Chapter IV: Going Virtual

Chapter IV: Going Virtual

Before meeting our CoP we take the opportunity to explore issues which may affect a CoP which needs to function in a distributed international environment.


As most organisational CoPs tend to be co-located. It is a useful exercise to appraise ourselves of the issues involved in Virtual Environments (VEs) and Virtual Teams. This will give us some idea of the issues that a CoP may face when it has to operate in a distributed environment.

Virtual Working

In order to gain the necessary flexibility for operating in the global environment, firms are increasingly turning to teams and communities (Castells, 1996; Lipnack & Stamps, 1997; Finerty, 1997). Much of the research into virtual communities and knowledge sharing has been undertaken in the field of sociology (for example, Fernback, 1997, and Jones, 1998) and has focused on the communities that develop on the Internet (Argyle & Shields, 1996; Breslow, 1997; Chen & Gaines, 1998; Danet, Ruedenberg, & Rosenbaum-Tamari, 1998) and Internet-based media such as Multi-User Dungeons[8] (MUDs) and Object-Oriented MUDS (MOOS) (Bromberg, 1996; Conkar & Kimble, 1997; Seely Brown & Duguid, 1996), and Usenet and discussion groups. Exploring the communities that have come into being on the Internet has led to debate whether a virtual community is a community at all (Bromberg, 1996; Porter, 1997; Wilbur, 1997), comparisons of virtual and physical communities (Mitra, 1997; Zickmund, 1997), and the general study of communities that have grown up in a VE (McLaughlin, Osborne, & Ellison, 1997; Watson, 1997).

Castells (1996) describes virtual communities as “a self-defined electronic network of interactive communication organised around a shared interest or purpose, although sometimes communication becomes the goal in itself” (p. 362). This was also shown in Conkar and Kimble (1997). In that case the community that had formed around a MUD was referred to as a Community of Practice, and the medium is the practice; that is, the MUD is not only the medium by which the community communicates, but the purpose of the community is interaction within the MUD. The MUD is the principal reason for the existence of the community. Newcomers have to learn the language of the community, how to use the MUD, and the etiquette of the community.

However, discussion of the Internet as a medium for sharing knowledge across time and distance has led several researchers to observe that what is found on the Internet is primarily information, as opposed to knowledge. They argue that the knowledge resides in the human agents using the medium (Interrogate the Internet, 1996; Thu Nguyen & Alexander, 1996), that information can be retrieved from the documents, but discourse is needed for knowledge sharing (Chen & Gaines, 1998). Seely Brown and Duguid (1996) come the closest when they describe a MOO that was set up at the University of Pennsylvania for graduates of Medieval Latin. It was more than a simple chat line; it was a virtual complex with quadrangle, classrooms, a common room where Latin was spoken, and a virtual Coke machine where people could gather and chat. This grew to include scholars from other locations.

The importance of teams and communities to organisations that are having to cope with the pressures of internationalisation has led to a variety of terms being coined and groups being studied; for example, “self-directed work teams” (Evans & Sims, Jr., 1997), “network communities” (Carroll, Langton, & Rosson, 1996), “‘self-managing work groups” (Williams, 1994) and “Virtual Teams” (Barnatt, 1997; Lipnack & Stamps, 1997). These are all types of group that have recently been identified in the modern organisation. Virtual Teams are not to be equated with CoPs but they can help acquaint us with the issues, because they play a role in directly tackling the practical problems posed by distributed international working, that is, problems such as time, place, culture, and language differences.

Virtual Teams

Virtual Teams are teams that, according to Lipnack and Stamps (1997) are teams like any other but that routinely cross boundaries. These boundaries may be national and cultural if the work is spread across different countries, or they may be organisational and cultural, for example, if collaboration is being spread across different organisations in the case of an inter-organisational collaboration or as a result of a merger or acquisition. In doing so they have to cope with the major difficulties of different cultures, different languages, temporal distance, and physical distance.

The problems of overcoming different cultures and languages have been recognised by many (for example, Barnatt, 1997, and Li & Williams, 1999), with culture having received the most attention (for example, Dyrkton, 1996, Chao, 1997, and Pearce, 1997). Cultural differences can involve moral standards (Shade, 1996), or social, learning and organisational differences (Sumner, Domingue, & Zdrahal, 1998). In fact, it can be the organisational cultural factors that can cause the most problems—both between partnership organisations as in Castells' (1996) Network Enterprise or within different areas of the same organisation, perhaps as a result of a merger.

