To grow oaks, you need to start with nuts!!


Consultant, Trainer and Owner at SigmaPM

Nuts: Adjective - informal term for mentally irregular.


Lessons learned, knowledge development and networking are all key topics for project managers.

Why not combine them in a way that maximises the effect and at the same time stimulates growth in project management excellence?

Project management forums or similar communities of practice are well recognised as effective vehicles for transporting knowledge from one team to another – or one PM to another. However, these Communities of Practice (CoP) do not just start and grow – there needs to be a catalyst and there certainly needs to be a leader.

This paper looks at the key elements of creating and sustaining a CoP – and what specific leadership characteristics are needed to help it grow and mature. In other words, how do we find the right kind of “nuts” that will grow into massive “oaks?”


“Knowledge transfer is one of the greatest challenges facing corporations.” (Kerzner, 2010, p51)

One of the biggest problems facing project managers and their organisations today is how best to get knowledge transferred from the experts (or at least experienced) project managers to the rest of the organisation. Much has been written on lessons ignored and equally as much has been written on having lessons learned as a value-added component in the toolbox of project management. What seems to be missing is a sound approach for getting the knowledge transmitted (the identified, captured, stored parts are all pretty obvious).

“Many companies are discovering that communities of practice are the ideal social structure for ’stewarding’ knowledge” (Wenger et al, 2002, p12)

Organisations that create an environment in which CoP's can grow and flourish reap the benefit of shared knowledge at a fundamental level – the practitioners themselves become better at their job. But how to start these communities? What is needed? Who will lead them?
Wenger and others argue that there are many ways in which to get the CoP in place, including the formal creation with management oversight as well as simply giving tacit support to the ad-hoc communities as they grow.

In any case, the one key element is the need for a dynamic and energetic leader that can stimulate and coordinate the community towards maturity, motivating the members to actively contribute, keeping the community “on track” and helping to cultivate growth in others.

Planting – from seed to tree

Best practices identified at a variety of large multi-nationals (Shell, Philips/NXP, IBM, Amadeus) have shown the value of putting in place Communities of Practice (CoP) across the organisation to promote the sharing of knowledge.

Let's look at a specific example: At one particular large multi-national organisation (NXP Semiconductors) we noted that there are many lessons that are captured during projects or during their review but very little evidence that these lessons were even being seen by other project managers. Having a process and a tool to support it was clearly not enough!

One solution we put in place was to use the model of a Community of Practice (CoP) as described by Wenger in his work on the subject. Using the same basic idea as used by Shell in their off-shore drilling platforms (“Turbodudes, Wenger et al, 2002, p66), we established local forums of “experts” with the specific mandate to create an arena in which project managers would feel comfortable sharing their findings and learning's from their projects.

The process itself is very simple; Lessons are identified by the PM's either from project debriefs or from peer reviews and these are then presented to the forum as a type of “war story”. It is important to note here that we looked for both good and “less good” incidents to learn from. In general this lead to a good (sometimes spirited) debate on the topic from which the participants can take away a genuine learning experience. The results are somewhat qualitative in nature so to say we have clear measurable improvements as a direct result of these sessions would be difficult, however the team have seen a general improvement in the overall performance of projects since the start of this initiative.

Stimulating – promoting growth

Now for the hard part – building, and maintaining, the CoP.

Wenger gives some very good guidelines of how to construct CoP's, including the need to have a good core team, involvement of executive sponsors, clear outcomes, general house rules etc. He also talks about the need for a high level of energy input from the core team to create and maintain the momentum of the CoP. Taking the core ideas and adding some real-life experiences gives the following basic recipe:
Start with a nut - You need to have at least one very extroverted and charismatic lead figure. We seek out people that are not just experts in the field but are almost fanatical in their dedication to developing and maturing project management.

Plant it in the right place - You need to ensure the CoP does not interfere too much with either normal work or personal time. We generally hold our sessions around the lunch hour with food provided.
You need occasionally to prune the CoP branches to promote strong growth. Groups can develop in directions which do not really promote the central theme of the CoP, in which case it's a good idea to spin them off to avoid dilution.

When the members leave, don't panic, this is just seasonal. People come and go as their jobs change, their project pressure changes, etc. They'll be back...
The CoP needs to produce more nuts which can be planted in other sites and thus grow an interlinked community of communities. In the case of this particular organisation the team built a solid core of strong drivers over the period of nearly 3 years with active communities sharing and learning in 10 different sites around the world.

“Companies today have much greater expectations of their project managers. Years ago, the only expectation was successful execution of the project. While that expectation still exists today, companies such as IBM also expect their project managers to provide ‘givebacks’ to the company at project closure. These givebacks are in the form of lessons learned and best practices. Given a company the size of IBM, and with 25,000 project managers worldwide, the potential value exists for a wealth of best practices that can be obtained and shared among all of their project managers. Without a CoP functioning as the guardian of this intellectual property on project management, the true value of this expectation may be difficult to obtain.” (Personal communication with Dr. Harold Kerzner, March, 2010)

Focussing on the individual (the nut) that gets it started:
Jim Collins writes that to go from good to great you should “we should only do those things that we can get passionate about” (Collins, 2001, p109). What this means is that we need, as potential leaders of CoP's, to have a strong passion for the subject if we want to build a “great” community (it is my opinion that the same principles that Collins applies to companies can be applied to communities in this context). Taking that at a personal level means that the leader (or potential leader) needs to have a strong passion for the subject in hand – anything less and it just becomes another overhead task. This idea is further emphasised by Kimiz Dalkar “Leaders are members who have the time and energy (emphasis added) to take on more official roles such as helping with the operations of the community” (Dalkir, 2005, p126). So the CoP leader needs both passion and energy to make it work!

