Project Management Institute

Project teams as learning entities

Andrew J. Sense, Senior Research Fellow/Lecturer, Department of Management, University of Wollongong, Australia


So learning has to be key to what we do. We have to change, we have to learn to change our behaviors, change our thinking, change our recognition, and change what is normal. Normal should be robust argument rather than polite acceptance. So how do we actually make that happen? I’m not sure many of us are doing too much thinking along how can we make that change.

Project Team Member

The quotation above from a project team member highlights the dilemma faced by many project team members when confronted with the learning challenge, i.e., they usually recognize the potential value but it isn’t a focal point of the project and they are unsure about how to proceed to harness the opportunity. This dilemma is also part of a broader base of change impacting the traditional views of projects and project teams. The traditional project paradigm involves a project being complicated only in terms of size and detail whereas in addition, they are becoming increasingly complex in terms of size, details, interrelationships and changing performance measures or expectations which may include using the project vehicle as a cultural change engine (Lundin and Midler 1998, 2). This change in complexity has emerged because in dynamic business operating environments, projects are now used to accomplish a diverse and often complex set of organizational goals or changes that would otherwise be less obtainable by the permanent organization (Antoni and Sense 2001) particularly where the fast speed and high quality of goal achievement is highly desirable, e.g., new product development projects. In utilizing projects to achieve such diverse goals and the very nature of them being temporary structures, means that a number of phenomena are constructed differently from that found in traditional organizational systems or within the traditional project paradigm, e.g., emphasized micro-political dynamics, accelerated development of internal and external relationships, complex learning requirements, and higher demands on information coordination (Antoni and Sense 2001). Within this diverse raft of projects that organizations pursue, different project organizational structures are employed to achieve the project goals and to effectively utilize the organizational resources in pursuit of those goals. However, regardless of the different organizational structures and management philosophies (e.g., change management), applied within all this project variety, identifying and constructing learning processes within a project team will aid the development of the requisite flexibility and adaptability of individuals and the organization to the numerous environmental challenges of today’s complex business and social operating environments. This ongoing development of individual and organizational learning and “capability” (Senge 1992; Kim 1993; Dunphy et al 1997) can be seen as an increasingly central source of sustainability and competitiveness within organizations. It is therefore important to develop a deeper understanding of the learning phenomena associated with projects.

In developing that better understanding, one of the challenges for project teams is in perceiving projects as vehicles for learning (Smith and Dodds 1997, 8) and in perceiving themselves as learners as well as project task achievers. As one project team member reflected and commented: “The value in teaching and learning is still a pretty tough dimension—the alligators are biting at our heels wanting all sorts of rational things done … but yet, we still need to move on from that. We need to convey to people the value in learning and understanding what is going on in the business.” Indeed, projects are rich with significant personal learning opportunities (Arthur et al 2001, 99; Smith and Dodds 1997). Recent literature in the learning field has started to highlight some of the dilemmas and opportunities associated with learning within projects (see Ayas and Zeniuk 2001; Keegan and Turner 2001; Raelin 2001; Antoni and Sense 2001; Sense and Antoni 2002). This potential duality of the project role is not something easily embraced from traditional project management cultural perspectives. However, to consider project teams as learning entities, is a large step towards “opening a door” into understanding learning within project team environments.

To aid that movement, the purpose of this paper then is to introduce a theory of learning that takes root in the practical and social dimensions of learning and to evaluate that theory in respect of its applicability to learning in project teams. Within this discourse, the paper will propose a new conception of a project team from a learning perspective. Further, it will elaborate upon that alternate conception of what is a project team, to expose the impacts for learning that result from viewing a project team in this way. The paper will also introduce structural attributes from the research case study, which facilitates learning within the proposed conception of a project team.

Given those purposes expressed above, the paper will not have the capacity to elaborate extensively on the numerous case study examples that underpins this presentation—although the case study research has been core to its development. The paper will however present illustrative comments from project team members from the case in support of certain arguments forwarded within the paper.

In introducing aspects of this sociological theory of learning and presenting a new conception of a project team as a learning entity, the complexity of the learning opportunity within a project team and the requisite dynamics required of the project team members to enable learning within the team, will become apparent. These dynamics are reflected in the comments made from one project team member about confronting the issue of project team relationships for the first time, “I am not a nonrational person and therefore why do I need to swim in the nonrational world.” This paper may also serve as a starting point to focus project teams and researchers on the social and practical issues involved in learning within this context.