The problem of communicating across different time zones means that there are times when it is not possible to contact a colleague, for example, by telephone. However, the greatest difficulty is that posed by physical distance. As distance increases, social awareness is reduced and the potential for collaboration decreases. As observed by Lipnack and Stamps (1997), “The probability of people communicating or collaborating more than once a week drops off dramatically if they are more than the width of a basketball apart” (p. 8).

To overcome the problems of time and distance, great possibilities are offered by ‘new” media, or computer-mediated communications (CMCs) such as e-mail, voice mail, tele-and video-conferencing, group discussion, and mailing lists, the Internet, including Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and MUDs and MOOs, which are developing into VEs using virtual reality (VR) technologies.

These “new” media with their possibilities have been one of the drivers to the internationalisation of business. As Voiskounsky (1998) puts it, CMCs assume no time zones and their use in large distributed organisations has attracted interest (Hinds & Kiesler, 1995). They manage this because some of them are asynchronous—it is no longer necessary for a communication partner to be at his/her terminal at the same time. Communication no longer has to take place in real time as on the telephone—an e-mail can be sent that will be waiting for the communication partner when (s)he arrives at his/her desk. Despite the advantages they bring, however, they do have some drawbacks. E-mail (and mailing lists), as the oldest of the CMCs, has received the most attention (for example, Robinson, 1991, and Rudy, 1996), much of it focusing on its negative aspects such as e-mail overload (Dawley & Anthony, 1998; Mackay, Malone, Crowston, Rao, Rosenblitt, & Card, 1989) and the lack of “richness” (Ngwenyama & Lee, 1997) in the medium that can lead to loss of bodily cues and misunderstandings (Rivera, Cooke, & Bauhs, 1996; Witmer & Katzman, 1998).

click to expand
Figure 1: Collocated to Virtual Distance (From Lipnack & Stamps, 1997, p. 9)

It is the lack of bodily cues that has interested many and, as a result, voice mail and video conferencing have attracted attention (Fish, Kraut, Root, & Rice, 1992; Kristoffersen & Rodden, 1996; Sellen, 1992). However. these have also been felt to be lacking in richness and inferior to face-to-face communication (Fish et al., 1992; Hollan & Stornetta, 1992). This is a weakness that runs through much of the above CMC literature; that is, CMC is compared with face-to-face communication, and there seems to be a constant striving to achieve the equivalent of face-to-face communication through CMCs. Rather than comparing the new media with face-to-face communication and more “traditional” media, CMCs should be regarded as media in their own right (Hollan & Stornetta, 1992; Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1998). We should compare like with like (Shields, 1996), and concentrate on using the correct medium for the correct task in the correct context (Rice, 1987). Indeed, what are now regarded as relatively old technologies, such as the telephone and television, were once revolutionary new technologies and had their critics (Shade, 1996; Jones, 1997).

The importance of work in a distributed environment has also attracted researchers in the Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) field (for example, van House, Butler, & Schiff, 1998; Poltrock & Engelbeck, 1997), who have looked at using IT to support distributed communities and groups. Some of these are looking to web-based systems for knowledge exchange (Buckingham Shum, 1998), while others are looking to further develop video-based systems (Adler & Henderson, 1994; Tang & Rua, 1994), for example, to increase awareness and assist ad hoc communication.

Key concepts are social browsing, proximity and unplanned interactionthis has become the equivalent of supporting the ability to meet informally (Kristofferson & Rodden, 1996, p. 17).

However, despite the technologies that are being researched and applied to distributed international working, it is clear that they will not succeed unless certain cultural factors apply. Even if the most advanced technology available is put in place, it will only be successful if participants want it to be. If there is not a culture of sharing in place, then the organisation will have to take steps to actively encourage and promote it. To ensure the organisational culture encourages teamwork, it will be necessary to emphasise the team above the individual and to foster an atmosphere of collaboration rather than competition. People must be encouraged away from hoarding their knowledge to sharing it—teams are much more successful in organisations with a culture of information sharing. Such organisations are also likely to be based on trust, to be helpful, and encourage debate and consultation.

