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Networks, Social Learning and Communities of Practice in Physical and Digital Spaces: the Role of Boundary Spanners in the Transfer of Sustainability Knowledge and Practice

  • School: Nottingham Business School
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Self-funded


Sustainability has become a key issue for business, with increasing expectations from stakeholders that businesses act in a responsible and sustainable way. The introduction of the sustainable development goals has ratified this, with many organisations signing up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), or by more informal alignment to the goals.

Working towards the SDG targets requires businesses to change their practices and behaviours. Signing up to goals, but not changing organisational practices, behaviours and norms runs reputational and social capital risks which results from decoupling, where gaps in rhetoric and reality emerge (Campbell, 2007; Bromley and Powell, 2012; Weaver, Trevino and Cochran, 1999). Increasingly sustainability is seen as a key force shaping future business environments, and hence if only superficial adaptions are made to respond to the SDGs it can result in businesses being “left behind”. Increasingly sustainability is seen as a challenge point or catalyst for innovation, new processes, new business models (Hart, 2005). And hence organisational knowledge creation and transfer, adaption and adoption of new sustainability practices, and creating spaces for creativity is increasingly important.

Businesses are often structured around divisions and activities, and often in large organisations that are geographically dispersed.  This can create “silos” within organisations where knowledge and practices around sustainability are isolated. Crucial to the development of sustainable business practice is the sharing of knowledge and practice across the boundaries of these groups, which are then adapted and adopted for local practice within groups or “Communities of Practice” (Wenger, 1998, 2000). Central to the social learning processes of knowledge sharing, creation of new knowledge and adaption and is the creation “space” through boundary spanning, which can take the form of practices, objects, rituals and people (Wenger, 2000). Traditionally, boundary spanning has been researched in a physical space (Wenger, 2000; Benn and Martin, 2010); however, within large organisations increasing groups and communities are virtual, and organisations are complex networks based on activity and geography. Therefore boundary crossing can take place in virtual spaces, which might take a different forms of interaction and with different social learning processes at play.

The focus of this project is to explore how sustainability social learning takes place in communities of practice both digital and physical spaces. To understand differences and similarities between the precedents and antecedents and learning outcomes in terms of new knowledge creation and knowledge transfer; and to explore the similarities and differences in the nature of social learning, the learning and translation processes.

Central to understanding this process is understanding the role and influence of key boundary spanners within the network structure of an organisation. This is both in terms of how they span boundaries and translate knowledge, but also how they are perceived by others (trust, legitimacy) and how they perceive themselves (identity).

Finally of interest is how sustainability knowledge is translated, adopted and adapted from the boundary spaces to become embedded (or not) into group practices, norms and identity and the differences between digital vs. physical processes.

Research objectives:

1. Apply network analysis to community of practice lens as a more rigorous method of community of practice identification.
2. Within the network analysis identify boundary spanning, and associated boundary spanners, objects and practices.
3. Assess the blend of digital vs physical boundary spanning activity
4. Evaluate the individual attributes and identity of boundary spanners and how this maps to physical vs digital spanning activities.
5. Explore the social learning process and translation within group to understand if there are differences in social learning process and translation resulting from digital vs. physical boundary spanning activities.
6. Explore the outcomes of the different social learning processes: knowledge transfer; changes in practice; innovation.


Benn, S., & Martin, A. (2010). Learning and change for sustainability reconsidered: a role for boundary objects. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 9(3), pp. 397-412.

Campbell, J.L., 2007. Why would corporations behave in socially responsible ways? An institutional theory of corporate social responsibility. Academy of management Review, 32(3), pp.946-967.

Hart, S.L., 2005. Innovation, creative destruction and sustainability. Research-Technology Management, 48(5), pp.21-27.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning as a social system. Systems thinker, 9(5), pp. 2-3

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

Weaver, G.R., Trevino, L.K. and Cochran, P.L., 1999. Integrated and decoupled corporate social performance: Management commitments, external pressures, and corporate ethics practices. Academy of Management Journal, 42(5), pp.539-552.


Doctor Wendy Chapple

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Wendy Chapple