Understanding Control in Communities of Practice: Constructive Disobedience in a High-tech Firm

Jens Rennstam*, Dan Kärreman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Communities of practice (CoPs) represent a broad range of work situations characterized by shared knowledge and situated knowledge use. Although CoPs have been studied rather extensively, discussions of control in CoPs are rarer. This is peculiar because CoPs are characterized by a common tension in contemporary work: on the one hand, CoPs are expected to autonomously “think together,” but on the other they are expected to be responsive to various managerial control attempts. We interrogate this tension in an ethnographic study of engineering work, where we found that in response to management control the engineering communities engaged in constructive disobedience – that is, subversion and displacement of rules and orders to construct a dynamic of control where work can be executed autonomously. By associating constructive disobedience with control in CoPs, our study contributes with insight into and theorization of how management control is dealt with and how control operates in work characterized by CoPs. The study also provides deepened insight into the limits of management control and how professionalism may be maintained despite increased management. These insights may support development of a more knowledgeable and nuanced approach to attempts at managing communities of practice.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)864-890
Number of pages27
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

Published online: 6. May 2019


  • Ethnography
  • Knowledge
  • Knowledge management
  • Organizational control
  • Practice

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