The Role of Communities of Practice in the Evolution of the Entrepreneurial Process

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Aim: We examine how communities of practice shape the evolution of the entrepreneurial process. In this paper, the community of practice is situated within a university incubator. This is an apposite context to study this context-sensitive factor as the incubation environment is a space specifically configured to bring advisors and mentors together with early-stage entrepreneurs. Prior Work: Despite contemporary demarcations in the entrepreneurship field between proponents of opportunity discovery (Shane & Venkataraman, 2000) and creation (Alvarez & Barney, 2007; Baker & Nelson, 2005; Sarasvathy, 2001), the debate has forged on and re-focused, moving away from the nexus of enterprising individuals and opportunities (Eckhardt & Shane, 2003), to focus upon the processual nature of entrepreneurship (Venkataraman, Sarasvathy, Dew & Forster, 2012; McMullen & Dimov, 2013). Few studies have followed the process of entrepreneurship from the initial idea to the ultimate decision to initiate the venture (Dimov, 2010; Choi & Shepherd, 2004). Even fewer have sought to understand how an individual transitions from idea to opportunity (Wood, Williams & Gregoire, 2012). Consequently, we have only a partial understanding of the evolution of the entrepreneurial process, and one that neglects, in particular, the role of context-sensitive factors during this process. The call for considering context in entrepreneurship research is not new; and there is growing recognition that entrepreneurial behaviour can be better understood within its context(s) (Welter, 2011), be that the social (Granovetter, 1985), spatial (Katz & Steyaert, 2004) or institutional (Polanyi, 1957) and societal contexts (Weber, 1984). Context simultaneously provides individuals with entrepreneurial opportunities and sets boundaries for their actions (Welter, 2011). Potential entrepreneurs do not make sense of entrepreneurial opportunities in isolation; rather, it is a social process of discussion and interpretation. The socially embedded aspect pertains to the fact that potential entrepreneurs, rather than thinking and acting alone, are actively engaged in information and value exchange with a surrounding community (Dimov, 2007). Extant research on community entrepreneurship has mainly focused on entrepreneurship as a collective phenomenon in a particular spatial context; the local environment or local neighbourhood to bring about social change (Johnstone and Lionais, 2004), for example through job creation. There is also research (e.g. Dupuis & de Bruin, 2003) that examines national boundaries by identifying government as an important actor in community entrepreneurship. There is however, a dearth of research that identifies the incubator environment as more than an institutional and spatial context but equally, as community entrepreneurship and importantly, as a community of practice. Approach & Methodology: Our aim is to draw upon the notion of ‘communities of practice’ as espoused by Lave & Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998) who state that communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something they do and learn how to do it more efficiently as they interact regularly. We closely follow the three key tenets of a community of practice: domain, community and practice and demonstrate how the university incubator meets these criteria. We then map the interactions of the members of the university incubator and illustrate how the various activities through which communities develop their practice (e.g. problem solving; seeking experience; coordination and synergy; mapping knowledge and identifying gaps) are embedded in the incubator environment. As we have framed entrepreneurship as a process focused upon actions and interactions that occur in a community of practice, a case study approach (Yin, 2009) is required to provide a rich account of the activities and interactions inherent in the evolution of the entrepreneurial process. We used a cohort of student entrepreneurs in a university incubator to explore these exchanges between early-stage entrepreneurs, advisors and mentors. We used purposeful sampling to select information-rich cases that facilitate theoretical inference (Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007). Five cases yielding rich empirical material (Miles, Huberman & Saldana, 2013; Eisenhardt, 1989) and diverse in terms of gender, the sector, educational background of the lead entrepreneur(s) and prior entrepreneurial experience were selected (Shane, 2003). Contribution: In developing our arguments, we make a number of contributions. First, we extend the application of the concept of communities of practice to the entrepreneurial process literature, which does not analytically interrogate the role of communities in the evolution of the entrepreneurial process. In so doing, we highlight the usefulness of this approach to both nascent and experienced entrepreneurs. Second, we identify how interactions within the community of practice help legitimate new ventures. The third contribution highlights the novel and important connection between communities of practice and entrepreneurial behaviour and how we can make the environment more favourable for entrepreneurship.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 26 Oct 2016
Event39th IBSE -Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship conference - Novotel Tour Eiffel, Paris, France
Duration: 27 Oct 201628 Oct 2016


Conference39th IBSE -Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship conference


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