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.

2 Responses to “How to Grow Communities of Practice”

  1. What is PMBOK All About? « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] companies seem to focus more on Communities of Practice (you may check out “How to Grow Communities of Practice” if you want more information […]

  2. Project Management and the Agility Factor « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] Tap into community building efforts, such as communities of practice. […]


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