Project management communities of practice – advancing the practice

Introduction

Today companies are dealing with continuous changes in products, services, and technologies. How do project managers today evolve into the next century superstar? How do they help keep up with this ever-changing technology, as well as discover new tools and techniques? Will they share new ideas and bring instant success weekly to their projects without adding additional costs, special training, or long trials of research? Do new project managers come fully trained and seasoned with nothing but successful project experiences? Are they able to solve all problems, will they help each other, and learn together? Do your company's project managers band together to share experiences, help each other, and promote the evolution of their understanding of the project management field? Do their interactions focus on their common craft: helping each other solve difficult work problems, learning from each other, and learning with each other? This paper provides an overview and insight into the concept of “Communities of Practice” as described by Knowledge Management, along with a practical example of project management in use at The Boeing Company.

Knowledge management is a discipline that promotes an integrated and collaborative approach to the creation, capture, organization, access, and use of an enterprise's information assets. This includes databases, documents, and, most importantly, the uncaptured, tacit expertise and experience of individual workers – Gartner Group.

What is a Community of Practice?

“Communities of Practice” is a phrase that refers to the ways in which people naturally work together. It acknowledges and celebrates the power of informal communities of peers, their creativity and resourcefulness in solving work problems, and inventing better and easier ways to meet their commitments.

A Community of Practice (CoP) is a special type of informal network that emerges from a desire to work more effectively, or to understand work more deeply among members of a particular specialty or work group. At the simplest level, CoPs are small groups of people who've worked together over a period of time to develop a common sense of purpose, and a desire to share work-related knowledge and experience through extensive communication.

CoPs emerge in the social space between project teams and knowledge networks. When multiple project teams are engaged in similar tasks, the need to share what they know will often lead to community formation.

Knowledge cannot be separated from the communities that create, use, and transform it. People require conversation, experimentation, and shared experiences with other people to perform similar work in all types of knowledge transfer. As people move beyond routine processes into more complex challenges, they rely heavily on their community of practice as their primary knowledge resource.

They are colleagues, bound together by their common responsibility to get a certain type of “real work” done. At the simplest level, CoPs are small groups of people who've worked together over a period of time and through extensive communication have developed a common sense of purpose and a desire to share work-related knowledge and experience. There are typically many communities of practice within a single company, and many people belong to more than one of them. CoPs are typically small groups of specialists that learn together. They emerge of their own accord: Three, four, twenty, maybe thirty people find themselves drawn to one another by a force that's both social and professional. They collaborate directly, use one another as sounding boards, and teach each other. Such groups cannot be created by decree, and reorganization, reassignments, and company failure to live up to implicit commitments can easily destroy them. Because CoPs generate extraordinary learning, they are among the most important structures of any organization where thinking matters. CoPs tend undermine an organization's formal structures and strictures; they are tolerated because they deliver value that formal organization cannot.

Exhibit 1. What are the Differences?

What are the Differences?

Exhibit 2. Communities, Stovepipes

Communities, Stovepipes

Membership in a community of practice is independent of rank or organization status. However the community may recognize a kind of internal ranking, reflecting the community's assessment of how well individuals have mastered their discipline.

Members share their hard-won, practical knowledge with other members because the results are useful and personally gratifying. There is no abstract philanthropy at work here; the motivation is practical benefit.

These informal networks can cut through formal reporting procedures to jump-start stalled initiatives and meet extraordinary deadlines.

Because of their personal interaction, face-to-face traditional CoPs develop knowledge and understandings that go beyond their “book learning” and formal certification in a trade. Through informal interactions with like specialists they develop new information about how to do their job and how to act in certain settings. Through collaboration a CoP generates a common, shared understanding of events and an action orientation for dealing with such events the next time they arise.

Such a community has a strong moral foundation of values that: (a) respects each individual's unique capacity to grow and, in doing so, to contribute to the community's purpose, (b) recognizes each member's responsibility to help those within their reach to develop their abilities, (c) conveys an obligation to engage in honest dialog with each other, and (d) includes an uncoerced agreement to subordinate, short-term, self-interest in return for the benefits of full participation in the life of the community.

The value proposition for the members of the community is:

Exploiting the latest and greatest thinking

Being rewarded on Outputs (the value you create) rather than Inputs (a day rate)

Being in a place that aligns closely with your personal values rather than an imposed value system

Respecting individuals’ uniqueness

Meritocracy rather than hierarchy

Work for our benefit collectively, as well as individually

Strive to create a sustainable future

Leveraging “group minds”

Members of the community and selected others will be free to use the stuff created

Having fun.

Put to Use at The Boeing Company

At Boeing, a Project Management CoP is established with a charter and set of guidelines. This group is working to advance the practice, first by understanding what this whole CoP is, and what its difference with existing quality improvement movements or organizations structures is. We are finding that the CoP is a place to meet and share failures or problems and ask for help without the fear of repercussions. These shared experiences are more valuable then attending a training class. Members share war stories on how tools and techniques worked or didn't work within organizations, or with different managers. This information helped new or less experienced project managers start out on projects with proven direction and insight that furthered their success and eliminated premature project failures. Members would share ideas in the CoP before trying them on the projects. They would get real input that helped them refine the ideas and presentations for better opportunities of success. It doesn't save them from the organizational people that may stand in the way of new ideas, but it does help them understand how to work with those types of people, and what types of tools and techniques may provide success for the project.

Conclusion

CoP work on topics important to their members and their business. CoPs solve problems, help each other, and learn together. They provide real value to members. These communities create a learning culture. Management needs to fully support and trust the communities. CoPs are waiting to emerge from within your own company.

Professional knowledge workers view themselves as having lives and skills beyond the organization. Such knowledge workers prefer organizations that recognize their individual talents and provide space for their individual contributions. They prefer small, autonomous work groups based on reciprocal trust between leaders and led, groups responsible, and as far as possible, for their own destiny.

Exhibit 3. Community of Practice Charter for Project Management in The Boeing Company

Community of Practice Charter for Project Management in The Boeing Company

Open, honest communication based on trust and respect of values, practices, culture, and an agreement about how the group will interact. Opportunity to reflect and share reflections of growth and self-development provides opportunities to teach and be taught. Access to experts in the area of study and resources contributed and guided by community members. Clearly defined goal(s) or purpose of the community, common meeting “place” to share, discuss and contribute to the learning environment.

You can establish a CoP support system to enable program management professionals at all levels to efficiently and effectively managing program activities. These program activities would be opportunities to share expertise, to collaborate in problem solving, and to promote continuous learning and innovation. Begin by developing a CoP framework to grow and sustain an active CoP. The framework will reflect community identified needs, priorities, operating principles, tools, and measures for knowledge management. By working with a “knowledge management” practitioner and their methodology they can help the execution of project management by having key social networks identified so true communication and requirements can be validated through the chain. You then can begin to see where a community of practice can emerge from your company, and then you too, can advance the practice.

Reference

Coogan, Jim. 2000. Communities of Practice Presentations. The Boeing Company.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA

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