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Balancing control and autonomy in communities of practice: governance patterns and knowledge in nine multinationals

Stefano Borzillo (Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, HES-SO // University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland)

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 15 May 2017




This research aims to uncover three forms of communities of practice (CoPs), based on a set of six governance mechanisms. The focus is on the specific question of how organizations combine different governance mechanisms to balance autonomy and control in the management (steering) of CoPs. This paper is based on a study of 16 CoPs in nine multinational organizations.


The method used is a multiple case study conducted in 16 CoPs within nine multinational organizations. Ninety-two informants were interviewed over a period of four years.


Data revealed three distinct governance patterns for CoPs (three forms of CoPs), each associated with different knowledge processes and representing a different path toward a balance between autonomy and control. Expanding communities focus on improving existing products by recombining bodies of knowledge supported by a governance pattern that achieves balance by making moderate use of a wide selection of governance mechanisms. Leveraging communities are dedicated to improving operational efficiency by transferring best practices supported by a governance pattern that combines strong technical authority (leadership) with low disciplinary authority. Probing communities focus on generating new practices by exploring new knowledge domains supported by a governance pattern that replaces direct managerial control with indirect nurturing of the community’s routines. Probing communities also establish linkages beyond the community’s boundaries to enable knowledge to be shared with individuals throughout (and outside) the organization (boundary-spanning).

Research limitations/implications

The size and scope of the sample limit the generalizability of the findings. Although the study involved a variety of different organizations, it concentrated merely on large and multinational organizations. Thus, larger-scale empirical work is needed to statistically evaluate the relationships that are described in the findings, and to help specify the conditions according to which these relationships may vary.

Practical implications

This study should help managers understand which form of CoP is most appropriate to meet a particular knowledge objective. If the objective is the creation of new knowledge via the recombination of bodies of existing knowledge, expanding communities are appropriate. Leveraging communities are better suited for transfers of best practices within the organization. Finally, probing communities should be used to explore new knowledge domains.


This paper contributes to the understanding of CoP dynamics by revealing different governance patterns deployed to balance autonomy and control in CoPs. It also contributes to organization learning by revealing different learning processes that constitute the three forms of CoPs.



Borzillo, S. (2017), "Balancing control and autonomy in communities of practice: governance patterns and knowledge in nine multinationals", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 38 No. 3, pp. 10-20.



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Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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