The Research Method and Context

The qualitative longitudinal case study research underpinning this paper involves an action research inquiry into project based learning within manufacturing innovation projects. For a definition and detailed explanation of action research performed in this case see (Badham and Sense 2001). Research information was accumulated through multiple observations of, and participation in, project team meetings and reflection sessions, serial semistructured interviews with the project team members, serial “learning workshops” facilitation and documentation reviews.

The research was conducted in a heavy industrial engineering site in Australia that processes coal into coke for the use in the local blast furnace or for export overseas. The site has approximately 400 employees working across a continuous operation and is a relatively large capital intensive and people intensive operation within the primary operations on the site. In June 1998, a new factory manager transferred to the plant with strong workplace culture change credentials from his work at two other plants within the same company. With the recognition that there was a charter for change developed within the broader organization, the new manager set about to initiate processes to redesign the organization of the plant. That goal is being pursued in a context of competition from cheap overseas producers and alternative technologies, pressures from the community and the government to dramatically reduce environmental emissions, and a need to involve a workforce that has traditionally had a low self-image and low trust in management.

Within the industry operation, the primary method used by the manager to establish sustainable change throughout the plant has been the creation of a number of “learning forums” operating at senior management, middle management and shop-floor levels as well as cutting across these levels. These forums have been developed to work within the vision, mission, and values that have been more or less imposed by the new plant manager and senior management in the company. However, the forums have a real and strong emphasis on ongoing individual and organizational learning as a means for promoting, consolidating, and sustaining change. One of these forums, which was the research case study, consisted of the “Cokemaking Leadership Team” within the plant. This team had a brief to redesign and mutually integrate their roles in alignment with the new organizational vision and values. This type of project represented a complex one where the “what” and “how” aspects of the project typology were unclear at the start. Therefore learning was critical for the project to move forward to some perceived internal business measure of success. This project team initially consisted of three senior manufacturing management personnel (later expanding to fifteen members). The action research had benefited by a long term and intimate consulting/research access to this industry operation and the employees involved within the change process.

Learning and Projects

Discourse on learning in organizations is often presented under a banner of “organizational learning.” Numerous definitions for organizational learning prevail in the literature on learning and a generally accepted definition is still somewhat remote. For some examples see Argyris and Schön 1978; Argyris 1977, 116; Fiol and Lyles 1985, 803–806; Kim 1993, 44; or Stata 1989, 64. For the purposes of this paper, a selected definition of organizational learning from Kim, 1993 will suffice i.e., “Organizational Learning is about increasing an organization’s capacity to take effective action” (Kim 1993, 44). Similarly, (Senge 1992, 14) offers a definition of a learning organization being one that is continually expanding its capacity to create its own future. Both these definitions incorporate a notion of organizational competence development through learning. In relation to a project context, it resides within a specificity of focus and contribution to project goals. For a more detailed discussion on organizational learning see Kofman and Senge 1993, 5–23 and Antoni 2000, 34–38.

Kim also offers a similar definition for individual learning i.e.,“Learning is about increasing one’s capacity to take effective action”(Kim 1993, 38). Expanding one’s own capacity involves individual competence development to enable a person to take effective project action. To achieve this competence development however requires an understanding of what constitutes learning in project teams. Conventional views on learning see it as internal, mainly cerebral, and unproblematic as a process of absorbing the given, as a matter of transmission and assimilation, and it ignores or leaves unexplored the nature of the learner and their world and their relationships within that context (Lave and Wenger 1991, 47).

I suggest that in project teams there is this built-in assumption that learning occurs randomly and uninhibitedly during the project. On the contrary, “Learning within a project does not happen naturally, it is a complex process that needs to be managed. It requires deliberate attention, commitment, and continuous investment of resources” (Ayas in Lundin and Midler 1998, 90). Within that assumption, and within the organizational learning literature there resides a predominant focus on the cognitive dimension of learning. This focus includes those fabled items of Mental Models (Senge 1992); single and double loop learning and Model 1 and Model 2 type people (Argyris and Schon 1978); and individual experiential learning cycles (Kolb 1984; Lewin 1951).

