Decision Architectures, Communities of Practice, and Administrative Discretion

The successful execution of any of the network management skills and strategies introduced in this chapter hinges on the capacity of individual administrators and intranetwork groups or communities of practice to make decisions. Within complex governance networks the following questions are of critical importance and oftentimes not easily answered: Who makes decisions? How are they made? Who decides who will make the decisions? These relatively simple questions are addressed by most decision-making theories. Answering them can provide a sense of the “decision architecture” (Price Waterhouse Change Integration Team, 1996; Cox, 2000) for a group, organization, or even a network of organizations. Empirical studies and contemporary theories of decision making reveal that the act of deciding often occurs within a multifaceted array of actors and situations (Allison, 1971; Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972; Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973; Koppenjan and Klijn, 2004). These deciders exist within a complex system of actors spanning the individual, group, organization, and interorganizational levels.

Koppenjan and Klijn (2004) describe decision making as unfolding within a complex environment involving the individual, group, organizational, and interorganizational levels, with decisions occurring within and across these levels. Table 8.6 shows how they break decision making down in terms of social scale.

Herbert Simon recognized the complexity of decision making within organizations, laying out the proposition that at best, decisions are made by individuals operating within a “bounded rationality” context (1957). Simon recognized that no decision maker has access to perfect information, knows all possible alternatives, has all the time needed to weigh all alternatives, or possesses the capacity to perfectly implement his or her decisions. Charles Lindblom noted how decision makers rely on past experience, limited information, and “satisficing” behaviors when making decisions (1959). In short, he suggested that decision making was vastly a product of environmental and phenomenological factors. These factors are inherently shaped by the human social dynamics within which most decisions get made.

Historically, such dynamics have been couched in terms of small group behavior. Most theories of group decision making are premised on the assumption that “group outcomes are a function of the match between (a) the demands placed on the group and the resources provided it, and (b) the communicative processes the group enacts to meet these demands and deploy its resources” (Poole and Hirokawa, 1996, p. 13). Such communicative functions include the processes used to make decisions, suggesting that decisions do not spring out of nowhere; they emerge through group dialogue that includes the sharing of opinions and perspectives and, in some cases, the evaluation of evidence (Frey, 1996).

Other developments in decision-making theory recognized the role that the timely synchronicity of events and actors plays within the decision-making process. Cohen, Olsen, and March advanced the notion of the garbage can model of

Table 8.6 Multi-Social-Scale Approaches to Decision Making


Nature of Decision Making

Central Insights

Useful Theories


The individual (central) decision maker assesses alternatives on the basis of his or her own objectives and with as much information as possible

Limitation of information processing capacity: bounded rationality

Rationality, incrementalism, and mixed scanning (Simon, 1957; Lindblom, 1959; Etzioni, 1967)


Decisions are made in groups, where the group process influences course and outcome

Group processes influence information provisions, value judgments, and interpretations


psychology of groups (Janis, 1982);

community of practice theory (Wenger, 1998)


Organizations make decisions in relative autonomy; the structure and function of the organization matter



intraorganizational contradictions, and attention structures influence information processes and the decisions based upon them

Organizational process model; bureau-political model (Allison,

  • 1971) ; garbage can model (Cohen et al.,
  • 1972) ;

community of practice theory (Wenger, 1998)


Decisions between mutually dependent organizations are taken in different configurations of vertical and horizontal settings in a highly disjointed nature

Subjective perceptions, power relations, dynamics, and coincidence influence information and decision making

Policy stream model (Kingdon, 1984); complexity theory

(Koppenjan and Klijn, 2004); policy

implementation (Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973)

Source: Adapted from Koppenjan and Klijn, Managing Uncertainties in Networks, Routledge, London, 2004, p. 44.

decision making (1972), viewing a decision within the context of a host of other decisions that require some combination of alignments between problems, solutions, and participants (Koppenjan and Klijn, 2004, p. 52). Allison’s classic study of the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrated the bureau-political model through which decisions get made through a complex interplay between different governmental agencies (1971). Pressman and Wildavsky’s study of the Economic Development Administration (1984) shed new light onto the role of decision making across organizations. Tracking the number of decision points occurring within an implementation chain, they noted just how difficult it was to achieve agreement around not only policy goals, but the manner in which the prescribed solutions should be enacted (1984). Kingdon’s “policy stream” model suggests that decisions get made when problems, policies, and politics streams are fully or particularly coupled (1984). All of these models acknowledge the role that politics and other social dynamics play in decision making.