Button and Sharrock's (1994) example of software engineers developing embedded software for a photocopier gave a good example of this need for information sharing and teamwork. The software engineers had access to the original Japanese development team. There was a language problem in that the managers the team had originally met spoke English, but the engineers to whom they really needed to speak, did not. The original design documents were also found to be in Japanese. Therefore, when they encountered problems, they could not simply use the phone or e-mail, as queries and replies had to go through a translation process. There was also a cultural problem in that even when the team finally received replies, the replies were incomplete, and it was felt that the Japanese part of the company was deliberately resisting the dissemination of its expertise.

In addition to the importance of the cultural factors and the possibilities offered by the “new”' media, there still seems to be a necessity for a face-toface element in “virtual” teams and communities (Barnatt, 1997; Li & Williams, 1999; Lipnack & Stamps, 1997). In fact, Castells (1996) even reports on a community that grew up electronically but whose residents have now reached the point where they meet face-to-face to further develop the community. The community, SFNet, is based in the San Francisco Bay area. As most of the community regulars live in the Bay area, some of them hold regular parties in order to get to know each other better. Powell (1998) talks about the continued importance of co-location despite the range of new technologies that would technically enable people to collaborate from anywhere in the world. This shows that more than technology is needed, and Powell reports that many people still feel that face-to-face interaction is the only way for tacit knowledge transfer. This need for face-to-face interaction is demonstrated even in the field of “virtual” teams. Lipnack and Stamps' (1997) emphasise the importance of face-to-face interaction to solidify the teams with the result being a mixture of face-to-face meetings and electronic communication to reduce the degree of travel rather than replacing it. This reinforces the earlier point that IT is simply a support or an enabler, not a solution, and suggests that the human element remains essential.

Communities of Practice and Virtual Teams

The previous section highlighted some interesting points that can be useful in CoPs and virtual teams but the groups described above are not CoPs. For the purposes of this book, it is specifically CoPs that are of interest and, therefore, it is necessary to be able to differentiate between a CoP and a team.

Wenger (1998) is very clear that the term Community of Practice is not synonymous with group, team, or network, but it is certainly possible for a formally constituted team to develop into a CoP. CoPs tend to be informal, but it may be the case that a team is put together with a brief and with deliverables. However, as time goes by, that team may develop closer working relationships, go beyond their original brief in unofficial ways, and evolve into a CoP.

The difference between a CoP and a formal team or project group lies in the relationships that are developed between the members. One way of looking at this is to consider the aspect of legitimacy. The form of legitimation that is present can be used to differentiate between a team and a CoP. In a team, the legitimation is derived from the formal hierarchy (for example, externally imposed structure and membership). In CoPs, legitimation is more informal and comes about by members earning their status in the community, for example by the newcomer being accepted and gradually working his/her way to full participation.

It is possible for a team to become a CoP as informal relationships begin to develop and the source of legitimation changes in emphasis. Hutchins (1990, 1995a) provides an account of how a formally structured team may also function as a CoP in his study of a navigation team on an American warship. There is a formal structure to the team provided by military rankings. However, when the team gets a new officer, the informal CoP provides the forum for the learning that takes place. It is one of the Petty Officers, lower in rank but with more experience, who has to supervise the newcomer and “break in” the new officer.

Having ascertained the difference between a team and a CoP, we can now move on to see what specific issues there could be, and what there could be to learn for a CoP that is operating in a physically distributed international environment.

A Virtual CoP?

As operations in the distributed international arena are becoming ever more important, it is becoming ever more pressing to support the sharing of the softer side of knowledge when workers are not co-located. In fact, Holtshouse (1998) considers this one of the most pressing issues for KM:

The issueis how to provide the effect ofknowledge exchange without workers necessarily interacting face-to-face and being co-located (p. 278).

This has also been considered by others in their desire for a “virtual coffee pot” (Berman, 1990):

The meetings by the coffee machine are usually centralWe want to be able to have meetings by the coffee machine, but to be able to do so 80 miles apart via the video and audio links on the workstation (p. 14).

From an established KM viewpoint, the solution would be to make knowledge harder, capture it, and share it, but we have already seen that this approach does not work and that CoPs are where the softer aspects of knowledge are sustained and nurtured. This poses the question of how to make a CoP distributed, even international.