However, learning involves both this cognitive aspect and a situated aspect. The emphasis of the situated dimension of learning is concerned with the practical and social aspects of learning within the context. It presumes that most learning occurs on the job in culturally embedded ways within a community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991, 51) In a project team it can be seen as a bridge between the cognitive processes and social practice of the project team (Lave and Wenger 1991, 34). Situated learning evolves from the participation of people and the negotiated construction of their identities and a common meaning, within this community of practice. The development of the competence of those individuals to participate and contribute fully to their communities is conjoined to the development of a “common practice” that represents that community’s learning history (Lave and Wenger 1991, 53). As Wenger (1998) noted: “Learning is the engine of practice and practice is the history of that learning” (Wenger 1998, 96). Within the learning literature and in comparison to the cognitive dimension, a focus on the situated aspects of learning has not been as strong. However, various researchers have recognized and articulated the importance of the environment in learning and supported the notion that it needs to be managed (Mumford 1994, 77; Antonacopoulou 1997; Senge et al 1999)

In summary, learning in projects as in other contexts, includes a situated dimension that involves tackling the practical and complex social aspects of learning, in cooperation with the cognitive dimension of learning which involves the internal processes of the mind. Both dimensions of learning are core to building individual and organizational competence. Therefore, both must be recognized and engaged.

This paper is concerned with developing a conception of a project team from a learning perspective. Given that goal, the cognitive dimension of learning being individually focused and context independent, means that it is not pertinent to this cause. However, given that project teams are social constructions that involve people in exchanges, the situated dimension of learning provides a fertile ground upon which to pursue that goal. Therefore, this paper explores the situated nature of learning within a project team and uses that theory to propose a new conception of a project team from a learning perspective.

What is a Community Of Practice (COP)?

Situated learning theory and the construct of a Community of Practice (COP) are facilitating attempts to understand how different social contexts impact learning. This therefore, incorporates an emphasis on the practical and sociological dimensions of learning (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998, Wenger et al 2002; Brown and Duguid 1991, 32–42) in contrast to the traditional psychological or cognitive view of learning where “learning is transferred between people and detached or isolated from the experience or practice in which it evolved and had meaning” (Brown and Duguid 1991, 32–42).

Fundamental to the discussion within this paper is the provision of a definition and discussion on a COP. Wenger et al defines a COP as, “groups of people who share a concern,a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. Communities of Practice (COPs) are everywhere … we belong to a number of them at work at school and in our hobbies” (Wenger et al 2002, 4–5). Lave and Wenger in their seminal book on Situated Learning offered the following definition of a COP: “A COP is a set of relations among persons, activity and world over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping COPs. A COP is an intrinsic condition for the existence of knowledge … participation in the cultural practice in which any knowledge exists is an epistemological principle of learning” (Lave and Wenger 1991, 98). A community of practice involves both explicit and implicit activities. As in project teams, participation is essential as things need to be done—relationships formed, processes redesigned, situations interpreted and actions developed, and artifacts produced (Wenger 1998, 49).

Three interacting elements define a COP. Firstly it involves a domain of knowledge, which defines a set of issues that members experience: a community of people who care about this domain; and the shared practice that they are developing to be effective in their domain (Wenger et al 2002, 27). Wenger further describes domain as setting the common ground and a sense of common identity for all COP participants (Wenger 1998, 27). The boundaries of this domain are often fuzzy and unofficial (Wenger et al 2002, 42; Garrety et al 2002). A community consists of a group of people who interact, build relationships, learn together, and in the process develop competence, a sense of belonging and mutual commitment and accountability (Wenger et al 2002, 34) Wenger also offers that a community’s practice is a product of the past, as it embodies the history of the community and the knowledge it has developed over time (Wenger et al 1998, 38). Practice specifically involves a set of historical or social resources or frameworks, ideas, tools, information, styles, language, stories, routines, and documents that the community develops, shares, and maintains that can sustain mutual engagement in action (Wenger et al 2002, 29; Wenger 1998, 5).

