Doing Business with Theory: Communities of Practice in Knowledge Management
We explore how the notion of communities of practice (CoPs) was translated and popularized from its original inception by Lave and Wenger in 1991. We argue that the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), a spin-off of Xerox PARC, proved instrumental in enrolling CoPs into the knowledge management (KM) discipline. IRL objectified, packaged, and made a business out of CoPs. CoPs in KM are now a formalized process coupled with technological artifacts to build groups of people who effectively share knowledge across boundaries. Drawing from participant observations, archival documents, and interviews with KM practitioners in the aerospace industry as well as key players of IRL, our research seeks to unveil the invisible history that the popularization of a theory can often obscure. We argue that CoPs provide a case study for understanding how abstract concepts in science are strategically and subconsciously reified, or made objects of inquiry, and appropriated by actors. This reification of a “soft” science blurs the line between theory and technology.