Establishing a community of practice in the information technology departments of South African higher education institutions: developing information technology capacity in higher education’s ITIL programme 2007 - 2009
Crowster, Nicolette Antoninia
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Communities of practice have been described as supportive environments where knowledge creation, knowledge sharing, learning and problem resolution takes place (Hildreth and Kimble, 2002; Wenger, 1998a; Zhang and Watts, 2008). The literature points to the use of community of practice in organisations to leverage knowledge held by individuals for competitive advantage. Wenger (1998b) developed the Practice and Identity’ framework as a measure of whether a group could be called a community of practice. The ‘Developing information technology capacity in higher education’ (DITCHE) project rolled out the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) service management programme as part of the brief to provide interventions beneficial to South African higher education institutions. Staff from the information technology departments attended the training over the period 2007 to 2009. This study examined the actions and outputs of the group which attended the ITIL service management training against the Wengerian ‘Practice and Identity’ framework to determine whether this group could be considered a community of practice. Research questions arising from the stated problem are: • Do the DITCHE ITIL groups meet the definition of community of practice as defined by Wenger’s ‘Practice and Identity’ framework? • What factors are required for the formation and sustaining of a community of practice? • What value is to be found in successful DITCHE ITIL communities of practice? The research design consisted of phases which included a survey of the literature to determine the most recent theories on this subject matter and definitions of key concepts. The concept of communities of practice is not singular. Cox (2001) pointed to four works which he considered seminal to the discussion about the concept of community of practice. He suggested that these be used as markers in the discussion on the conceptualization of community of practice. Each of these works could be used as frameworks for determining the existence of communities of practice as he noted the lack of overlap of elements in the different frameworks. The physical separation of participants of the study across South Africa necessitating the use of information and communication technologies made the Wenger ‘Practice and Identity’ framework the most suitable choice against which to frame the study as the elements of collocation and situated learning are not absolute requirements. Data were collected from participants of this study using questionnaires and interviews and the output was viewed against the components of the Wengerian framework viz. mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise. The study found that while evidence existed for a match to these elements, it was insufficient to deem the DITCHE ITIL group a community of practice in the discourse of the 1998 framework. This group meets the description of an online community of practice where infrequent but intense discourse takes place when a problem needs to be resolved. Factors contributing to the arrival of this conclusion were identified. Motivations and barriers to the formation of communities of practice were identified. Further recommendations for continued community building such as further active leadership and the use of social networking tools are included. The study concluded that the potential existed for South African public higher education institutions to derive benefit from communities of practice and the DITCHE programme.