COPs make knowledge an integral part of the day- to-day activities and interactions within the COP, and members of the COP serve as a living repository for that knowledge (Wenger et al 2002, 9). Further, a COP has a life cycle that reflects a collectively negotiated process since it is based on joint learning rather than reified tasks that might constitute other types of teams such as project teams. This assertion supports a notion that learning is a source of emergent social structure (Wenger 1998, 96). Therefore, a COP socially reproduces itself over a longer time cycle than the work practice cycle. In essence, “COPs are reproduced via communities of practitioners” (Fox 1997, 28–29). This time factor consisting of the differential cycle times of work practice and social reproduction and, the negotiated process of joint learning developing a history that constitutes the practice, are important distinguishing factors for COPs in comparison to other “groups” such as informal networks. In informal networks, learning is not a negotiated process forming a communal practice within a particular domain nor does a network result in social reproduction—they exist essentially to share knowledge and form alliances within a field.

In summary, a COP consists of a community of people who share a concern about a topic and possess mutually defined identities and interact on an ongoing basis over a substantive time frame. A COP also demonstrates a shared knowledge and a shared discourse that reflects a particular perspective on the world. A COP also produces a shared practice consisting of collective historical artifacts containing the knowledge of the community such as tools, routines and documents, and a common language. Importantly, the practice is not static but dynamic and is constantly changing by engagement with other communities that enable elements of one practice to migrate into another.

Can a Project Team Be Considered a COP? What’s the Difference?

A comparison of the two reveals a number of structural differences. Firstly, let me define a project and project team. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. Temporary means that every project has a definite beginning and a definite end” (Project Management Institute 1996, 4). It also defines project management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities in order to meet or exceed stakeholder needs and expectations from a project” (Project Management Institute 1996, 6). Similarly, other authors (Turner 1999, 3; Gray and Larson 2000, 4; Frame 1995, 2; Morris 1998, 2) support this definition but highlight that projects are non-routine processes and involve the co-ordination of interrelated activities.

The characteristic emphasis in these definitions being on temporality, i.e., a finite time to complete; the uniqueness or specificity of objective of the project activity in comparison to on-going operations such as a functional department in an organization; and the management of many interrelated activities associated with the project.

Hence, a project team is usually focused on some predefined specific task(s) or objective that is time limited. It also involves the management of an amalgam of interdependent tasks that contribute to this pre-determined shared objective (Wenger et al 2002, 43). A COP in contrast to a project team has a focus around a domain of knowledge (a territory of shared interest where members are connected by interdependent knowledge) that creates a sense of common identity as opposed to the focus on a specific and unique task achievement where project team members are connected by interdependent subtasks (Wenger et al 2002, 27 and 43). Whilst project teams can share a concern about a topic, i.e., the project activity, they lack the opportunity to develop into a long term COP with a focus on a particular knowledge arena since they exist for a limited time, with the work cycle equaling the time the project team actually exists. This constraint lashed together with the ad hoc nature of project teams, means that project teams have no collective history, and they have no collective future (Garrety et al 2002).

A COP also has a community of people who care about a domain and in which they mutually develop their identities and their practice. A project team in contrast has a temporal “recruited community” consisting of diverse and separate identities that are forged primarily external to the immediate project grouping. The project team members are focused on achieving specific subtasks and not necessarily focused on the development of long-term practice within that grouping of people. As Wenger et al indicates: “that what holds a COP together includes a passion, commitment and identification with the group and its expertise … whereas in project teams, what holds them together are the project goals and project milestones” (Wenger et al 2002, 42).

Primarily as a result of the different time horizons and different purposes between COPs and project teams, project teams in comparison to COPs do not share a common discourse or perspective on the world. To do so, requires the time to collectively develop a common perspective and discourse relevant to the domain and across multiple tasks. This also requires a change in purpose, and given the traditional task purpose of project teams, this may be difficult. A COP is able to collectively negotiate the nature of the practice, the shared experiences, and therefore the learning. Project teams by their temporal nature allow little time to collectively negotiate a common perspective on the world. Further, given that the identities of project team members are primarily forged external to the project team, those communities sustain the primacy of influence over those persons’ perspectives on the world. Therefore project team individuals discourse and perspectives, generally reflect “other”communities views of the world and yet, the potential exists for the project team to develop a collective perspective if some movement towards the notion of a COP can be initiated. Interestingly, the project team environment serves as a meeting place for these various communities to engage in “boundary relations” (Wenger 1998, 103). These boundary relations consist of people from differing COPs engaging in exchanges that can effect or alter practice and viewpoints across communities. Different COPs bring focused expertise into the cross-COP learning milieu of the project team and also act as “conduits to other sources of external knowledge” (Garrety et al 2002). As such the project team serves as a knowledge exchange venue for these COPs—not a COP in its own right.

