The global economy of the modern world, also called the New Economy, is characterised by globalisation, growing customer demands, greater competition and continual advances in technology. This has forced organisations to rethink the way(s) in which they operate and do business. Knowledge has become one of the most important assets that can enable organisations to be among the top players. Knowledge in organisations can be explicit and recorded, or can be tacit (i.e. in people’s minds). In the past, organisations (also academic libraries) were good at creating, disseminating, organising, recording and retrieving explicit knowledge (also called information). It is the tacit knowledge (expertise, know-how, skills, etc.) of their staff and clients, however, that gives them the edge above their competitors. Some tacit knowledge can be recorded (made explicit), but a big part of it can never be recorded, documented or captured.
This has created a very real need. How can tacit knowledge, which is very valuable to organizations, be disseminated and embedded in the organisation for future use? The answer lies in the utilization of Communities of Practice. Communities of Practice have been utilized with great success by organisations in the business and manufacturing sectors, but can these Communities be applied with the same success in academic libraries, or is it a run on the wild side? To investigate this problem, a literature study of the concept of Communities of Practice was done. In the discussion of the results of the literature study, an overview was given of what Communities of Practice are, the advantages of Communities of Practice, their relationship with knowledge management and learning organisations, how knowledge is managed through Communities of Practice, the stages through which they develop, and the factors that are critical for their development.
After the literature study, these aspects were applied to Communities of Practice in the Academic Information Service of the University of Pretoria as a case study. Results of the study showed that Communities of Practice have a definite and valuable role in the management of knowledge in the AIS as an academic library that is a learning organisation, but they seem to be very vulnerable human institutions which should be well nurtured, as they are very much dependent on the support of top management, information technology infrastructure, enthusiasm of their members, trust between members, time, and rewards and incentives to participate.