Explaining Persistent Ineffectiveness in Professional Online Communities: Multilevel Tensions and Misguided Coping Strategies

Mari-Klara Stein
Eric T. Lim
Chee-Wee Tan


Online Communities (OCs) have become an increasingly prevalent way for organizations to bring people together to collaborate and create value. However, despite the abundance of extant literature, many studies still point to the lack of long-term sustainability of OCs. We contend that communities become dormant or obsolete over time due to manifestations of ineffectiveness – a state of the community that hinders the attainment of individual and collective desired outcomes. While ineffectiveness in OCs is common, it is less apparent as to why such ineffectiveness persists. Two knowledge gaps are particularly significant here. First, while the multilevel nature of OCs is acknowledged, corresponding difficulties in aligning individual and collective interests and behaviors are often neglected in past studies. Second, rare longitudinal studies have revealed that community members respond to ineffectiveness with various coping behaviors. However, the impact of these coping behaviors may not turn out as desired. Consequently, we investigate the persistency of ineffectiveness from the perspective of multilevel and coping effects, addressing the following research question: How and why does ineffectiveness persist in online communities? Our critical realist case study offers a three-step explanatory framework: (1) underlying multilevel tensions in the community contribute to usage ineffectiveness (i.e., members are unable to use the OC effectively); (2) misguided coping behaviors contribute to ineffective adaptation (i.e., members are unable to cope with not being able to use the OC effectively), and that; (3) ineffectiveness persists due to the interaction between usage and adaptation ineffectiveness.