Exploring PMOs through community of practice theory


Ralf Müller, Umeå School of Business, Umeå University and Norwegian School of Management BI

Johannes Glückler, University of Heidelberg


This paper aims at exploring project management offices (PMOs) through community of practice theory. Preliminary results from a national health care case study are used to confirm the legitimacy of this approach. Today's knowledge-based economy calls for mechanisms to share knowledge. This is particularly true in the context of internationalization of business where services or products are developed, managed, or supported in multiple countries. This is also true for national companies that compete in a global market. The issue of making more with less is at stake in order to reuse good practices, support innovative practice, and prevent the reinvention of the wheel. For project-based organizations, this represents a major challenge, due to their temporality. This paper proposes a framework to explore the learning mechanisms put in place within PMOs' communities of practice. Members of these communities are at the heart of the learning process. They are proud of what they know and enthusiastic to share on their practice. Learning from such a community requires that the practice be embedded in the community. The originality of this research is that it sheds light on PMOs in a new theoretical perspective based upon the community of practice theory within the field of knowledge management.

Keywords: community of practice theory, PMO, community of PMOs, learning, project management practice


Knowledge management is recognized as an important issue for organizations to succeed in a highly competitive environment. Today's knowledge-based economy calls for mechanisms to share knowledge. This is particularly true in the context of internationalization of business where services or products are developed, managed, or supported in multiple countries. This is also true for national companies that compete in a global market. The issue of making more with less is at stake in order to reuse good practices, support innovative practice, and prevent the reinvention of the wheel (Glückler, 2008). For project-based organizations, this represents a major challenge, since projects are temporary organizations (Turner & Müller, 2003). Moreover, projects and project management have come to play a central role in international economic growth (Bredillet, Ruiz, & Yatim, 2008; Bredillet, 2007). Therefore, project-based organizations should be highly concerned about knowledge management. One promising approach is to explore the role of project management offices (PMOs) and communities of PMOs as a locus of learning.

From the project management literature, knowledge management can be presented based on their level of analysis: project or organizational level. Research undertaken at the project level has explored as the main issue the transfer of knowledge from one project to the other. Different perspectives have been taken, among others: post-project reviews (Williams, 2007), social practices (Bresnen, Edelman, Newell, Scarbrough, & Swan, 2003; Sense & Badham, 2008), and quality management (Kotnour, 2000). At the organizational level, Bredillet (2004) proposed an overview on knowledge management, organizational learning, and learning organization. Other research has drawn attention to particular perspectives such as within human resource management (Bellini & Canonico, 2008; Keegan & Turner, 2001), the role of non-financial capital (Arthur, DeFillippi, & Jones, 2001). Some authors have looked at knowledge sharing between industries (Fernie, Green, Weller, & Newcombe, 2003), while others have examined the methods to capture and validate relevant knowledge (Abril & Müller, 2009).

However, the real impetus for undertaking this research came from the participation of one author in a workshop on PMOs in a large European governmental ministry. Within this single ministry, nearly 20 PMO managers from different government offices attended this workshop aiming at cross-fertilization between these managers. The initiative came from higher management level to gain more efficiency in project management, improve structure, and answer the question: “How can these PMO managers work together?” Based on the PMO definition, many entities fall under the categorization that leads to the coexistence of multiple competing PMOs particularly in large organizations. As exemplified previously, PMOs are not autonomous or isolated units within an organization but they are frequently intertwined with other PMOs in the same corporation. This is in line with results from a recent research showing an increase in the interdependencies between PMOs after a PMO structural change (Aubry, Müller, Hobbs, & Blomquist, 2009).

Parallel to this, governance has become an emerging topic. After a number of corporate scandals, guidelines for corporate governance, such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), Higgs report, or Basel II were developed in order to protect investors. The aim is to reduce risk through transparency of business conduct and extended reporting requirements. Project management and its governance is a subset of corporate governance (Crawford & Cooke-Davies, 2005; Müller, 2009). PMOs are part of project governance, independent of their specific role, mandate, or location within the organization. Altogether, these entities form what has been defined in organizational project management as “a new sphere of management where dynamic structures in the firm are articulated as means to implement corporate objectives through projects in order to maximize value” (Aubry, Hobbs, & Thuillier, 2007, p. 332).

What we now observe in large organizations is the creation of communities of PMOs aimed at learning and sharing knowledge in the management of projects. These communities form one pattern of organizational project management. The community of PMOs consists of internal networks of PMOs that cross the organizational boundaries. Networks can be formed implicitly or explicitly in order to create value by sharing knowledge in the management of projects.

In this paper, we borrow from the theory of community of practice (CoP) (Lave & Wenger, 1991) to explore the PMOs' social networks as communities of practice. This approach offers the opportunity to build not only on the grouping role of PMOs around multiple projects but also on the practice of project management and the practitioners. This phenomenon of community of practice has already been acknowledged within the field of project management researches. A rapid look at the publications from the three specialized academic journals shows that since 2002, 40 articles have been published. Interestingly, the Project Management Association of Japan introduced the management of a community of practice as part of the project and program management (Project Management Association of Japan, 2008). However, none of these papers addresses the role of the PMOs in the making and sharing of knowledge on project management practices.

