Communities of practice
ingenuity in the Canadian federal government
This publication contains facts as produced and expressed by representatives and employees of the Government of Canada in the conduct of government Community of Practice (CoP) activities, and all content on Compra.ca site is created by and maintained by individual public servants acting as members of CoPs related to public administration which is not meant to serve as official government information.
Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference
11-14 July 2004 – London, UK
The maturing of project management as a profession is greatly influenced by how its collective membership creates, mobilizes, and reuses its generally accepted body of knowledge. However, as the complexity of managing projects and programs increases, patterns of knowledge seem to be difficult to identify, leaving organizations sitting on their heels. Thus, it is critical for organizations to manage and mobilize knowledge in ways that more readily create replicable processes and practices, as well as allowing for innovation to emerge from seemingly chaotic situations. A timely response by the Canadian federal government is evidenced by the recent groundswell of Communities of Practice (CoP)—social networks that individuals use to make sense of the workplace around them and develop a common understanding of the “meaning” of their roles to the organization.1 Arguably, most PMI’s members participate in one or more “CoPs” in their workplaces, and in even “CoPs” related to their communities, volunteer commitments etc. However, few tend to recognize that they are engaged in CoP relationships—they just do so intuitively, and automatically participate. CoPs are distinct in that they are informal and take root quickly given a strong “espirit de corps” grounded in a voluntarily commitment to share knowledge and experiences. This paper provides a snapshot of the more visible emergence of CoPs, highlighting where they may contribute to efficiency, and assist in making sense of probes into the unknown. Although other federal CoPs exist, the scope of this paper is limited to the review of a core group of federal CoPs that originated out of assistance from the federal Organizational Readiness Office. The paper also serves as foundation for a case study investigation of the benefits of CoP in the federal sector.2 The author concludes that informal coordination, utilization, and sharing of project knowledge through CoPs is a integral part of delivering public sector projects that result in successful programs and services for Canadians and others internationally.
Project management’s generally accepted body of knowledge is greatly influenced by how its collective membership creates, mobilizes, and reuses its “know-how.” Know-how refers to processes, methodologies, tool, practices, and the like. The Canadian federal government, like other organizations, faces increasing pressure to more effectively leverage its existing know-how, and create strategies to deliver high quality programs and services (Carpio Tam, 2003). As societal values change over time, lines between government and private-sector business models blur. Government’s “basic bargain” has recently shifted from efficient management of public funds in compliance with laws and regulations to demonstration of impacts of operations, programs, and policy. Meeting this challenge is increasingly difficult because it requires continual shift in thinking from compliance management to performance management, and coordination of responsibility and accountability frameworks that often cross departments and agencies. Furthermore, a large portion of the public service’s workforce is approaching retirement, and with it goes a significant amount of organizational (corporate) memory.
Learning theorists have identified various types of informal structures used to organize labor and utilize corporate memory. For example, networks, skunk-works, online communities, specific interest groups, and virtual and face-to-face teams. Costly structural changes rather than transformations in organizational culture continue to be a preoccupation despite the failure of any restructuring attempt to relieve the stress and ongoing “strain of innovation” (Robillard, 2003).
Innovation in a broad sense may then be characterized by “doing different things and doing things differently” to create value (Jugdev, 2003). Specifically, Thomas, Delisle, and Judgev (2002) identify value creation to include recognizing efficiencies, market expansion (i.e., entry into new segments), and advantage creation (i.e., alternate service delivery). However, to create value through cultural “modernization” requires a shift in the role of the public-sector employees and their relationship to each other, client departments, other organizations, and the community at large. The ways in which project knowledge is leveraged require different approaches.
This paper provides the international community a snapshot on how the Canadian federal government is more widely acknowledging and developing CoPs. Although no one definition suffices, a useful working definition is, “groups of people who come together to share and to learn from one another face-to-face and virtually. They are held together by a feeling of mutual trust and through a common interest in a body of knowledge. They are driven by a desire and need to share problems, experiences, insights, templates, tools, and best practices. Community members deepen their knowledge by interacting on an ongoing basis. CoPs consist of social networks formed around occupational disciplines and functions or around specific issues, products or services.” (Cousineau, 2002, p. 9). Essentially, CoPs are social networks that individuals use to make sense of the workplace around them and develop a common understanding of the “meaning” of their roles to the organization.
