Step‐in or step‐out: supporting innovation through communities of practice

Stefano Borzillo (Professor of Strategy and Knowledge Management at Skema Business School (Paris Campus), Paris, France)
Renata Kaminska‐Labbé (Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Skema Business School (Sophie Antipolis Campus), Sophie Antipolis Cedex, France)

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Publication date: 3 May 2011



To provide managers, researchers, and consultants with practical insights on using Communities of Practice to support innovation in organizations.


The research design is based on a four‐year longitudinal case study of five Communities of Practice (CoPs) within a Specialty Chemicals division of a multinational company Alpha. Primary (interviews, direct observation) and secondary (internal documents) data were collected and analysed resulting in several conclusions about the role of Communities of Practice in supporting organizational innovation.


The main conclusion drawn from the study is that supporting innovation involves switching between different degrees of managerial involvement in Communities of Practice, namely step‐in and step‐out modes. The step‐in mode results in knowledge expansion, which supports incremental innovation while the step‐out mode leads to knowledge probing which supports radical innovation.

Research limitations/implications

The findings are based on a single case study of a firm which successfully used CoPs to support innovation across its R&D teams; generalizing these results would require the analysis of additional cases.

Practical implications

The paper provides managers with practical recommendations on how to align CoP dynamics with the specific innovation needs of an organization. On the one hand, CoPs require a great deal of autonomy if they are to generate radical innovation. On the other, when incremental innovation is needed managers can and should steer CoP activities.


The data, approach, and analysis are all original. This paper enriches the existing theory on the role of CoPs in supporting innovation by highlighting the need to adapt the degree of managerial involvement. The findings resolve the existing tension between two opposing streams of research – that which considers CoPs as self‐organized, emergent and fully autonomous systems and the other, which advocates that CoPs require managerial guidance.



Borzillo, S. and Kaminska‐Labbé, R. (2011), "Step‐in or step‐out: supporting innovation through communities of practice", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 32 No. 3, pp. 29-36.

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Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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