The bounded rationality/incrementalist perspectives on decision making focus on the role of the individual as the decision maker. Policy implementation studies, the garbage can, bureau-political, and policy streams models all suggest that decision making be viewed within the context of social systems comprised of individuals, groups, and organizations. The challenges to analyzing decision making amidst such complexity have long been recognized (Poole and Hirokawa, 1996). In addition to the problem of isolating “the decision” from a host of other functions undertaken within the social system, decisions are, as Simon (1957) first articulated, embedded in a means-ends hierarchy, in which “it serves both a means for a larger choice and as the end of the more restricted choices” (Poole and Hirokawa, 1996, p. 10). Decisions occur across chains of actors (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972; Pressman and Wildavsky, 1984) that are inherently nonlinear and networked (Koppenjan and Klijn, 2004). By examining how decision making occurs within communities of practice we are able to describe and analyze the dynamics of the component parts of the system. As the decision-making dynamics of each community of practice get identified, we may then develop a model for how the decision architecture of the organization, construed within this context as a system, exists.

Systems theories are particularly useful in describing and analyzing these intricacies, as they are grounded in assertions regarding the “mental models” (Senge et al., 1994) that exist within and across multiple layers of individuals, groups, organizations, and networks of organizations within ever-widening social systems. Systems theorists (Bertalanffy, 1950; Boulding, 1956) assume that organizations are not closed containers, with fixed boundaries, roles, responsibilities, functions, and behaviors that adhere to rational order. While the early proponents of rationalism saw the stability of such entities as an indicator of rational thought and action, general systems theorists view stability as a matter of equilibrium. Within the context of a community of practice framework, such equilibrium is best understood within the context of the interplay within and across communities of practice (CoPs).

The community of practice has emerged as a unit of analysis that situates the role of organizational learning, knowledge transfer, and participation among people as the central enterprise of collective action. Community of practice theory has been used most extensively within the knowledge management and learning organization fields. It has also been employed to explore the nature of professional practice within the context of collective learning (in the form of professional development (Parboosingh, 2002; Buysse, Sparkman, and Wesley, 2003)) and practice (in terms of evolving professional competencies (Nicolini, Gherardi, and Yanow, 2003; Adams and McCullough, 2003)).

Community of practice theory has come to be applied to both intra- and interorganizational settings. Within CoP theory, organizations and networks of organizations can be viewed as essentially constellations of communities of practice. Individual identity is said to be shaped by one’s membership and “trajectories” within communities of practice in which he or she finds himself of herself (Wenger, 1998). CoP members may also serve as boundary spanners to other CoPs. Such roles are not mutually exclusive from being an insider, outbound, inbound, or on the periphery. CoPs that contain many peripheral members will likely be loosely coupled, while those with many insiders are more tightly coupled.

“Communities of practice are ‘groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.’ They operate as ‘social learning systems’ where practitioners connect to solve problems, share ideas, set standards, build tools, and develop relationships with peers and stakeholders” (Snyder, Wenger, and de Sousa Briggs, 2003, p. 17). Taking this definition of communities of practice and applying it to real-life settings, we find CoPs “existing everywhere” as “an integral part of our daily lives” (Wenger, 1998, pp. 6, 7). As such, the community of practice is a decidedly phenomenological entity, manifesting as a body of common experience between three or more people.

Although the concept of communities of practice has been applied extensively across multiple social science disciplines and professional fields, it has only recently been applied to the fields of public administration, public policy, and political science. CoP theory has been used to study innovative practices within police departments (de Laat and Broer, 2004) and army units (Kliner, 2002). Burk writes from his role as the senior knowledge officer for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) about his agency’s utilization of CoP development to stimulate knowledge transfer (2000). Garcia and Dorohovich (2005) discuss their role in developing guidelines for the U.S. Department of Defense designed to foster the intentional cultivation of CoPs as a means to support information sharing and innovation. Dekker and Hansen (2004) discuss how CoP theory can be used to study the impact of politicization on public bureaucracies.

