VCoPs are conceptualised as similar to CoPs, but their communication usually takes place via electronic means (Correia et al. 2010). Hu and Kuo (2013) further indicate that VCoPs are similar to CoPs, but information sharing in VCoPs takes place through the use of ICTs (Hu & Kuo 2013). This concept is also supported by Boh (2014), who explains that ICTs take on a crucial role in supporting CoPs. It is then evident that VCoPs are the same concept as CoPs, but the difference lies in the use of the ICT component in VCoPs versus the face-to-face interaction used in CoPs.
Furthermore, VCoPs are required, especially in organisations facing the challenge of disseminating organisational knowledge, to reside in some individual experts (Ardichvili et al. 2006; Hu & Kuo 2013). VCoPs are found to perform a central role in promoting collaboration between members who are dispersed by both time and space (Correia et al. 2010). Further, Tang and Yang (2005) suggest that VCoPs are viewed as an informal means to enhance knowledge sharing across time and distance. It is evident that in traditional CoPs, individuals often interact on a face-to-face basis, while VCoPs operate in multiple modes including both face-to-face meetings (when necessary) as well as using ICT (Kimball & Ladd 2004). VCoPs can be a face-to-face meeting, a virtual group or a combination of both (Ford, Korjonen, Keswani, & Hughes, 2015). This suggests that VCoPs may provide added value as they are ubiquitous, thus allowing participants to share their knowledge at any point in time, given that Internet technology and its connectivity exists.
An advantage of VCoPs is the ability to allow innovative ways of creating and sharing organisational knowledge (Allan & Lewis 2006). Groups of experts in VCoPs function as an interdependent network, with the shared goal of developing their practice and doing their work better (Lavoue 2011). Ford et al. (2015) also suggest that VCoPs contribute to continuing professional development, improvement and innovation, as well as communication over geographical distances.
Knowledge managers mainly focus on formal processes of establishing explicit knowledge sharing approaches (Vuori & Okkonen 2012). This calls for recognising VCoPs to share tacit knowledge, which is knowledge typically embedded in a specific context. According to (Ardichvili, Maurer, Wentling & Stuedemann 2006), tacit knowledge has long been recognised as the most important element in sustaining the competitive advantage of organisations. This points to assumptions that virtual knowledge transfer enhances sharing of the tacit part of knowledge, while also capitalising on already-existing explicit knowledge (Panahi et al. 2012).
In summary, CoP and VCoP members experience different environments because of the media through which they primarily interact, and therefore they face dissimilar realities. For instance, the different time zones and geographic separation between members in CoPs urge them to resort to technologies although they are not, in real terms, substitutes for face-to-face interactions (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002). Boh (2014) also mentions that often much modern work interaction occurs virtually between individuals located in disparate geographical areas who may never meet face-to-face, and subsequently ICT takes on a crucial role in supporting knowledge sharing in CoPs. This development suggests the need for VCoPs as methods to support and enhance knowledge sharing among experts dispersed in various geographical areas.
Recent research on knowledge sharing within virtual communities of practice
The literature summarises the following five findings:
'Cooperative learning environments: Virtual communities of practice in the healthcare sector' by Saigi-Rubio and Gonzalez-Gonzalez (2014): The research focusses on the role of knowledge sharing and the benefits provided by VCoP in the healthcare sector. The research thus aims at examining the benefits of VCoP to professionals in the healthcare field. The discussion in the research indicates how the members of a community carry out their professional activities at both management and performance levels. The set of benefits from the use of VCoP - at personal, community and organisational levels - was also revealed.
'Role of The role of virtual communities of practice in knowledge management using web 2.0' by Al-ghamdi and Al-ghamdi (2015): this research is a discussion of the critical importance of knowledge management (KM) in helping organisations to improve performance and achieve the desired goals. The focus of the research is on the obstacles to the application of KM, most prominent of which are the difficulty of tacit KM, the poor cooperation and sharing in KM, and the difficulty of dealing with KM techniques. This research aims to determine how to take advantage of the VCoPs that employ Web 2.0 technologies to overcome these obstacles. A discussion is presented on how Web 2.0-based CoP plays major roles in capturing tacit knowledge, facilitating innovation, as well as knowledge sharing and collaboration. However, no model or approach is mentioned to enable the optimisation of knowledge sharing within VCoPs.
'Research on knowledge sharing in communities of practice in international development' by Cummings (2015) focuses on the role of CoP in its ability to link actors from many different organisations and different constituencies. Online communities are able to link people and organisations across continents. The research discusses the experience of CoPs in the development sector. These experiences will be relevant to other non-development activities, which may be less organisation bound, such as the health sector and academia. There is no mention of any model surrounding the optimisation of knowledge sharing within VCoPs.
'Research on knowledge sharing in virtual distributed environments: main motivators, discrepancies of findings and suggestions for future research' by Chen and Hew (2015): this research reviews some previous empirical research that identifies the main theories and factors used to explain online knowledge sharing. The findings suggest that the incentive items of knowledge sharing could be grouped into three main categories: personal, social factors and organisational factors. Of these factors, trust is the most widely discussed. Further, this research focusses on several main discrepancies among past research studies, such as the notion of perceived compatibility, norm of reciprocity and trust to provide possible directions for future studies. Discrepancies that exist in the behaviour and intention of knowledge sharing are discussed. For example, a number of studies indicate trust as a positive factor that motivates knowledge sharing intention, which results in the contribution to the actual knowledge sharing behaviour. At the same time, the research discusses other studies suggesting that the influence of trust in knowledge sharing behaviour is not significant. There is no mention of any model or approach to knowledge optimisation in VCoPs.
'Research on knowledge sharing in communities of practice: Examining usefulness of knowledge from discussion forums versus repositories' by Boh (2014): this research takes on the role that ICTs play in supporting knowledge sharing in VCoPs. It examines the use of two key types of ICTs - knowledge repositories and online discussion forums. Two event-driven questionnaires were conducted with members of a CoP in a consulting firm to test a hypothesis. The hypothesis is about how various factors would differ in their influence on knowledge sourcing from knowledge repositories and online discussion forums. There is little empirical research comparing how different types of ICTs are effectively utilised for knowledge sharing. Much of the KM literature has focussed on supply-side arguments for both knowledge repositories and discussion forums. There is; however, increasing recognition that it is also important to examine the demand side - examining what facilitates knowledge seeking. This research adds to demand-side knowledge seeking. It focusses on the demand for knowledge in CoPs by examining how CoP members source and reuse knowledge from others through knowledge repositories and online discussion forums. This particularly examines the purposeful use of both knowledge repositories and online discussion forums in CoPs as alternative knowledge sources when individuals conducting knowledge work are looking for specific types of knowledge to solve a problem on hand.
Therefore, literature published between 2012 and 2016 indicates there are no research results available that have a focus on scientific models or approaches that may enable the optimisation of knowledge sharing within VCoPs. This compelled the authors to explore and find relevance in conducting research to investigate the existence of a scientific model or approach that enables the optimisation of knowledge sharing within VCoPs.
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