Some aspects of a CoP should translate from the co-located to the virtual world relatively easily, for example, finding a shared interest. Co-location is not necessary for some aspects of Common Ground: if the members are doing similar jobs, then there will already be a shared domain language, knowledge, and background. However, if Common Ground is based on a shared perception of an artefact, event, or action, this may be affected by distribution. Clark (1996) refers to this as “perceptual copresence.” Co-location is also not necessary for fluidity—working in a distributed environment could even increase the degree to which newcomers arrive and old-timers leave.

We have seen that narration and the telling of stories are used for knowledge sharing. At first glance, it should be easy to transfer stories to a distributed operation by simply recording the stories and making them available to members, similar to the Hewlett-Packard Trainers' Trading Post. However, even the use of narration is not simply a matter of making softer aspects of knowledge hard.

Distribution may also cause a problem in the following areas:

Relationships Relationships are a key aspect of a CoP. They determine the motivation and the legitimation of the members, which in turn determine the identity and the trust and confidence of the members. The question arises as to how effectively relationships can be developed and sustained in the distributed environment. The relationships will also affect the feeling of community and identity that develops in a CoP.

Common Purpose/Motivation Although people doing similar jobs might share an interest, the development of a common purpose is more closely tied with the motivation of the members. Can the motivation be maintained when the members are not co-located?

Informal and Unofficial Often CoPs are informal and unofficial. They evolve from a group of people with a shared interest. It may be that it is difficult for a CoP to come about because the prospective members do not know of each other's existence, and if they do start to evolve into a CoP, there is the question of how it can be facilitated or enabled.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP) Other issues might concern the question of how Lave and Wenger's (1991) concept of LPP would translate to a distributed environment. The learning undertaken with LPP is situated, as is some of the knowledge created during problem solving. Whether the CoP moves easily to working in distributed mode might depend on the reason for the situatedness. If the members need to be colocated because they share resources such as a document, then the CoP should translate to the distributed environment relatively easily. If, however, the learning is situated because the face-to-face element is essential for seeing and learning how the job is done, then the distribution will have more impact.

The concept of peripherality may also be affected. In Lave and Wenger's (1991) CoPs, the periphery is a social periphery. However, in a distributed environment, there will also be a physical and a temporal periphery that will have certain connotations for the notion of participation.

The transition to a virtual environment also raises the question of whether it will be more difficult to gain legitimacy in such a community, but perhaps the most difficult area will be the facilitation of participation. Wenger (1998) observed that participation is more than simply collaboration and engagement in practice. It is experiencing living in the social world of the community and involves the relationships between the members. It is central to the evolution of the community and to the creation of relationships that help develop the sense of trust and identity that defines the community.

Specific Issues for the Case Studies

Perhaps the greatest possibilities for helping a CoP function in the distributed environment are offered by shared artefacts as described in Wenger's (1998) duality of participation and reification. We have already seen how Wenger alluded to the possibilities offered by the reificative connections.

This raises a number of questions that need to be explored:

  • Are the softer aspects of knowledge shared through artefacts?

  • What form might the artefact take?

  • How does the CoP function in the distributed environment? Is it a matter of linking CoPs or is the CoP spread over national boundaries? What movement is there either between the linked CoPs or over the national boundaries? Is this movement of people, artefacts as boundary objects, or both?

  • What is the role of the boundary object/artefact?

  • What are the implications for legitimation, peripherality, and participation?

  • If participation is the most difficult part of LPP to obtain in a distributed environment, does that mean that there will be correspondingly more reification, and if so, what consequences does this have for the balance between the two?

  • Does the apprenticeship form of LPP play a role?

    Other, more general, questions that are raised are:

  • What sort of structure would a distributed CoP have?

  • Are distributed CoPs totally virtual?

  • How do they interact and communicate?

  • How is the CoP maintained?

  • What media are used? Why are particular media selected?

  • Common Ground—how is perceptual copresence established in a virtual environment?

  • Social processes (trust and relationships) are important in a CoP. How are these affected in the distributed environment?

[8]A MUD is a multi-player, interactive, social experience, managed by a computer. They are now accessed via the Internet but were around before the Internet when they were accessed by telnet. They are inventively structured and often take place in a theme, such as an old castle. They were originally a form of text-based on-line game where the players engaged in combat, puzzles and adventure. The player logs in and adopts a character. Many MUDs are still text-based but some now use a Virtual Reality environment. Even though the players' characters can be seen, the focus is still on the textual exchanges between the players who are logged in. There are many MUDs each with its own rules, name, character, ‘feel’.