Following what has been said earlier on the current organizational context, the main objective of this research is to provide an understanding of PMOs as communities of practice. This leads to the research question and sub-questions, “What are communities of PMOs?

  • How can communities of PMOs be described?
  • Do PMOs interact and if so, why?
  • What are the related project governance mechanisms?
  • What links PMOs and project management governance?
  • Why are communities of PMOs formed?

Missing Links in PMO Performance

The review of the literature is presented in three major themes related to the research question: project management office, community of practices, and governance.

How Do Project Management Offices Support the Circulation of Knowledge?

Past research on PMOs mainly looked at one instance at a time. Research has shown an extreme variety of PMO structure, mandate, and function (Hobbs & Aubry, 2007). More importantly, this variation cannot be explained easily and, for the moment, a reliable typology has yet to be developed (Hobbs & Aubry, 2008). Recent research confirmed temporality as a dimension of the PMO and that this temporality could be better understood within the external and internal dynamics of the organization. Results confirm that external and internal factors and idiosyncrasies drive the transformation of one PMO to the next. The temporality dimension reflects an organizational ambidexterity (Gibson & Birkinshaw, 2004) between transformation and sustainability. Both coexist in the sense that sustainability should be understood within the transformation process.

A descriptive PMO model has recently been proposed to make sense of the variety of configurations that are found in reality (Hobbs & Aubry, in press). This model includes two main groups of elements to describe the PMO: structural characteristics and roles or functions within the PMO mandate. Organizational knowledge management refers to one specific function part of the PMO model. It includes such activities as:

  • Monitor and control the performance of the PMO;
  • Manage archives of project documentation;
  • Conduct post-project reviews or post-mortems;
  • Conduct project audits;
  • Implement and manage database of lessons learned; and
  • Implement and manage risk database.

The organizational knowledge management function is one of the least important when compared with others (Hobbs & Aubry, 2007). This low result should be looked at in the light of other research undertaken on knowledge management at the project level. Williams (2008), for example, showed that project team documentation on lessons learned was poorly done. Often members of a team are dispatched to a new project, not waiting for the current one to close. It is well acknowledged that lessons learned are a good means to transfer knowledge, but it is just not done.

However, there is another perspective when looking at knowledge management in the context of the PMO. Seminal work from Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) proposed a framework based on the distinction between explicit knowledge (e.g., documents, patents, statutes) and implicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge refers to the individual know-how as a capability or competence to solve problems. This knowledge is difficult to articulate or to explain and, therefore, hard to transfer in the pure sense of duplication (Gertler, 2003; Nonaka & von Krogh, 2009). Within projects, explicit knowledge can often be related to the project life cycle (Project Management Institute, 2008). However, tacit knowledge is created as learning (Kotnour, 1999), focusing on the active actor being responsible for its own progression instead of focusing on the object of knowledge (Brown & Duguid, 2001). In other words, “people do not simply learn about, they also learn to be” (Bruner, 1996, as cited in Brown & Duguid, 2001, p. 200). Learning in action (rather than after the fact) makes the practice at the front.

The basic definition of a PMO refers to the relation with multiple projects and as such, a PMO is involved directly or indirectly in the practice of the management of unique projects or in the practice of one or multiple functions as defined within the PMO model. The new phenomenon of multiple PMOs working together raises questions about knowledge, learning, and practice in the social networks of project managers.

Organizational Learning: A Community of Practice Approach

Definition. A community defines a group of people with common characteristics or interests living together within a larger society while practice is defined as the continuous exercise of a profession (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 2007). The community of practice theory was introduced as a theory of learning from studies of apprenticeship. The initial thoughts on communities of practices have emerged from a profound questioning on the learning process that is the object of the seminal book from Lave and Wenger (1991). These authors proposed the concept of situated learning as a legitimate peripheral participation within a theoretical perspective of social practice, which includes learning. “We are, then, trying to furnish the social world in a way that begins to do justice to the structured forms and relations in which legitimate peripheral participation takes place. Relational, historical conceptions have emerged from this exercise, and this decentering tendency in characteristic of the means we have explored for grasping person, activity, knowing, and the social world1 (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 122). The person is considered as a practitioner both involved as a member of a community and as an agent of activity. The person dynamically progresses (as do the community) from a newcomer becoming an old-timer leading to what can be seen as a contradiction between achieving continuity for the community of practice on one hand and the replacement of old-timers. Within the situated learning activity, transformed in legitimated peripheral participation, newcomers move in a centripetal direction under their motivation to become full practitioners. Knowing is located a social reality where participation is a way of learning. It takes the form of relations “among practitioners, their practices, the artifacts of that practice, and the social organization and political economy of community of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 122).

