for future research.


Existing research acknowledges that organizations by themselves do not have all the knowledge they need to attain their objectives (van Wijk, Jansen, & Lyles, 2008; Anand, Glick, & Manz, 2002). Reaching across organizational boundaries in search of knowledge is not only necessary, but can be advantageous (Lane, Salk, & Lyles, 2001). …

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