In discussing the potential role of CoPs in the analysis of cross-sector collaborations relating to the provision of public goods and services, Snyder, Wenger, and de Sousa Briggs (2003) assert:

The boundary-crossing organizational structures that we describe here serve not only to accomplish agency missions better. In the longer term, they provide also a foundation for a new kind of national governance model that emphasizes participation, inquiry and collaboration____ Communities of practice—addressing issues ranging from

E-Government to public safety, and operating across organizations, sectors, and levels—can address national priorities in ways no current organizational structure can match. (p. 6)

A review of the literature finds several instances in which researchers applied CoP frameworks to the analysis of interorganizational and cross-sector collaborations with a focus on public policy, including within the health care arena (Lathlean and le May, 2002; Gabbay et al., 2003; Dewhurst and Cegarra Navarro, 2004), intergovernmental collaborations (Zanetich, 2003; Drake, Steckler, and Koch, 2004; Bouwen and Taillieu, 2004), transnational governmental organizations (Luque, 2001; Somekh and Pearson, 2002), interindustry alignments (Starkey, Barnett, and Tempest, 2004), and networks of nongovernmental organizations (White, 2004; Rohde, 2004).

Implications of CoP theory for policy development, specifically health care policy (Gabbay et al., 2003; Popay et al., 2004), literacy education (Wixson and Yochum, 2004), standards-based school reforms (Gallucci, 2003; Hodkinson and Hodkinson,

  • 2004) , and environmental policies (VanWynsberghe, 2001; Attwater and Derry,
  • 2005) , have been made, pointing to the potential of CoP theory to help inform new and existing public policy initiatives. Citizen interface with public policies has been examined by Popay et al. (2004), who apply the concept of CoPs to explore issues of agency in professional practice. Youngblood’s (2004) study of the role of CoPs in political parties points to the utility of CoP theory in the deconstruction of the often complex set of actors involved in policy development and execution.

These applications of CoP frameworks to the field of public administration and public policy have not, to date, focused on the individual and the ways in which an individual public administrator is immersed within, and impacted by, his or her membership within, various communities of practice.

We are able to discern the types of decision processes and the roles that CoP members play when making decisions. For example, decision makers within the CoP can be distributed (in which consensus or voting is used) or concentrated (in which there is a particular decision maker). Decisions can be made by a single member of a group, a smaller subset of the group, or be based on the discretion of the entire group. Group members may play deliberative or consultative roles in decision making (Vella, 2002). Deliberative roles are substantive in nature. Deliberative decisions makers are those with the ultimate authority to make the decision. Consultative decision makers take on a secondary role, providing input or advice, but deferring to the deliberators to make the ultimate decision.

Table 8.7 Group Decision-Making Process

Group Processes

Consultative Roles

Deliberative Roles



All deliberative



All deliberative, with majority opinion holding sway

Decisions made by a subset of the group

Those outside the subset may provide input into the decision

Subset of the group makes the decision

Single decision maker in the group

Group members may provide input into a decision to be made by the individual decider

Single member (or nonmember) possesses authority to make decision

Group provides input into an issue or decision

All consultative

Authority to make the decision falls to some other person or CoP

Table 8.7 illustrates the different kinds of configurations that may take place within a CoP.

The role and function of decision making within groups often encompasses a complex set of arrangements. For example, some decisions may be left to the discretion of the group, with all members playing a deliberative role. This model can be viewed in terms of consensus or majority rule (e.g., voting). Other decisions can be the subject of discussion, with most members playing consultative roles and one or a small number of members making the final decision (playing the deliberative role).

The implications of this discussion of decision making as a function of governance network administrator should be relatively clear. If the social level of the decision and the processes used to make the decision are clear, it is easier to undertake all of the skills and strategies mentioned in this chapter. In some cases, network managers can help to shift the scale of the decision or the process used to make a decision; in other cases, the network manager can bring clarity to the structure and process of decision making.

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