It can be argued that CoPs are instrumental in helping government anticipate shifts in knowledge patterns so that it may be positioned to better deliver high quality programs and services. The first section provides a brief introduction to CoPs. Issues driving the formation of CoPs are explained in the second section. The third section presents a brief overview of the primary origin of CoPs in the Canadian federal sector, and the fourth section focuses on issues related to growing CoPs. The fifth section outlines lessons learned, and the sixth section serves as a conclusion.
Issues and Key Deficits
Issues internal and external to federal departments and agencies influence the adoption of modern management principles used to translate project inputs (i.e., funds, activities) into meaningful results for Canadians. A review of relevant literature verifies that the following key issues influence federal public-sector service:
- Crises management government-wide;
- Increasing employee turnover and resulting loss of corporate memory;
- Unexploited economies of scale between departments and agencies;
- Inability to respond to demand for high service quality and balance priorities.
Each issue is briefly examined, and the deficit resulting from not addressing the issue is explained. Deficits may be grouped into at least five types of “capitals” listed as follows:
- Human resource capital— People and their acquired capabilities - knowledge, skills, competences and other attributes embodied individuals that facilitate the creation of personal, social and economic well being (OECD, 2001).
- Social capital—Stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems (Cousineau, 2002). The emergent character of social capital rests substantially on building social cohesion – agreeing on the importance of shared values, shared understanding, shared language, and the coherence of beliefs among individuals;
- Knowledge capital—Leveraging and sharing of intellectual- and experience-based resources, whether ideas or formally coded outputs;
- Economic capital—Financial resources (may include goods voluntarily contributed;
- Natural capital—Natural resources and the ecological systems that provide vital life-support services (NRTEE, 2004).
A notable study by Duxbury and Higgins (2001) shows that as a whole, the Canadian labor force works between 3.5 to 5 additional hours (unpaid overtime) per month, equating to between 40–60 unpaid days of overtime per year. However, this does not appear to have lessened the incidence of crises management in the Federal government, where the major side effect continues to be a loss of the ability to plan and prioritize in the face of competing pressures. Thomas, Jugdev, and Delisle (2002) identify that perpetual “crises” also impair organizational capacity to shift focus from symptoms, and identify root causes of problems. Government departments and agencies are no exception. They often fail to engage in a comprehensive information search in anticipation or at the very least in response to changes in market forces, political focus, and so forth.
Social, Human, and Knowledge Deficit
The deficit created from managing in crises mode is pronounced in terms of reduction in social capital. Symptoms include lack of cohesion evidenced by unsustainable distribution of workloads, lack of work-life balance, and more frequent turnover of human resources. This results in further depletion of human resource capacity, which exacerbates uneven flows of work. From an alignment perspective, human resources who should be focusing on strategic issues are pulled into fighting fires on an operational level. Knowledge capital is also negatively impacted because people do not have time to cultivate networks and share best practices and experiences. This also points to the competition the government face in enticing its younger workforce to remain with the public service.
Turnover is defined by exit from the public sector in pursuit of opportunities elsewhere. Current demographic profiles show an unsustainable drain on human resource capital in terms of experienced employees leaving the public service at a higher rate than new employees are entering (Carpio Tam, 2003). Although not true for all departments or agencies, employee tenure cycles are shortening. For example, it is not uncommon for resource profiles to show a bi-modal distribution—a larger group of employees <30-year age band with high mobility, and smaller group of >50-year age band with low mobility (experience in only one –two federal departments or agencies over the course of 20+ years in the public sector). Overall, the federal workforce is well educated and relatively stable. However, its younger component is more willing to seek out employment opportunities in other sectors.
Knowledge, Social, and Economic Deficit
A deficit in knowledge capital results from the loss of opportunity to capture “tacit” knowledge (know-how). This knowledge is often gathered on the job and is not coded formally and shared with the department or agency as a whole. Therefore, the loss of corporate memory is essentially impossible to recover after the person leaves. Root causes for the inattention may be that senior levels still view knowledge as a control mechanism rather than as a means to build strategic value-based networks, which enhance capacity at levels with departments and agencies. An economic deficit stems from turnover costs, retraining, and a serious loss of potential to transfer skills and experience to employees in the future.
