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Online communities as communities of practice: a case study

Wei Zhang (Wei Zhang is based at UMass Boston, College of Management, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Stephanie Watts (School of Management, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.)

Journal of Knowledge Management

ISSN: 1367-3270

Article publication date: 18 July 2008




The purpose of this paper is to investigate to which extent the concept of communities of practice (CoPs) can be applied to online communities and to explore how organizations can better utilize online social structures for their knowledge management practice.


A case study was used to examine an online community with the practice‐and‐identity framework that characterizes conventional CoPs. Qualitative data analysis was conducted primarily on 7,853 messages downloaded from the online community during a six week period.


The results showed how an online community could manifest the practice and identity characteristics of conventional CoPs as community members actively engaged in their shared practice and identity development while pursuing a joint enterprise. Research limitations/implicationsThe study was conducted in a single Chinese online community on traveling, which may limit the generalizability of the findings.

Practical implications

This study suggested how organizations can nurture online CoPs. In addition, a hierarchical model was proposed to help organizations identify the appropriate online social structure for their knowledge management purposes. Originality/valueThis study empirically verified that CoPs can emerge from online communities and demonstrated that the concept of CoPs can be used to guide knowledge sharing and knowledge creation in online environments.



Zhang, W. and Watts, S. (2008), "Online communities as communities of practice: a case study", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 12 No. 4, pp. 55-71.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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