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Control and autonomy irony in communities of practice from a power-based perspective

Nobin Thomas (Department of OB and HRM, Indian Institute of Management, Indore, India)

Journal of Management Development

ISSN: 0262-1711

Article publication date: 8 May 2017




The extant literature provides evidence that control measures employed in communities of practice (CoPs) have undergone significant changes with the evolution of the concept. When it started as a self-organized group, its members had the freedom to pursue their own interests. Now, CoPs are moving closer toward bureaucratic form of control. The purpose of this paper is to discuss that although it might still be difficult to locate the power base in a CoP, undercurrents suggest that they have a strong affinity for managements’ interests.


This approach taken in this paper is to present a historical background, contrast characteristics of present CoPs with its earlier versions and develop propositions highlighting a power-based perspective on leadership, sponsorship and objectives for CoPs within an existing organization.


The authors have found that power in a CoP has undergone tremendous changes from the time when it was introduced by Lave and Wenger (1991). When it started as a self-organized group, control exerted was null and void, as the members were given freedom to pursue their interests. The paper shows that CoPs can be formed intentionally, which is quite contrary to the common belief that they emerge naturally. Now, CoPs are moving closer toward bureaucratic form of control with the setting up of governance committees. This has serious repercussions for their autonomy, as envisaged by the early proponents of CoP, who believed that closely knit informal groups would enhance situational learning.


There is a general feeling that the word “autonomy” is a misnomer for CoP today. The power that once rested with the CoP group has been taken over by management in the form of sponsorship, goal congruency, etc. What appears as powerful in a CoP today is the sponsor and the CoP has ceased to exist as they used to be. This paper makes it clear that a CoP approach can provide value to the modern organization. However, if the issues discussed herein with regard to organizational power are not appropriately accounted for, CoP may fall short of expectations.



This is a revised version of a paper originally presented at the 3rd Biennial Indian Academy of Management Conference, held at IIM Ahmedabad from December 12, 2013 to December 14, 2013.


Thomas, N. (2017), "Control and autonomy irony in communities of practice from a power-based perspective", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 36 No. 4, pp. 466-477.



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