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Employee participation in a strategic community of practice


Interventions targeting deficits in the information cells of Gilbert’s behavior engineering model can be effective, but typically involve a significant investment of resources. Some organizations see strategic communities of practice (CoP) as an efficient way to disseminate and share information freely. This research takes a systems approach and examines one organization’s CoP inputs, process, and outputs to understand factors that affect strategic CoPs’ utility as a means of information sharing among workers.


Chang, J., & Jacobs, R. L. (2012). Determinants and outcomes of employee participation in a strategic community of practice: A mixed method approach. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 23(3), 341-362. doi:


Initially, communities of practice were informal social gathering among employees where they shared information about their work and developed their identities as members of a work community. Employers, realizing the value of these gatherings, soon began intentionally encouraging social collaboration among employees. Because these organization-sponsored gatherings targeted specific business needs and problems, they came to be referred to as strategic communities of practice.

There is scant literature on just how strategic CoPs function. To fill that gap, the researchers conducted a systematic study of the antecedents (inputs), individual member involvement (process), and outcomes (outputs) of two strategic CoPs in a large electric utility company in the United States. They first created a conceptual framework based on existing CoP literature:

  • INPUTS (participant characteristics and participant perceptions)
  • PROCESS (expected involvement in strategic CoPs)
  • OUTPUTS (learning and learning transfer)

Research Design and Procedures

In order to participate in the study, the organization had to have strategic CoPs that were intentionally developed and implemented, included participants who interacted face-to-face or online, and that had some means of measuring the extent of member participation. After recruiting and screening a number of businesses, the researchers selected a large utility company of over 21,000 employees who served 5.2 million customers in 11 states. This company had two strategic CoPs that met the study criteria.

The research followed a two-phase mixed-methods design that incorporated both quantitative and qualitative data, with greater weight given to the quantitative study. The study focused on four research questions:

Q1. What is the relationship between participants’ characteristics and the nature of their involvement in strategic CoPs? (quantitative)

Q2. What is the relationship between participants’ perceptions and the nature of their involvement in strategic CoPs? (quantitative)

Q3. What is the relationship between the nature of participants’ involvement in strategic communities of practice and the outcomes? (quantitative)

Q4. What outcomes did participants perceive that they achieved from their involvement in strategic CoPs? (qualitative)

For questions 1 through 3, an e-mail survey was sent to members of two strategic CoPs. Follow-up emails were sent on three occasions to encourage participation. The survey consisted of an initial questionnaire and a follow-up questionnaire sent sometime after. To ensure validity of the survey instrument, a panel of experts reviewed the alignment of the items to the domain to be measured. In addition, factor analyses were conducted and Cronbach’s alpha coefficients were measured to test instrument reliability. Alpha coefficients ranged from .74 to .90, suggesting strong reliability.

For question 4, interviewees were purposefully selected from the respondents who indicated a willingness to be interviewed in person or by phone. The interviewees had to have shown the highest level of involvement in the CoPs, and they had to represent a range of geographic locations.  The semi-structured interviews ran approximately 60 minutes and had three sections: respondents’ actions before, during, and after meetings;  outcomes of the CoP; and respondents’ feelings about the CoP.

Data Analysis and Findings

Out of 322 strategic CoP members invited to participate in the survey, 127 (39.4%) responded to the first survey and 73 (22.7%) responded to the second. Only those responses with complete information (N = 60) were used for the bivariate correlation analyses. For Q1, two participant characteristics (1. openness to, interest in, gaining new experiences, and 2. confidence in solving work problems) show a relationship to level of involvement in CoPs (r = .29 and r = .34, p < .05, respectively), but not to time of involvement. For Q2, two perception factors (expected outcomes and knowledge-sharing culture) were significantly correlated to level of involvement (r = .47 and r = .28, p < .05) as well as to time of involvement (r = .38 and r = .29, p < .05, respectively), but two other factors (their experience with the topic and nature of involvement) had no correlation to either level or time of involvement. For Q3, level and time of involvement in the CoP was significantly related to learning (r = .50 and r = .36, p < .01, respectively) and to learning transfer (r = .46 and r = .34, p < .01, respectively). Level of involvement and time of involvement were correlated (r = .90, p < .01).  Interview data yielded four themes identified as outcomes: gaining job related information, solving problems at work, experiencing changes in personal affect, and communication across the organization.

The study’s findings support current literature in that the knowledge-sharing culture of an organization, employee characteristics of openness to new experience, and problem-solving self-efficacy are related to knowledge-sharing behaviors. Also, learning from the strategic CoPs has a stronger relationship to the quality of involvement rather than the frequency of involvement. Including SMEs is integral to the effectiveness of these groups. Finally, organizations should promote knowledge-sharing culture by showing how CoP outcomes support the achievement of organizational goals.

Questions for OPWL-N Members

Has your organization established communities of practice? If you were to facilitate the development of a new CoP or to help sustain an existing CoP in your organization, what factors should you pay attention to and why?

Workplace Oriented Research Central (WORC)
Prepared by OPWL Graduate Assistant, Susan Virgilio
Directed by OPWL Professor, Yonnie Chyung
Posted on October 24, 2013