Wenger and Snyder (2000) proposed to define a community of practice as “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joined enterprise” (p. 139). Communities of practice are now entering the virtual mode making use of open communication technology such as wikis, webinars, blogs, etc. For example, the PMI launched recently eight communities of practices through its Internet website (PMI, 2009).

Yet, community of practice is anchored in learning. It adopts an integrative constructivist epistemology where different types of knowledge (tacit, explicit, individual, team/organizational) are seen as inseparable and mutually enabling (Bredillet, 2004). “Thus knowledge can be seen as an input of knowing, and knowing as an aspect of our interaction with the social and physical world, and therefore the dynamic interaction of knowledge and knowing can generate new knowledge and new ways of knowing” (Bredillet, 2004, p. 1114). It is opposed to the more traditional positivist epistemology that assumes knowledge is something people have.

Community of practice and other types of groups. Distinction between different types of groups is proposed by Wenger and Snyder (2000, p. 142). The PMOs community of practice is distinct from a formal work group from which specific outcomes are expected, from a project team from which deliverables are expected within a specific budget and period of time, and, lastly, distinct from an informal network formed loosely between employees that share some common interest. While this grouping is useful to distinguish between different groups encountered within the organization, it misses major learning fundamentals based upon the community of practice theory. Bredillet (2004) suggested a typology to distinguish community of practice and project team based specifically on the learning experience. Following Bredillet (2004), members within a community of practice “learn by participating in the community and practicing their jobs” (Bredillet, 2004, p. 1130). Conversely, in a project team, “members practice their jobs and learn by participating in the project team. Project team is a place where knowledge is created, where members learn knowledge that is embedded, and where knowledge is utilized” (Bredillet, 2004, p.1130). Knowledge occurs in project team as well as within a community of practice.

Community of practice is an emergent concept and multiple forms are found in reality. Scarbrough and Swan (2008) argued for accepting diversity in the forms a community of practice. They see the concept of community of practice as denoting not a discrete social grouping but rather historically specific expressions of the self-reinforcing relationships between learning, identity, group formation, and social practices. They have shown that project team and community of practice represent different sources of learning and that they overlap, reinforce, and sometimes conflict, depending on the relation between project work and existing social practices.

Managerial paradox. However, precisely, with the wide diffusion of the concept comes a sort of distortion of the initial thoughts (Duguid, 2008b; Lave, 2008). Duguid (2008b) pointed out that community of practice is now an instrument of management: “We also get a theory that appeals strongly not only to business schools, but also to management consultants: it is instrumental, operational, and promises only beneficial results” (p.7). Initial thoughts on learning as improvisation and autonomy are forgotten and replace with just the contrary, to follow the rules and avoid any improvisation (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Duguid (2008b) saw in this managerial approach to the community of practice the traditional but still strongly alive of the Taylorism: “The community of practice was rapidly domesticated” (p.7). Nevertheless, Duguid (2008b) and Lave (2008) both admitted that, as any other construct, this one is following its own itinerary.

An example of managerial domestication of community of practice is given within Wenger and Snyder (2000). They promoted communities of practice as a managerial new instrument to reach business results such as helping to drive strategy, starting new lines of business, etc. They defined communities of practice as fundamentally informal and self-organizing and at the same time, they benefit from cultivation. For these authors, cultivation refers to support communities of practice and sustain them over time. This is where the management paradox comes in: on one side the emerging and self-organizing inherent character of community of practice and one the other side, the managerial involvement in developing them and integrate them into the organization. In this context, up to what point is a community of practice not becoming a formal working group?

One other dimension of this paradox relates to the knowing that and knowing how. In community of practice theory, codification of knowing what in explicit artifact is possible. However, the knowing how need practice to make it actionable (Duguid, 2008a). This paradox takes often the form of best practices diffusion. Best practices refer to explicit knowledge that can be transferred from one organization to the next. But, what is critical in knowledge is not that much the what but the how, “[…] the explicit is worth relatively little” (Duguid, 2008a, p. 81). To solve this paradox, best practices should be re-embedded within the community.

Managing Situated Learning: The Governance Challenge

From an organization theory perspective, this development resembles the time-paced evolution in relentlessly shifting organizations, as described by Brown and Eisenhardt (1997). This theory migrates the well-established theories of punctuated equilibrium (such as agency theory and transaction cost economics) into the dynamics of today's organizations and their markets using the structural and communication approaches of successful companies. Results from this research show that successful organizations use neither extremely mechanistic nor extremely organic structures, but adapt their structures to the projects' needs, combined with intensive communication across projects (also shown by Turner & Müller, 2004). Brown and Eisenhardt (1997) showed that process-oriented project management approaches (i.e., those prioritizing process over project outcome) are associated with less successful organizations, whereas outcome-oriented approaches are associated with the more successful organizations. This may serves as a starting point to investigate the current move from control-oriented PMOs to project-outcome and results-oriented PMOs, and the roles of PMO networks in this type of project governance structure. The theoretical lens taken in the present study is that of Brown and Eisenhardt (1997), where organizations continuously change and so do their structures—PMO networks develop in order to effectively and efficiently balance the changing needs for project management governance within corporations.

