How to manage the unmanageable – or how leaders can tap into the self-organized communities in their organizations

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Benjamin Schulte, Florian Andresen, and Hans Koller of Helmut-Schmidt-University–University of the Federal Armed Forces. They recently published an article in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies entitled “Exploring the Embeddedness of an Informal Community of Practice Within a Formal Organizational Context: A Case Study in the German Military,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they recount the motivations and innovations of this research.]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Right from the outset of our research project on communities of practice (CoPs) within the German Federal Armed Forces, the question of how self-organizing communities interrelate and coexist with the hierarchy of a military organization caught our attention.

Armed forces, in general, face numerous challenges such as rapid technological advancements and emerging threats such as cyber warfare to which they need to adapt their internal processes and resources quickly. Thus they – much like contemporary business organizations – are compelled to become more adaptive to an ever more complex and unpredictable environment. The armed forces, however, remain mostly structured around bureaucratic principles with an emphasis on standardization, alignment, and control, which usually result in tendencies towards organizational inertia.

Embedding communities of practice in such an organizational setting thus creates a complex situation. CoPs, on the one hand, drive local innovation, whereas the formal organizational hierarchy ensures overall stability and efficiency. Moreover, communities require autonomy to break away from existant paths but simultaneously need to be coupled to the formal system as otherwise, they might produce local change at the expense of overall organizational fragmentation.

Given this, the armed forces offered us an unique research setting to explore how (military) leaders navigate this tension between self-organizing CoPs and formal systems and embed these two contradictory elements for organizational adaptability.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research

Given that CoPs are part of the informal organization, and therefore, organic they do not appear on organization charts and are often unknown to upper echelon managers. Besides this, we decided to explore our research questions inductively employing qualitative methods. In light of this, a significant challenge was to discover interesting empirical cases for our study in the first place. Hence we had to work our way through the hierarchy down to the frontlines until we found fruitful areas to research. Yet, our efforts were rewarded as we received hints towards several community-like structures evolving at the organizational outskirts, one of which we investigated in detail for the study at hand.

Were there any surprising findings?

During our investigations, we did not only found various leadership practices that together enabled and embedded the community dynamics, but we also discovered that the observed CoP was able to generate new resources, which allow the organization to better resonate with environmental changes.

What is the most important/ influential piece of scholarship you’ve read in the last year?

Based on our empirical findings obtained from the armed forces we developed a grounded model about how leadership works at the interface between CoP and formal system. In explaining this model we draw and build on the thoughts from Mary Uhl-Bien about complexity leadership theory. Thus, one could say that Uhl-Bien and Arena’s 2018 article “Leadership for organizational adaptability: A theoretical synthesis and integrative framework” profoundly influenced our thinking about leadership in complex organizations.

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