Economies of Scale
The preferred method for restoring competitiveness in the private sector is to cut operating costs, including human resources. In the Canadian federal government, the message seems to be resonating. As well, economies of scale can but are not regularly pursed to align regional-headquarters efforts. For example, the National Manager’s Council CoP has grown from a groundswell of grassroots work regions and in the national capital (Ottawa) to increase leadership capacity (National Manager’s Council, 2004).
Knowledge and Economic Deficit
The deficit in this situation relates to ineffective sharing of information and accumulated experience within departments—to support the delivery—and among departments. The impassioned discussion of reinventing the wheel is still much too frequently heard. In addition, the economic deficient can be easily seen in terms of costs attributable to overlap of project resources where departments are essentially working toward the same goal and do not know it.
Service Quality Alignment
The demand for high quality products and services is not new to any sector. However, the extent of the recent shift to Canadian federal government to results-based management is perhaps unique. This shift has brought with it the need to understand the operational and strategic benefits of project management (i.e., balancing of competing project management priorities [e.g., cost, time], and delivering programs and services that enhance the well-being of Canadians and citizens abroad). Instead of assessing and responding to competitive pressures to collaborate and innovate, departments and agencies have a tendency to stay the course and fall into what Bass and Christensen (2000) refer to as the “sufficiency trap.”
Knowledge and Social Deficit
The deficit in terms of knowledge capital is due to a number of factors including lack of project management know-how. In particular, weaknesses are in project initiation (estimating, identification of stakeholders), planning (issue identification, analysis of problems), and close out (maintaining networks, following up with additional work). As well, a notable social deficit exists whose symptoms are in cultural barriers, including lack of trust, blurred lines of accountability, and diluted understanding of current trends.
Interactions obviously occur between these groups of “capitals”; however, anticipated main effects are the focus. One important point to note is that robust human, social, knowledge and economic capital, in one way or another, all underpin our ability to enhance and sustain natural capital. In summary, paying appropriate attention to the condition of the “capitals” previously mentioned will help position the federal government to better understand where to focus its attention in terms of delivery of projects, program, and services designed to build capacity.
Origin of Federal Communities of Practice
In recognition of the key issues, action was taken by the federal government’s Organizational Readiness Office (ORO), in the Chief Information Officer Branch (ORO, 2004). “Compra.ca” was developed on a platform housing web-based tools to serve as the foundation from which individuals/departments could build their CoPs. There are currently around 45 informal CoPs in the federal public service in existence on Compra.ca, which operates at no charge to participants. This platform is publicly accessible, but participation is limited to public servants. The ORO provides federal departments and agencies with expertise and support in building CoPs, and understanding culture and workforce issues related to the implementation of the Government’s 2000 change agenda (Results for Canadians). The 2003 human resource modernization legislation and major policy reviews have led to the realization that leveraging of formal and informal resources to meet the modern management challenges is necessary. Thus, CoPs are in a sense, a cultural response to delivering integrated, multi-channel, client-centered projects through traditional government structures.
Federal public-sector CoPs may also be seen as an outward response to what McKegney (2003) calls an intuitive recognition that informal workplace networks are effective mechanisms for learning and knowledge exchange. Arguably, communities exist wherever there are people. Taking a step back in time shows that people self-organize and are organized by labor. This is demonstrated by the example of tribal hunter-gatherer cultures morphing to cottage industries, agriculture societies, bureaucracies, networks, and virtual teams, to present where a educated “nomadic” knowledge workforce prevails (Delisle, 2004). The notion of progress does not imply a value judgment (good/bad) or that groups of people are universally moving forward as a whole. More aptly, progress fits with Wenger’s (1999) notion of CoPs—progressive modernization of organizational culture where people tend to apply the same learning and knowledge-sharing skills in workplaces as they do in these other “community” settings.
Growing Federal CoPs
Although there are many considerations in growing or building CoPs in the Federal public sector, the main message is that there is no one best way. The following subsections focus on main issues in literature and from experience with Compra.ca communities to date.