Recent work by Müller (2009) identified governance paradigms through integration of governance theory and organization theory. By overlaying the shareholder versus stakeholder orientation of an organization (Clarke, 2004), with outcome control versus behavior control (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997; Ouchi & Maguire, 1975), four project governance paradigms were identified. Table 1 shows the related paradigms.

Table 1. Four Governance Paradigms (Müller, 2009)

Control focus Shareholder Orientation Stakeholder Orientation
Outcome Flexible economist Versatile artist
Behaviour Conformist Agile pragmatist

The Conformist paradigm ensures strict compliance with existing processes, rules, and policies in an attempt to ensure lowest project costs in environments with a relatively homogeneous set of projects. Here tactical PMOs implement one particular project management methodology within the organization. The Flexible Economist paradigm aims for low project costs through a well-informed selection of project management methodologies that ensure economic delivery by only marginally compromising other success criteria. PMOs working in these environments build a range of skills and a toolbox for project managers to use. Under the Versatile Artist paradigm, the benefits are maximized by balancing the diverse set of requirements arising from a number of different stakeholders. PMOs support project managers in the development of new or tailoring of existing methodologies, processes, or tools to balance economically the diversity of requirements. Organization subscribing to the Agile Pragmatist paradigm maximizes usability and business value of a project's product, through a time-phased approach to product release of functionality over a period of time. These projects often use Agile/Scrum methods, with the sponsor prioritizing deliverables by business value over a given timeframe. These organizations rarely have PMOs, but if so, they perform tactical process improvement activities (Müller, 2009).

Governance paradigms differ within larger companies and are contingent on the idiosyncrasies of the different organization's that make up the company. The limits to project governance are set by the corporate governance framework and the legitimacy of actions within the social context (Müller, 2009). Communities of PMOs can thereby be made up of PMOs with very different charters.

Toward a Community of PMOs Approach

This section proposes a conceptual framework for the study of communities of PMOs within large organizations. Within an organization, a community of practice of PMOs can be defined as a group of people (PMO manager or employee) informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise. In other words, it offers a platform for learning to experienced members and newcomers. It forms a community in the sense that members share a common interest and passion for the success of projects. It is oriented towards practice.

The raison d'être of any PMO, whatever its functions or structural characteristics, is mainly associated with projects. But, what is a community and what is a practice when considering PMO as a community of practice? The practice of project management is at the heart of a PMOs community but the PMO practices are specific and differ from the project management practices. The former refers to the functions within the PMO model (see previously mentioned) while the latter refers to managing a single project as described in bodies of knowledge (Association for Project Management, 2000; Project Management Institute, 2008). About half of all PMOs do include project management as their primary function (Hobbs & Aubry, 2007). The object of learning in a PMO community of practice may bear on the management of a single project or to a PMO specific set of functions.

Members of a PMO community are the ones who believe in and have a passion for the project management practice. It may include people working within the PMO, as a manager or employee, and of people working in a single project, including project manager, project controller, and any people involved in project work. Interest and expertise surely differ when considering the management of a single project versus PMO functions. This may lead to the coexistence of multiple networks. It is already acknowledged that each project can be seen as a social network that crosses the hierarchical boundaries of the organization (Blackburn, 2002). Adding to these project networks are the ones related to a community of practice. As PMOs show a wide variety of configurations, communities of PMOs might as well show this diversity where practices will differ depending on PMOs functions and characteristic. By participating in project management governance, these PMOs form one or multiple networks. Understanding these networks by means of their relation will shed light on the global picture of organizational project management.

The suggested conceptual framework for this research is proposed in Figure 1. It is not expected that this framework will cover the overall phenomenon of communities of PMOs, but it will be helpful in capturing basic components from the review of the literature. The first phase of this research is based upon case studies that will provide new data to enrich this model (see section on Methodology).

Conceptual Framework for Communities of PMOs

Figure 1. Conceptual Framework for Communities of PMOs

Research Design

The network of PMOs is our unit of analysis as it represents a formal and idiosyncratic articulation of project management in multi-project organizations. Robustness in empirical research design puts emphasis on mixed-method approaches. This research design combines the advantages of case studies, qualitative and quantitative methods, and social network analysis. This approach offers the opportunity to gain alternative access to empirical observations. Triangulation (Jick, 1979) will allow us to minimize method-specific biases in the analyses (Miles & Huberman, 1994). In addition to the descriptive results from the cases and mixed methods, the subsequent social network analysis will account for the dynamics and structure of the phenomenon under investigation. The strategy to accomplish the goals for this research includes three phases.

