Librarians: Is Your Community of Practice (CoP) Doing More Harm Than Good?

Sarah Vela, Knowledge Management, Diversity, and Professional Hierarchies in Libraries, Journal of Library Administration, v. 58, no. 8, 2018,

I had originally scheduled an article about legal translation today. However, after yesterday’s article about identities in the workplace, I decided this was a topic I wanted to spend more time with. Various searches led me to this article from 2018.

The author is a PhD student, and her research on knowledge management (KM) and organizational and cultural management models is quite extensive. With this article, the author is attempting to fill what she views as a gap in the literature: how KM and its influence on organizational behavior manifests itself in libraries.

It took her a while (perhaps a bit too long) to get to the libraries part. She began with a historical explanation of the concept of KM, and how it is based on the idea that there are two levels of knowledge: explicit (“comprehension associated with education and intellect”) and tacit (something that is “learned by doing”).

She also described how, in the literature, a “continuum of the degree of tacitness” of knowledge has been developed, and that the nature of knowledge can change based on where it is located on this continuum.

The author then went on to discuss three theories of KM in organizations:

  • Socialization = Configuration of an organizational structure to facilitate and encourage information sharing
  • Codification = The organizational structure is primarily designed to “capture and store knowledge”
  • Collaboration = In the organization, technology is used to share knowledge.

Based on these descriptions, the author chose to focus on the socialization KM method for her exploration of libraries. In addition, after a discussion of the various culture and management models in organizations, she determined to view libraries through the lens of Nonanka and Takeuchi’s “Knowledge-Creating Company,” in which “new and innovative knowledge is the result of interactions between explicit and tacit knowledge.”

With this groundwork laid, the author turned to libraries themselves. In her view, diversity is a key indicator of KM success in an organization that used a socialization KM model and operates under a “Knowledge-Creating Company” framework. Why is diversity important? Because the more diverse the members of the organization, the larger the corpus of tacit knowledge, which can result in enhanced innovation when it comes to creating programs and solving problems. The benefits of diversity, however, can only be realized when the organization “is effectively managed to ensure that socialization is occurring between dissimilar staff members.”

This is specifically a problem in libraries because they tend to have highly developed “Communities of Practice” (CoPs) based on employees’ education, training, job tasks and responsibilities. As observed in the librarianship literature, “formalization of the normally invisible boundaries of CoPs increases their significance and has resulted in a tension between the groups.”

This, of course, can have a negative outcome for the organization in the morale of the employees. According to the author, “If the responsibilities of developing a strategy and innovating are assigned to the top of an organization, while service delivery and supporting processes are tasked to the bottom, then ensuring there are strong communication and knowledge sharing between these tiers is essential, lest decisions be made that overlook or misunderstand the reality of the operations.” This problem, the author posits, is especially acute in libraries, given the development of CoPs in librarianship, and “may already be ingrained in their workforce before staff is even hired.”

As a solution, the author proposes changing the KM structure in the libraries to encourage wider innovation.  She provides two options for doing this. One is to flatten hierarchies, which can have political repercussions. The other is to encourage people who emerge as “unbounded professionals … who naturally ignore the boundaries of CoPs” in order to accomplish their work tasks. She notes, however, that these individuals may not exist or be hard to identify and/or encourage in a meaningful way.

Well, this article was a difficult read, but it did give me a lot to think about, and a new way of viewing what I think is a fundamental problem in libraries — what I would call tribalism among the staff that prevents real collaboration and needed innovation. I have tried throughout my career to be more of an unbounded professional. I am very interested in learning about the challenges my colleagues face in doing their work and creating their sense of identity and belonging as a library employee. This article has encouraged me to commit more fully to those efforts, and to transcend whatever CoPs I happen to be a member of.

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