Research groups as communities of practice—a case study of four high-performing research groups

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to investigate the organization of research in high-performing research groups in an age of increasing competition and pressure from outside and within higher-education institutions. To explore how researchers navigate such pressures and demands, the practice and perceptions of four high-performing research groups in Denmark and the Netherlands are examined, and the extent to which these groups can be understood as “communities of practice” or if they are displaying “team”-like characteristics is discussed. Previous studies have shown the benefits of communities of practice for organizational performance, and the present study demonstrates that the successful groups do indeed share many characteristics with such communities. A central argument of the paper is, however, also that incentive structures, inherent in many new policy initiatives that are meant to foster excellence in science, are more directed at “team-like” organization by focusing on, e.g., formally organized work processes, predefined goals, milestones, work packages, and hierarchically organized consortia. The potential implications of this are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    This study was conducted by Lise Degn and Mads P. Sørensen, and data from this project has also been used in Young et al. (2016).

  2. 2.

    This study was carried out by Sarah de Rijcke and Alex Rushforth, and findings from this project were also published in Rushforth and De Rijcke (2015) and Müller and De Rijcke (forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    This study was conducted by Thomas Franssen and Sarah de Rijcke.

References

  1. Barab, S. A., & Plucker, J. A. (2002). Smart people or smart contexts? Cognition, ability, and talent development in an age of situated approaches to knowing and learning. Educational Psychologist, 37(3), 165–182.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bland, C. J., & Ruffin, M. T. (1992). Characteristics of a productive research environment: literature review. Academic Medicine, 67(6), 385–397.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bloch, C., & Sørensen, M. P. (2015). The size of research funding: trends and implications. Science and Public Policy, 42(1), 30–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. De Bellis, N. (2009). Bibliometrics and citation analysis: from the science citation index to cybermetrics. Scarecrow Press.

  5. de Rijcke, S., Wouters, P. F., Rushforth, A. D., Franssen, T. P., & Hammarfelt, B. (2015). Evaluation practices and effects of indicator use—a literature review. Research Evaluation. https://doi.org/10.1093/reseval/rvv038.

  6. Dunbar, H., & Lewis, D. R. (1998). Determinants of research productivity in higher education. Research in Higher Education, 39(6), 607–631.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Eckert, P. (2006). Communities of practice. In K. Brown (Ed.), Encyclopedia of language & linguistics (2nd ed., pp. 683–685). Oxford: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Edgar, F., & Geare, A. (2013). Factors influencing university research performance. Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 774–792.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Felt, U., Igelsböck, J., Schikowitz, A., & Völker, T. (2013). Growing into what? The (un-) disciplined socialisation of early stage researchers in transdisciplinary research. Higher Education, 65(4), 511–524.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Fontaine, M. A., & Millen, D. R. (2004). Understanding the benefits and impact of communities of practice. In P. Hildreth & C. Kimble (Eds.), Knowledge networks: innovation through communities of practice (pp. 1–13). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Fowler, N., Lindahl, M., & Sköld, D. (2015). The projectification of university research. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 8(1), 9–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hammarfelt, B., & de Rijcke, S. (2015). Accountability in context: effects of research evaluation systems on publication practices, disciplinary norms, and individual working routines in the faculty of Arts at Uppsala University. Research Evaluation, 24(1), 63–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Horta, H., & Lacy, T. A. (2011). How does size matter for science? Exploring the effects of research unit size on academics’ scientific productivity and information exchange behaviors. Science and Public Policy, 38(6), 449.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Joshi, A. (2014). By whom and when is women’s expertise recognized? The interactive effects of gender and education in science and engineering teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(2), 202–239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Langfeldt, L., Benner, M., Sivertsen, G., Kristiansen, E. H., Aksnes, D. W., Borlaug, S. R., Foss Hansen, H., Kallerud, E., & Pelkonen, A. (2015). Excellence and growth dynamics: a comparative study of the Matthew effect. Science and Public Policy. https://doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scu083.

  16. Laudel, G., & Gläser, J. (2006). Tensions between evaluations and communication practices. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 28(3), 289–295.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Lave J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

  18. Lesser, E. L., & Storck, J. (2001). Communities of practice and organizational performance. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4), 831.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. LSE Impact Blog. (2017)The accelerated academy. Retrieved at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/the-accelerated-academy-series/

  20. OECD. (2014). Promoting research excellence: new approaches to funding. Paris: OECD.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Park, J. J., Choe, N. H., Schallert, D. L., & Forbis, A. K. (2017). The chemical engineering research laboratory as context for graduate students’ training: the role of lab structure and cultural climate in collaborative work. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lcsi.2017.04.001.

  22. Ramsden, P. (1994). Describing and explaining research productivity. Higher Education, 28(2), 207–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Rushforth, A., & de Rijcke, S. (2015). Accounting for impact? The journal impact factor and the making of biomedical research in the Netherlands. Minerva, 53(2), 117–139.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Schenkel, A., & Teigland, R. (2008). Improved organizational performance through communities of practice. Journal of Knowledge Management, 12(1), 106–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Seely Brown, J., & Duguid, P. (2001). Knowledge and organization: a social-practice perspective. Organization Science, 12(2), 198–213.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Slaughter, S., & Leslie, L. L. (1997). Academic capitalism: politics, policies, and the entrepreneurial university. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Smeby, J. C., & Try, S. (2005). Departmental contexts and faculty research activity in Norway. Research in Higher Education, 46(6), 593–619.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Sørensen, M. P., Bloch, C., & Young, M. (2015). Excellence in the knowledge-based economy: from scientific to research excellence. European Journal of Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/21568235.2015.1015106.

  30. Storck, J., & Hill, P. A. (2000). Knowledge diffusion through “strategic communities”. In E. L. Lesser, M. A. Fontaine, & J. A. Slusher (Eds.), Knowledge and communities (pp. 65–83). Butterworth-Heinemann.

  31. Tight, M. (2004). Research into higher education: an a-theoretical community of practice? Higher Education Research & Development, 23(4), 395–411.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Tight, M. (2008). Higher education research as tribe, territory and/or community: a co-citation analysis. Higher Education, 55(5), 593–605.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Verbree, M., Van der Weijden, I., & Van den Besselaar, P. (2012). Academic leadership of high-performing research groups. Creativity and Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation.

  34. Vostal, F. (2016). Accelerating academia: the changing structure of academic time. Springer.

  35. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

  36. Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, B. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Whitley, R. (2014). How do institutional changes affect scientific innovations? The effects of shifts in authority relationships, protected space, and flexibility. In R. Whitley & J. Gläser (eds.) Organizational transformation and scientific change: the impact of institutional restructuring on universities and intellectual innovation (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume 42)(pp.367–406). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

  39. Ylijoki, O. H. (2003). Entangled in academic capitalism? A case-study on changing ideals and practices of university research. Higher Education, 45(3), 307–335.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Young, M., Sørensen, M. P., Bloch, C., & Degn, L. (2016, 2016). Systemic rejection: political pressures seen from the science system. Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-016-0059-z.

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lise Degn.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Degn, L., Franssen, T., Sørensen, M.P. et al. Research groups as communities of practice—a case study of four high-performing research groups. High Educ 76, 231–246 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-017-0205-2

Download citation

Keywords

  • Research groups
  • Practice
  • Communities of practice
  • Performance