Authority and Responsibility Structure
A fundamental practice in growing CoPs in the federal sector (and perhaps others) is that its formation is clearly spontaneous, grassroots oriented, and not driven from the top down. The informal authority in specific subject matter is embodied by community leaders and members. Cousineau (2002) also points out that organizational authority is embodied by Assistant Deputy and Deputy Ministers as champions. Finally, the ORO acts as a liaison office within the Treasury Board Secretariat to provide Management Board authority, legitimizing CoPs as a vehicle to help implement the government's agenda (Cousineau, 2002). In essence, CoPs complement rather than compete with traditional accountability structures.” (Cousineau, 2002).
Participants at the inaugural meeting of more than 50 members from the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum and National Managers Community CoPs held Dec. 2003 agreed that experts or management should not be mandating formal CoP policies, processes, and so forth. Management’s primary involvement is in the provision of financial resources should additional collaboration tools be deemed necessary. As part of its transformation from a granting agency to a knowledge council, the Social Science Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) has recently established a CoP for 26 Innovation in the New Economy (INE) grant holders. Although the CoP was initiated in response to researchers’ need to identify key linkages between their projects and share expertise, participation remains relatively low. A significant challenge lies in shifting the academic mindset in terms of responsibilities to conduct research in a way that purposely facilitates cross fertilization, enables rapid mobilization of knowledge, and results in consumption by end users (i.e., decision makers).
Access and Content
Another consideration is in access to Federal CoPs. Limiting public servant’s membership, charging membership fees, or assigning people to take on roles appears to be a faux pas. A unique feature of CoPs is that their development is driven by a shared passion and maintained by voluntary participation. Thus, developing a CoP is also about recognizing the voluntary contribution of individuals to maintain a healthy and balanced workplace, both through individual efforts and by encouraging and supporting colleagues. Compra.ca allows for public servants to visit any CoP on the platform as a guest, although some CoPs limit access to certain parts of their communities. A willingness to contribute, an implied trust, and a desire to collaborate freely serve as sufficient guideposts to determine what is acceptable. Some communities have representatives (editors) who review submissions only to ensure they are relevant to the practice and that copyright and other legal requirements related to information sharing are respected. The Information Technology community, for example, has developed specific content in response to an identified need for better access to project management training. The content, consistent with PMI’s PM Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), is managed by a course provider within the CoP.
Until recently, Compra.ca provided informal suggestions of how to start growing a CoP. There now exists a basic tutorial guide for getting started that was cooperatively developed with Thomas McKegney (Bhogal, 2004). The guide is primarily operational in nature, providing information about setting up an account, subscribing and participating. Overall, consideration should be given to the anticipated size of the community and geographic location of participants as the start to assessing time and resource requirements. For local communities, Compra.ca lists some simple points, of which the fourth is critical:
- Identify the topic(s) that may be central to the proposed CoP;
- Locate subject matter experts (if you are not one yourself) who are well connected to other people engaged in the proposed topics. One may agree to be a “champion” or editor;
- Encourage others in your department or agency that may be interested or involved in the topic;
- Continue networking, building on interest until you notice that people start mentioning the same people—this is when you have begun to discover a “community”;
- Set up the community and decide as a group how to collaborate.
Assessing the Value of CoPs
Formal assessment of CoPs value to federal departments and agencies and individuals who participate in CoPs lags behind (Carpio Tam, 2003). Traditionally, a core focus of learning initiatives in the federal public sector has been on creating efficiency. Assessment of mobilizing knowledge continues to be largely usurped by expression of public sector value through financial terms familiar to project managers – return on investment for employee time expended on service delivery. Other reasons for the lag are in the difficulty to measure social concepts, and that CoPs by nature have different purposes that are not closely tied to concerns about return on investment calculations. Although there does not appear to be a national level performance management framework to assess the value of CoPs across the public sector, individual CoPs are starting to assess results. For example, Etienne Wenger’s recent work with Health Canada provides a better understanding of how to apply CoP approach to meet the needs of its consultations community.
Carpio Tam’s (2003) foundational research on Canadian federal sector CoPs identified three main CoP types: communities of interest, functional communities, and people networks. Of these, functional communities tend to be more structured are most amenable to traditional value assessment. Carpio Tam designed a basic CoP evaluation framework on the basis of Wenger’s (1999) principles: determining what purpose and whom needs the measurement exercise; deciding on what to collect, how, and when; planning for raising awareness about measurement; and combining quantitative, qualitative, and informal stories to provide an overall picture of the community’s value.
