Communities of Practice: the privileged locus for knowledge acquisition and innovation in science-based SMEs

  • Steven Pattinson

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis contends that communities of practice (CoPs) are an effective instrument for supporting collaborative activities in science-based small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that often have no formal strategy for knowledge acquisition and innovation. A review of the existing body of knowledge has indicated that this matter has not been the subject of thorough, in-depth research; and that this issue is important, given the relatively high level of efficacy that has been afforded to the role of CoPs in the innovation processes of large organizations. Indeed, the original communities of practice model had little to say about innovation per se; however, more recent theorizations have shown that CoPs can contribute to organizational innovation. This research makes a number of contributions to our understanding of CoPs as an enabler of knowledge acquisition and innovation: (i) theoretical: recontextualizing CoPs and demonstrating their applicability in science-based SMEs; (ii) methodological: extending the use of thematic template analysis; and (iii) applied: through the development of a contextualized framework for constructing CoPs in science-based SMEs. An exploratory case study of science-based SMEs was conducted using thematic template analysis. The study employed critical case sampling, a technique that focuses on selecting cases on the basis that they make a point dramatically or because, as in this instance, they are important in relation to the research questions In depth interviews were conducted with 25 individuals employed in technical (i.e. scientists and engineers) and commercial roles (i.e. operations, finance and purchasing). Although there was no evidence of managed CoPs, a range of emergent/informal and cultivated CoPs were leveraged for a variety of purposes, including facilitating knowledge acquisition, enhancing absorptive capacity, and improving the firm’s ability to generate innovative solutions. Apprentice-based CoPs emerged that supported individual learning, and both intra and inter-organizational CoPs emerged to support a range of radical and incremental innovation activities.
Social capital was leveraged in CoPs, generating trust and reciprocity between SMEs and customer organizations, thus enhancing knowledge-sharing and innovative potential. Finally, this research confirms that CoPs are the privileged locus for knowledge acquisition and innovation in science-based SMEs.
Date of Award13 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Teesside University
SupervisorDavid Preece (Supervisor)

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