Focussing on the group (the tree) that grows and grows:
“Teams work hard and enthusiastically. They also play hard and enthusiastically. No one has to ask them to put in extra time; they just do it” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p106).
Being a member of a CoP is probably something that happens outside of our normal working time – so what encourages people to participate to these communities? Here are few ideas:
Value-added topics – the subjects covered must be chosen (by the leaders and the community) in such a way that they add value to the community and also the individual. In fact, as argued in my previous paper (Gray, 2009, p2) the knowledge itself becomes a type of commodity that can be transferred between the members of the community
A sense of belonging – one of the vital elements of a successful community is the element of trust. Wenger states quite clearly that there is a need for trust – and that this can be difficult to build especially when the community is of a dispersed nature or composed of many different cultures. A vital function of the leader here is to identify barriers to trust, conflict situations and potential trust issues – and then help the community to overcome them.
Legitimisation – recognition of the community and its value to the organisation by the management is a great way to help it grow.

All of these are analogous to planting the nut in good soil; watering regularly; making sure the young tree receives a good share of sunshine and making sure that pests or disease don't damage it irreversibly.

Pruning – growing in the right direction

Pruning of trees is necessary to stimulate growth in the appropriate way – be it a Bonsai that we want to keep small or be it a great oak that we want to grow tall and strong. In addition, pruning can be necessary if a branch is damaged or diseased.

As with trees, CoP's will also require occasional pruning – and here's why:
The over-charismatic leader – we noted earlier that the CoP needs a passionate and energetic leader. This comes with a health warning in that the “the enthusiasm for the domain leads to excessive zealousness” (Wenger, 2002, p141). What this means is that there can be a certain amount of arrogance setting in that needs to be pruned out – even if this pruning requires the leader to be replaced.
Increasingly rapid change – one of the things that the CoP is in place to help with is dealing with the ever-increasing rate of change in the environment. However the change can be so rapid that the community falls behind – either because the majority of the members stagnate in one worldview or because the community of a whole has grown in one specific direction. At this point the leaders need to do some judicious pruning to help stimulate those branches that are growing in the new and desired direction
An absence of trust – key to the successful running of the community is a strong element of trust between members. If we have members that are either not trustworthy or are not trusting, we may need to prune them out if we cannot stimulate them to change through other means.

Expanding - Going from the tree to the forest

Trees – if given the chance – mature and produce fruit (or nuts) to help propagate the species. Communities of practice operate in the same way. A CoP that grows and is seen to add value will encourage members that move on to other positions to start up new CoP's wherever they are. In this way we create an interconnected set of communities both within and around the organisation. A veritable forest of oaks!


“You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps” (Bergier, circa 1968).

There's the “crazy” of inspirational leaders that think outside the box.

There's the “crazy” as in “crazy like a fox”

But in reality, the “nuts” that inspire leadership and stimulate CoP's to develop and grow are simply those people that have a high level of passion for the subject and the energy to get things moving in the right direction. After that, it's down to the natural growth (albeit directed) of the community that produces results.


Oak trees in fact produce acorns (which are botanically referred to as nuts) – but that does not have the same double meaning as nuts

The author cannot be held responsible for any allergic reactions to the possible nut content of this article...


Wenger, E, McDermott, R, & Snyder, M. W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice . Boston MA: Harvard Business School Publishing. Guide to the PMBoK Fourth Edition © 2008, Project Management Institute

Kerzner, H. (2010). Project Management Best Practices, Second Edition, Hoboken, NJ: International Institute for Learning; John Wiley & Sons

Kimiz, D. (2005) Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice , Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heineman

Gray, M. (2009). Identifying key value drivers of lessons learned in projects . Proceedings of the PMI global congress 2009 - EMEA

© 2010, Mark Gray
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Milan, Italy



Related Content

  • Project Management Journal

    Major Knowledge Diffusion Paths of Megaproject Management member content locked

    By Wu, Hengqin | Xue, Xiaolong | Zhao, Zebin | Wang, Zeyu | Shen, Qiping | Luo, Xiaowei This article integrates social network analysis and main path analysis to investigate progress in megaproject management (MPM) from the perspective of knowledge diffusion. After measuring three…

  • PM Network

    'Common' Knowledge? member content open

    By Somani, Sheilina As project managers, we are aware of the criticality of communication—both transmitted and received. We are familiar with terms such as risk, assumptions and issues. We employ management skills and…

  • Project Management Journal

    Project Networks—an Important—but Still Under-Researched Topic in Project Management Research member content locked

    By Gemünden, Hans Georg We are living in an interconnected world and this has clear implications for project management. A recent trend study from Schoper, Gemünden, and Nguyen (2016) showed that experienced practitioners…

  • Lessons (Really) Learned? How to Retain Project Knowledge and Avoid Recurring Nightmares member content open

    By Dülgerler, Mustafa | Negri, Marco Most companies have institutionalized the process of identifying and documenting lessons learned, but, even when these lessons are correctly identified and documented, they often get lost in a…

  • Global Workforce Effects on Knowledge Transfer member content open

    By Bernabe, Rosalinda P. This paper will provide insights on knowledge transfer using a virtual team-base scenario to describe how projects, programme, portfolio, and operations working within organisations tend to have…