Carpio Tam’s (2003) CoP valuation tool, when applied to 24 federal CoPs revealed that individual benefits were realized in: regular consultation to solve problems; improved the quality of work; increased collateral knowledge; and job efficiency. The data shows that an average of 12 new key contacts was made, and just over four days are saved on average by participating in a CoP. Benefits to the federal sector as a whole were less obvious, but did include reports of increased commitment to the public service. Although these findings are exploratory, the importance of further research in assessing the value of CoPs has been demonstrated.
Part of the difficulty is assessing value and understanding which end users are benefits is in moving past the assumption that Information Management (IM) or Knowledge Management (KM) are generally understood terms. Evidence from the responses of 1,600 IM CoP show that executives and financial managers represented the lowest percent of respondents (2.8% and 1.4% respectively) yet traditionally they make key decisions about service delivery and funding (ORO, 2003). The findings also show that social science and economics, sociology occupational group respondents – those versed in understanding the dialoguing about the importance of IM and KM represent less than 8% of the sample, but as a collective membership, they report spending just over 85% of the time on knowledge related functions. Perhaps more effort has to be put into finding effective ways for respective occupational groups and executive champions to identify and mobilize knowledge that is of shared interest to the communities to reach executive and financial decision makers.
Key lessons about CoPs are presented so that others may benefit from experience.
- Federal public sector CoPs are most successful when they are driven from grassroots interest and a shared passion about topic(s). Management can expect little in return over the long run if they mandate formal polices, processes, etc. to set up and manage a CoP.
- Knowledge sharing goes on intuitively in all “CoPs” at work and other venues whether these are web-based or not, although individuals do not often recognize their involvement and contributions to these communities. Dialoguing in communities has been a way to break down “silos” or isolation between departments so employees better understand where interests are shared, and what improvements can be readily applied on the job to improve service delivery across the federal sector.
- Technology is an enabler of CoPs, not its core function. Arguably, CoPs have been around for decades, in one form or another, given shared interest around topics. Thus, CoPs do exist and may start to form from discussion around water coolers, lunchrooms, etc. Thus, the suggestion to formalizing a CoP by setting up a complex technology platform or a project management office may not be desirable at least within the federal public sector.
- Limiting membership or assigning people to take on roles may stall or derail a CoP. The core of a CoP is difficult to “pin down” because the very culture promotes the movement of people and ideas. Unlike a list-server, web community, or online community, CoP life cycles are open-ended and needs based. If a particular issue or problem is solved, a CoP may cease to exist, or be reshaped into a new community with some returning and some new members. Participation (under or over) is also not a reliable indicator or usefulness because experience shows that people often “lurk” but still find value.
- Focusing on formalizing knowledge to the ordered or “known” and “knowable” domains appears to be de facto goal for many federal departments and agencies. Knowledge in the known domain includes coding knowledge to develop outputs such as manuals, best practices, and lessons learned. Simply focusing outputs may diminish the overall CoP value. There is some value in creating greater efficiency where members’ decision model is to sense and categorize incoming information to allow for a response in accordance with general practices (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). As well, moving knowledge from the domain of the “knowable” to the known is part of the value created by CoPs. Most interesting is that the collective membership rather than one expert’s opinion serves as the decision model, thus avoiding dependency and reliance on one expert or patented approach (Kurtz &Snowden).
- Accessing the domains of “complexity” and “chaos” is perhaps the most under-valued aspect of a CoP. Dialoguing among a community creates new possibilities, including challenging common beliefs, norms, and drawing together multiple ways to approach a risky situation. The decision model is to create probes that have the potential to result in identification of links between existing patterns and even new patterns of knowledge. This knowledge is often movable across to the ordered domains where it can lead to reshaping of current practices and approaches. The most unordered domain, that of chaos seems to be connected closely to practice of managing in crises mode. The decision model is to act quickly, reduce turbulence, and sense the immediate reaction (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). CoPs are well versed as a collective membership to create new ways to address chaotic events in a time frame that is not possible in the ordered domains. For example, response to a fictional safety threat turned real may not be contained in any manual.
- Overall, respect the intelligence of the participants—they know what they need, they understand the level of trust necessary in sharing knowledge and experiences, and they instinctively back away from efforts to push the CoP in ways of behaving that they find uncomfortable.