Phase 1: In depth case studies. The starting point to a better understanding of a complex phenomenon is a case-based grounded theory approach (Corbin & Strauss, 1990; Yin, 2003). We propose to describe four to six case studies, each one being a large organization, including interviews with 10–15 persons from upper management to project managers. The result will be a rich description and a map of related components of organizational project management within their dynamic context. At the time of submitting this paper, one case study had been completed, and two were in progress. Geographically they cover North America, Europe, and Asia (Table 2).

Table 2. Case Studies Description

  Case #1 Case #2 Case #3 Total
Geographical location North America Europe Asia 3
Economic sector Health care Telecommunication Manufacturer 3
Number of PMOs investigated 10 7 5 22
Number of interviews 21 7 10 38

Phase 2: Social network analysis (SNA). In phase 2, the selected corporate case studies will be analyzed by means of social network analysis. The basic approach of social network analysis (SNA) is to construct topological networks and analyze the positions and roles of individual nodes as well as the overall structure of linkages within the network. Generally, a social network “is a specific set of linkages among a defined set of persons, with the additional property that the characteristics of these linkages as a whole may be used to interpret the social behavior of the persons involved” (Mitchell, 1969, p. 2). This methodology uses relational information about the connections between actors, projects, and organizations to assess the specific structures and social opportunities that these structures convey (c.f. Scott, 2000; Wasserman & Faust, 1994 for a detailed introduction).

Within organization science, methods of social network analysis have been increasingly applied to studies of knowledge management and knowledge transfer within large organizations (Reagans & McEvily, 2003; Tsai, 2001), informal governance (Lazega, 2001; Lazega & Pattison, 2001), and the geography of innovation (e.g., Almeida & Kogut, 1999; Breschi, Lissoni, & Montobbio, 2007; Powell, Koput, & Smith-Doerr, 1996; Sorenson & Waguespack, 2005). Within the project management field, research based upon the social network analysis is now produced using methods of social network analysis (c.f. Brookes, Morton, Dainty, & Burns, 2006; Manning, 2005; Mead, 2001; Pryke & Pearson, 2006). So far, research into the new realities of project management and the highly interwoven webs of project management offices have not been in the focus of network analysis. It is a central tenet of this study that a more profound examination of the relational structures of projects and PMOs in large organizations will benefit from the application of SNA.

Phase 3: Synthesis and validation of empirical findings. This phase integrates results obtained from empirical data in the two previous phases. By doing so, it should offer the possibility of finding revealing patterns across and between organizations of the same and different industries. The results will be validated through a combination of focus groups consisting of managers of organizations with similar PMO networks (or patterns), and subsequent working sessions with upper managers from diverse industries that will (a) validate the cross-industry findings and (b) foster cross-sectional learning of the participants.

Data Collection and Data Analysis Strategies

We used a multiple-case design, which implies replication logic (Yin, 2003) within which a case is treated as an idiosyncratic expression of the phenomenon under study. We gathered information from several layers of the management hierarchy and incorporated company and industry level forces and circumstances. Data for the case studies are collected through interviews, questionnaires, observations, and review of existing documents. Each case will be described and internally analyzed before cross-case analysis takes place, following Eisenhardt (1989).

Then, following Miles & Huberman (1994) and Eisenhardt (1989), we will do cross-case analysis to develop the underlying concepts. While this will be done without underlying hypotheses, it will be a steady back and forth between the cases and the identified concepts in order to ensure that the concepts are consistent with the data (and valid).

The interviews done as part of the case study will follow a grounded theory approach for each individual case. In line with the abductive approach described for the cross-case analysis, the grounded theory approach will follow the Strauss and Corbin (1998) school. This implies an analysis after each individual interview and a continuous comparison approach to identify commonalities, as well as ruling-out of one-time events, thus ensuring a robust theory.

In addition to interviews, questionnaires have been completed within the SNA approach. Questions relates to PMO, projects within the mandate of PMO, and employees working on these projects. Altogether, the data collected will drive to the representation of social networks.

Preliminary Results from a Health Care Case Study

This section presents the results from a health care case study through examples of situated learning from two PMOs communities of practices. The first one refers to a PMO coordination committee that has been put in place at the ministry level, the second relates to a PMO within a regional center that interplays with other PMOs at regional level and PMOs at local centers. Table 3 gives more details on participants from health care organizations that participated to this study.

