How to Grow Communities of Practice

Change is a constant in a project manager’s world (well really in everyone’s world!). People who fail to learn—to increase their understanding and skills—find adapting to changing conditions and requirements challenging, if not impossible.  Just as individuals need constantly to learn, so do organizations. One of the most effective ways for organizations to learn is to collect bits of individual learning into corporate knowledge that can be shared—we used to call this knowledge management.

An early proponent of organizational learning was Peter Senge, an MIT professor and author of The Fifth Discipline.  Senge tells us that a Learning Organization is one "in which you cannot notlearn because learning is so insinuated into the fabric of life." He concludes: "The rate at which organizations learn may become the only sustainable source of competitive advantage."

Although formal classes abound in many organizations, an effective learning facilitator that is less in evidence, are communities of practice. A Community of practice (CoP), according to cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, are “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”  CoP’s operate across the organization bridging established boundaries in order to increase collective—or corporate—knowledge, skills, and build professional trust. Communities of practice enable sharing ideas, lessons learned, and tricks of the trade. (Remember I work for Cognitive Technologies which has a bunch of cognitive knowledge engineers who are always telling me about this cool stuff)

Writing for Harvard Business Review in 2002, Wenger and colleagues Richard McDermott and William Snyder offer 7 principles for successfully initiating a CoP within an organization. 

  1. Design for evolution—limit rigid rules and structure for the group; expect it to change over time
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives—it is amazing what can be learned from people with a different background or set of experiences
  3. Invite different levels of participation—some members may participate actively while others learn quietly through reflection and emersion
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces
  5. Focus on value
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement—regular meetings, web site use, email exchanges are familiar. However, excitement can be generated from inviting folks who challenge business-as-usual ways of thinking or offer ideas on potential projects or discussion areas.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community—this is the ebb and flow of events and interactions, the frequency of formal and informal get-togethers. Sometimes this will be quite active, almost breathless and others will meander like a quiet stream.

In implementing CoP and in working with others who have, here are a few tips I learned about ways to ensure that a CoP is useful, effective and enduring.

  • Communities of practice do best with internal leadership and initiative.
  • Sponsors and community leaders must foster the community’s development among practitioners.  (I am talking about all you senior PMs in the project community)
  • Create structures that provide support and sponsorship for these communities and find ways to involve them in the conduct of the business without thwarting desirable open sharing among participants.
  • Develop trust relationships in the beginning through face-to-face interactions among participants.
  • Choose a person to coordinate the resources that will be shared and set up the meetings–this position probably should be rotated.
  • Identify the desired frequency of meetings (monthly? Quarterly?)—this helps build familiarity and rhythm.
  • Introduce virtual conferencing tools that can be used to facilitate group discussions—make sure participants know how to use them.  We use GoToMeeting here at Cognitive Technologies.
  • Create interesting and provocative discussions by building a prioritized list of the most pressing PM issues, most frequently asked question areas, or lessons learned around a single PM topic.

The Knowledge Garden offers further insight into Communities of Practice, Knowledge Ecology, Organizational Intelligence and Virtual Communities.  Some of you might not be PMs but rather business analysts, software developers, designers, etc.—you should create a CoP also.

Have you created a community or participated in one, please share your experiences, comments, and suggestions.

RESPECT – How NOT to be the Rodney Dangerfield of Project Management

Do you go around saying “I get no respect!”?  Project managers who say they are not getting respect usually mean that their comments, warnings, suggestions, and requests do not change the behavior of those they work with and for. Perhaps that is true. However, it is also possible that the power distribution scheme in your company is not setup to recognize or utilize the contributions of project management.  

Sixty or seventy years ago, when your parents or grandparents began working for corporations, the internal organization—and power structure—was setup around product groups and profit centers. Each group had a manager responsible for all activities and personnel necessary to get a product out the door and to make a profit. Product managers were respected.

Then in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, large corporations started merging into giant corporations. Lockheed, Martin, and Loral became one company; Boeing and McDonnell Douglas were married, Citi merged or acquired Traveler’s Insurance, Smith Barney, Salomon Brothers, The Associates and many more. To ensure that the mergers made financial sense, these mega-organizations looked for ways to cut costs. Within the product-oriented organizational structure, they found (OH NO!) duplication of functions. To the rescue came the “matrix organization” (You can read a description of this in chapter 2 of the 4th Edition PMI PMBok Guide).

In a matrix organization, groups are put together based on functions or skills. This organization style means that project managers are often in reality project facilitators with only informal control over personnel. They must rely upon the functional managers for project resources.

To receive respect in a matrix organization and to achieve the goals of your project, you need to utilize some of the same behaviors and attitudes discussed in previous posts such as Working with Support Organizations and The Accidental Project Manager Part 2. However, there is more to gaining respect than getting along. You must:

  1. Know where the power lies. Managers within the functional organizations wield the power to assign resources and establish priorities. To gain their respect takes research, insight into motivation, and time. One useful strategy is to figure out how to help them by offering advice and information they can use to do their jobs.
  2. Know your job and back up your requests and assertions with data. Give trust, but more important BE TRUSTWORTHY.
  3.  Keep your relationships “adult-to-adult” within the matrix. Adults negotiate; strive for consensus, resolve conflicts, and respect each other’s opinions according to Paula K. Martin, CEO of Martin Training Associates.
  4. Don’t play childish games. Here are a few games—interactions with ulterior motives—from Eric Berne’s classic transactional analysis book, Games People Play that you should avoid:
    • “Why don’t you…yes, but”
    • “Ain’t it awful”
    • “I’m only trying to help you”
    • “If it weren’t for you”
    • “Look what you’ve done to me”
  5. Ask for help. People, including the managers within a matrix organization, are more likely to respect the person who asks for their help in getting a job done than they are to respect someone who acts as if they have all the answers.  The trick to making this strategy work and increase the respect you receive is to be sincere.

    I am not suggesting you learn to fake sincerity. I am saying you really have to want to know how to get Group A to do what you need done for your project. If you have failed in the past to gain respect or support, start your discussion with an admission about the past, followed by the request to learn how to do it better.

  6. Be professional.  Even when you are being treated with no respect and others are playing games, you should be professional and respectful in your actions and attitude.  While this may not seem to work in the short term, it has huge long-term benefits. 

I am sure readers of Fear-No-Project would appreciate your experiences in successfully gaining respect for you and your project within a matrix organization. Please share via comments.

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