As the federal government of Canada continues to change its focus on how to best utilize labor, so will its culture change. Traditional approaches do not appear to be sufficient in themselves to effectively and comprehensively achieve the federal government’s service transformation agenda (Cousineau, 2002). Communities of practice as we know them now are more likely to help the government meet its citizens needs in a globally connected, rapidly changing world. As demographic profiles shift, ways of organizing labor and managing knowledge are likely to continue emerging and redefining CoPs.
It is important to understand that work related CoP life cycles are open-ended and they should exist only when they are meeting participants needs (i.e., shared interests) that hopefully are aligned with the strategic direction of the departments, agencies, and the government as a whole. However, not all communities are aligned. The challenge, as Thomas McKegney identifies, is for departments and the federal government as a whole is to understand that it can benefit by making a concerted effort to find effective ways to identify and address those shared interests to strengthen decision-making.
Thus, much ground remains to be covered in terms of overcoming issues to allow for alignment of CoP inputs and departmental and agency strategic plans to achieve the successful delivery of coordinated federal programs and services. Key pressures to deliver results tend to shift the emphasis on developing capital to build immediate capacity to respond to an event—whether external or internal. The lack of ability to prioritize and reprioritize within a crises mode may translate into poor decisions on investment in building any of the “capitals.” Cousineau’s (2002) point is well taken that “Managing change across the large and complex machinery of government requires significant improvements in management practices and the development of public service knowledge assets” (p. 2). Inability to do so may ultimately impair the government’s ability to successfully deliver high quality project, programs and services.
In many respects, approaches to managing knowledge in the federal public service parallels the larger picture of managing projects as a whole. Morris, Jones, and Wearne (1998) note that the “formation period” (1955–1970) emphasized an assembly line type of efficiency—scheduling, earned value, financial risk management, responsibility charting, and partnering. The “expansion period” (1970s to mid 1980s) seems most characteristic of team-based efforts to balance contingencies as a way of addressing demand for increasing product and service quality.
Morris, Jones, and Wearne’s (1998) notion of the “holistic revolution” (mid 1980s to present) fits well with the more visible emergence of CoPs whereby participants engage in “sense making.” This activity is characterized by what Thomas (2000) and Tjäder (1998) call a dynamic and interactive process of building “grounded theory” in response to dialoguing and responding to “why” questions. The role of people’s cognitive and emotive processes in sharing experiences is also taken into account as part of the process that goes beyond rational, cognitive decision models to fully allow for demonstration of impacts of programs and services.
Understanding and communicating what Cousineau (2002) terms the “Primary strategic intent” or the kind of knowledge and practices the community focuses on, key activities it undertakes, and the structure of the community is key to producing defensive arguments about how a CoP can contribute to overall business performance. Value created in terms of public service quality, and innovation of project management, program and service delivery across the public sector needs to be communicated in reference to financial data to provide a clear, comprehensive and credible value story.
Overall, this paper presents a brief account of CoPs in the Canadian federal government. It outlines issues that are driving their emergence, and for the first time, the origin of the federal government of Canada’s CoPs has been documented in for an international academic audience. The paper makes a practical contribution to assist the reader in understanding how to grow a CoP, including recognition of authority, accessibility and content needs, design considerations, and valuation challenges. As well, the paper ties in findings from related research, grounding it in a sense-making framework, which may entice others to pursue future empirical research. The absence of basic, empirical research about the CoPs is perhaps surprising in consideration of its prevalence in the federal public sector. On a professional level, lessons learned are shared with other organizations through this paper. Overall, knowledge about Canadian federal CoPs creates a foundation in which expand the breadth of the project management body of knowledge to better understand the challenges governments face.
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Author Contact Information
Connie L. Delisle
Ph.D., M.Sc., BA, B.A. (Ed.)
Senior Consultant/Project Manager
Consulting and Audit Canada, Federal Government of Canada
112 Kent St.
Ottawa, Ontario Canada K1A 0S5
1 Discussion of definition of CoPs in email from Thomas McKegney, Chief Editor Compra.ca, dated April 22, 2004.
2 Case study is planned with the Pacific Service Delivery Community of Practice and results may be ready for presentation at the PMI Research Symposium.