Table 3. List of Participants from Health Care Organizations

Name of the organization within the health care network Number of interviewees Precisions regarding the PMO SNA Questionnaire
Number of projects surveyed Number of employees Total number of projects in 2008
IT department within ministry 2 No PMO as such. Functions are assumed within the financial division. 12 12 25
Personal Health Record Project 2 PMO including three units. 6 9 18
IT supplier 2 PMO 11 11 35
Regional Agency 01 2 PMO recognized externally as a success but decision taken to dismantle it. 13 14 13
Regional Agency 02 1 Small number of people N/A N/A N/A
Regional Agency 03 2 PMO in a transitory situation. N/A N/A N/A
Regional Agency 04 4 PMO within IT department but is in a way to the creation of a PMO at strategic level 11 11 56
Regional Agency 05 2 PMO in IT department 11 4 51
Local center 01 2 PMO within IT department but involved in business decisions 5 35 N/A
Local center 02 2 PMO specialized in real estate N/A N/A N/A
Total 21  

Description of the National Health Care Network

This case describes the social networks between PMOs within a national health care system. The major particularity of this public case study is that the whole system constitutes a network of quasi-autonomous organizations spread over three structural layers: national, regional and local. A first hierarchical look at this National Health Care Network is illustrated in Figure 2. Boxes in bold indicate the units that were investigated within this research regarding their PMO. At the national level, three PMOs were investigated: (a) PMO dedicated to a major national project; (b) PMO within the information technology (IT) department; and (c) PMO within the IT dedicated supplier. At the regional level, four PMOs have been investigated. At the local level, four PMOs have been explored, two of which are in one university hospital. Projects can be initiated at each of these three levels. National and regional projects are financed by the national health budget. The distribution of the regional envelope through the local institutions is under the mandate of each regional agency. Local projects can be financed by this envelop but also by local financing (e.g., hospital foundation).

The Three Layers of National Health Care

Figure 2. The Three Layers of National Health Care

A second contrasted look can be presented from the same case study, this look obtained from the SNA approach (see Figure 3). The intent of presenting this figure is not to provide an in depth interpretation through SNA, but rather to propose a first exploration of the potential of this approach to complement the case study. Network (a) displays the collaborative linkages between the seven focal PMOs. PMOS are focal (black) if they responded to the survey. Six PMOs maintain collaborative relationships where one PMO operates in isolation. Network (b) illustrates the number of projects (grey) reported by each of the seven PMOs (black). Note that only three projects were realized under joint responsibility by two PMOs. These projects are so-called cut points in the network because their removal would cause the network to break up into isolate groups of projects. Networks (c) and (d) represent the project networks based on two different criteria of connection. Network (c) converts the bipartite network (b) into a network of projects where projects are connected based on the joint support by the same PMO. Network (d) connects projects based on the co-occurrence of project members. Whenever a person has worked in two or more projects, these projects receive a link between each other. In contrast to one PMO, where all projects are interconnected through at least one joint member, most other projects are separated though they belong to the same PMO.

The Networks of Projects and PMOs in the National Health Care Organization

Figure 3. The Networks of Projects and PMOs in the National Health Care Organization

Situated Learning at the National Level

Many waves of restructuring were going on in the last years trying to make a better use of the limited resources. The last major reorganization happened in 2004 and affected the entire health system adopting at the same time more rigorous governance rules, among others the establishment of better performance indicators. Numerous projects were then undertaken some of which needed to be managed in a coordinated way throughout all regions. One of these cross-regional major projects is the implementation of a personal health record (PHR). It is developed at the ministry level but the resulting solution will affect each regional, local centers, and health establishments. Moreover, the success of this project is not uniquely technological. New processes need to be developed and the implementation will need formal change management. In this perspective, a recommendation from the ministry was to implement a PMO in each regional center. From the national level, a generic organizational structure model has been strongly proposed for the regional centers that suggests the existence of a PMO within the IT department. However, this model has many variations upon the size of the region (population) and its current project management assets.

In addition to the implementation of PMOs at the regional level, two committees have been created at the national level grouping (a) all regional project managers responsible for implementation, the project managers committee, and (b) all regional PMO directors, PMO coordination committee.

The PMO coordination committee is managed at the national level by the IT Department. The short-term objective of this Committee is to facilitate the implementation of the PHR project. But it also has a long-term objective as of implementing a coordinated project management overall health care institutions, crossing all the regional and local borders. This second objective is the equivalent of implementing a national portfolio management. Both objectives would be unreachable if undertaken without the full engagement of the regional and local institutions.

Eighteen persons participate in the PMOs Coordination Committee. The PMO director within the IT ministerial department is the initiator and responsible for the PMO coordination committee. He is in charge of the administrative support, the logistic organization and the fees related to the face-to face meeting. PMO directors from the 18 regional agencies are important members. Their level of expertise varies widely from many years in PMO management to almost new to the project management profession. These members reflect the terms newcomers and masters in the language of community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). From interviews, masters describe themselves as having a distance in front of others, which seems to be acknowledged by newcomers. Masters want to share; they have the taste of it, they like to share their own experience. Other members at this committee come from the IT department, the dedicated providers and from the PHR project.

There are very practical objectives from this committee such as project management methodology and processes, project management software tools, templates, etc. A national project portfolio embryo is also in construction. The agenda aims at producing all is needed to succeed in the implementation of the project. A list of requirements has been first established with the members and priority assigned. On a voluntary basis, members are part of sub-committees that work on specific deliverables, for example, the granularity of the methodology and the details needed for each level. The current practices in regional agencies are put together to orient the future. It is not only a matter of sharing actual practices, it is also expected that working together will bring solutions further from what they actually are. The work done in sub-committees is then presented at the committee for consensual decision. At the end, project management environment in health care will have been discussed and object of consensus. Outcomes are progressively available for every regional PMO to make use of it and experiment it. Feedback is then taken into consideration for the next version.

This committee could also be defined as a virtual community of practice as not all members are located in the same area in their daily work, just the contrary. Members are widespread over the national territory. They share a common position, all members being a PMO director or the equivalent. However, they differ when taking into consideration the regional context and their relative experience in the implementation and management of a PMO. Members of the PMOs coordination meet face-to-face once a month or less depending on the agenda. All interviewees referred to this committee when they were questioned on PMOs communities of practices.

Two different learning mechanisms can be observed within this PMOs coordination committee (see Table 4). There are no doubts that the PMOs coordination committee has been decided at the ministry level with the aim of succeeding in the implementation of the PHR. Therefore, it is quite far from the initial concept of community of practice where practice is at the heart of a community (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The approach is rather one of instrumentalism of the concept and integrated as a management tool as pinpointed recently by both Duguid (2008b) and Lave (2008). However, the PMOs coordination committee forms a real social network that aims at constructing new knowledge from established practices within regional levels. It plays also a role of disseminating practices from the master to the newcomers. The objective here is to identify the events that provide a group-learning situation, even if they refer to an actualization of the initial concept of community of practice.

Table 4. Learning Mechanisms from PMOs Coordination Committee

Learning mechanisms Person directly involved Object of Knowledge
Participation to the PMO Coordination Committee PMO director within the IT Department at the national level PMO Implementation Standardization of processes, tools
  PMO directors (or the equivalent) from the 18 Regional Agencies Common language
Internal experts Not reinventing the wheel
Consultant that provide methodology and associated tools Inventory of projects at regional and local levels (portfolio embryo)
PMO Director from the PHR project  
PMO director from the Dedicated IT Supplier
Creation of new networks
(outside the Committee)
Three PMO directors at Regional agency Sharing on solution

The second learning mechanism from the PMO coordination committee is the creation of new networks. One single case has been reported during interviews but more may exist. Three PMO regional directors decided to work together outside the committee. Even though they did not know each other before the committee has been put in place, common interest has been identified between them. They quickly recognized that they share a common way of looking at PMO problems and solutions outside the scope of the PMO coordination committee. So, they identify a few of these elements and meet several times to work out solutions together. This approach is more in line with the initial approach of a community of practice. But, it would have about no chance to happen without the opportunity given by the PMO coordination committee.

Situated Learning at the Regional Level

The regional centers have a mission to maintain and improve the health and the well being of their population and to provide people with adapted access to health and social services. The regional center under study coordinates 16 local health institutions. The governance mechanisms other than the internal instances (such as the board) include four consulting regional committees, one of which recently formed to work specifically on IT orientations.

A PMO has been put in place prior to ministerial recommendation. The regional center organizational chart shows the PMO as an entity responsible for a high priority project financed by the Ministry, the PHR. This PMO has five employees from which four project managers, a majority of them being consultants. A dynamic climate existed within the PMO. A common working room was installed with many technological features helping in the group work (internet link, e-board, etc.). The PMO from this regional center was cited throughout the health care network as a PMO success story. However, the PMO's reputation of excellence did not prevent its dismantlement. At the time of these interviews, there was one week left in the life of this PMO. The aim of this paper is not to discuss the structural change in the management of projects within this regional center, but it must be taken into account in the discourse.

Five learning mechanisms could be identified from the analysis of the interviews at this regional agency (Table 5). First, the PMO director participated in the PMOs Coordination Committee. At the implementation of their own PMO, they received advices and support on the methodology proposed by the Ministry. Now, they are perceived as being a PMO model of success. They have implemented a PMO for a longer period of time than other regional entities. They share their regional experience within this committee with PMO directors from other regional agencies.

Table 5. Learning Mechanisms from a Regional Center

Learning mechanisms Person directly involved Object of Knowledge
Participation to the PMO Coordination Committee Director of the PMO Obtain knowledge on specific methodology
Share experience on this methodology and other project management tools and systems
Newcomer to the PMO Project manager within the PMO and a new project manager from IT department Experiences by a newcomer of the PMO methodology and tools in order to improving them
Ad hoc meeting PMO director at the Regional agency and the PMO director at a local establishment Sharing experiences in PMO management
Action within the PMO mission: to accompany project management Senior project manager at the Regional Agency PMO and PMO director at a local establishment Transfer of knowledge in implementing a PMO
Isolated island Clinical experts and IT project management experts Management of clinical projects

The second mechanism relates to the internal regional agency organization. The regional center PMO, at the time of interviews, was under the finance department. The major project within the PMO mandate was the PHR for which a special expertise was needed. An employee from the IT department had exactly this expertise. Not only had this employee the opportunity to join the PMO as a project manager, but he experienced the methodology and tools and constructively challenged them. The fresh look from this newcomer to the PMO resulted in improved methodology and tools.

Third, the mission of this PMO is to accompany and to support the project management within the region, in particular projects that are undertaken in local establishments to implement the PHR project. Two large health centers exist in this particular region. One is a university hospital and the other one being a center for youngsters. Each one has several projects but in fact, the university hospital grabs the largest part of the regional budget envelope. A PMO already existed at the university hospital center. Relation between this PMO and the one at the regional center involved, most part of the time, directors of these PMOs and aimed at sharing experiences informally.

The fourth learning mechanism belongs to the relation between the youngster center and the PMO at the regional center. Situation is quite different from the previous one where the youngster center was looking for support in the implementation of a first PMO. A senior project management from the regional center PMO worked closely with the new PMO director at the youngster center to accompany and support her in this new PMO implementation and in the related cultural change.

The last learning mechanism challenges the well-being of a community (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In the overall health care system, projects and PMOs are widely associated with IT, reasons for this being the history of project management and the importance of the IT budget over all other project components. However, within the health care system, IT projects should not have legitimacy if not related to a clinical raison d'être. In this particular regional agency, the clinical experts are trying to assume very recently the project leadership, and in doing so, put aside the IT experts who are the one having the project management expertise. The result is that clinical experts have formed a regional working Committee on specific projects where they do take major orientations for project in a kind of isolated island. There is neither IT representative on this committee or project management expert. Consequently, this creates some confusion in the implementation of solutions and all the knowledge developed in project management has been forgotten.

Discussion and Conclusion

The national health care case study included rich data that helps understand how a community of PMOs works.

Community and Practices

The examples presented showed two different situations to observe both the sense of a community and the practices. The first one, the PMO coordination committee, has been created officially under a top-down by the IT department in an instrumental view of a community. However, a learning mechanism occurred; the participants manifested their passion to share and to learn from each other. Practices were mostly oriented towards the PMOs functions such as methodology and standards and portfolio management. In the second example, learning mechanisms emerged bottom-up from the participants. Practices varied depending on the need from managing one specific project, helping in the implementation of a PMO and sharing on the management of a PMO.

Network of Practice

In the field of project management, the term community of practice is used openly in all sorts of situations either intra-organizational (e.g., communities of practice for project managers) or inter-organizational (e.g., communities of practice within a local PMI chapter specifically on construction projects, PMOs, etc.). The interpretation of what a community of practice is depends on the nature of the community itself; it is, therefore, a product of the community of practice (Duguid, 2008a). Duguid (2008a) went back to the earlier approach on apprenticeship and suggested a distinction between community of practice and networks of practice. These are two forms of knowledge networks that may coexist within large organizations. The distinction is based upon learning to be versus learning about. “The former requires knowing how, the art of practice, much of which lies tacit in a community of practice. Learning about requires the accumulation of knowing that, which confers the ability to “talk a good game, but not necessarily to play one” (p. 77). Explicit knowledge contains only partially the knowledge embedded in the community of practice. In this perspective, face-to-face interaction is almost necessary to access the knowing how. However, Duguid (2008a) proposed the concept of network of practice to take into account wide practice sharing within large and decentralized organizations. “The network of practice designates the collective of all practitioners of a particular practice” (Duguid, 2008a, p.78). Practices and tools (know what) from the network of practice are then reintroduced in a process of embedding at the local level (know how) and within a local community of practice.

Community of PMOs and PMOs in Transition

A community of practice lasts as long as the interest is vivid within its members. But a question arises when the short life of PMOs is considered, as shown in the specific case of the national health care organization. What happens to the knowledge and the learning activity that are going on within existing communities of practice? What happens to the community, what happens to the practice? The PMO transition challenges the concept of situated learning where the history of a community of practice is taken into account. What happens to the masters? Is the commitment maintained over transformation of the situation? Future research should address these questions. Therefore, knowledge management within organizational project management should directly participate to the challenge of the economic-based economy.

Variety of Communities of PMOs

As PMOs show a wide variety of configurations, communities of PMOs might as well show this diversity where practices will differ depending on PMOs functions and characteristic. Practices are tightly linked to the functions PMOs perform. From the present case study, the more visible differences regarding practices are related to project management practices, as well as the more specific PMO functions. Learning mechanisms seem to be differentiated based on the persons involved and on the object of knowledge.

In conclusion, preliminary results from this research seems to shed light on the role PMOs can play as drivers of knowledge management within organizations. Qualitative case study within the national Health care network described previously gives illustration of the interplay between PMOs being part of communities of PMOs. Multiple social networks have become visible in sharing concrete practices within learning mechanisms. A lot more work has still to be done. Yet, results from this research confirmed that the community of practice theory presents legitimacy in the study of knowledge management within organizational project management.


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