Also primarily as a result of the different time horizons and different purposes between COPs and project teams, project team members do not develop a mutually negotiated shared practice consisting of historical artifacts. The case study artifacts for example included such things as common rhetoric, stories and views about the culture of the organization, standardized electronic communication processes and safety audit documents. Such artifacts are imported into a project team from COPs through boundary exchanges. In that sense, the project team becomes a “dumping ground for others artifacts”—not a generator of new and unique artifacts that prevail within a community. Occasionally, project team members that regularly come together in different project teams may in part develop some mutually “understood” practices but it is by nature discontinuous and patchy and not the primary influence on their actions. This aspect supports and illustrates that project teams can be considered an embryonic form of a COP but not a COP as described.

In summary, project teams differ from COPs in the following ways:

• They have different time horizons, i.e., a defined start and finish point.

• They have different purposes, i.e., they are focused on a specific task.

• The individual identities of members are primarily forged external to the project team.

• They do not share a common negotiated perspective on the world but instead serve as a “knowledge exchange venue” for multiple COPs.

• They do not develop a mutually negotiated shared practice consisting of an array of artifacts—rather they become a “dumping ground” for others artifacts.

Can a Project Team Constitute an Embryonic Form of a COP?

Firstly, the differential time horizons and different purposes are important to this discussion. At some point, a COP in its early formative stages must have an initiating reason for existence, e.g., a group of mechanics form a community around the necessity to maintain factory operations. There is a reason or motivating force that acts as this causal prompt for a community to form. The initial purpose for the formation of the community may indeed be more humble than “to create, expand and exchange knowledge and develop people within” (Wenger et al 2002, 42) but, a community grows from such beginnings—a like interest, a necessity, a desire to be involved. In that scenario, a project or task drawing together people focused on achieving a specific goal can act as the catalyst or seed to develop a community. With project teams, despite their temporal nature, the opportunity exists to expand the purpose of the project team to include both a focus on the project task and the development of individual capabilities through learning. In that sense, not only can a project team be the seed of a potential COP but with that additional focus it can also be considered an infant COP—as “learning is considered the engine of practice” (Wenger 1998, 96). The definite end dates of projects may not necessarily constitute the end of the infant COP. That scenario is however dependent upon the organizational structure in which the project resides, e.g., a project based or matrix organization may have people constantly moving between and interacting frequently on different projects and a focus on learning across all of those projects may constitute a type of “mobile COP.” Alternatively, a traditional functional organizational structure where project teams are formed as needed and end as abruptly as they started may cease to represent a potential COP—at least in the formal sense. Opportunities to continue the development depend upon the attitudes and approaches (both formal and informal) of the organization and the participants to the opportunity. As Wenger et al suggests they need to ask such questions as: “What topics do we really care about? What roles are people going to play and how will people connect on an ongoing basis? And, what knowledge do we share develop and document?” (Wenger et al 2002, 45–46)

As stated previously, both contexts clearly involve people in exchange situations. Within those exchanges, the project team utilizes various COP artifacts, e.g., tools and information to deal with their tasks. As the project team has not had the time to develop its own unique collectively negotiated practices and develop its own artifacts, the participants draw upon those practices and artifacts from other COPs which they are members of, i.e., the project team becomes the “dumping ground.” This process involves two types of connection i.e. boundary objects that serve to co-ordinate the perspectives of various COPs, and brokering which involves the use of multimembership to transfer some element of one practice into another (Wenger 1998, 103). In the case of a project team, the ability of the members and indeed their necessity to construct temporary artifacts relevant to their project, constitutes the design of boundary objects, which includes the “nexus of perspectives” (Wenger 1998, 103) from other COPs. Being a “knowledge exchange venue” that does not have a common perspective on the world but indeed a multiple one—it is ideal in facilitating that process. Brokering involves interpreting and importing directly those elements or artifacts from other COPs into the project team. In this sense, whilst brokering and boundary objects are ongoing points of negotiation at the boundaries of any mature COP, within a project team they are crucial to what one might call the start of a new COP as the participants negotiate their place and their meanings both within the project team and the world external to it.

Exhibit 1. A Typical Project Team

A Typical Project Team

Project team members can develop an identity with a project, e.g.,“I am part of project team x.”A member of a COP develops a mutually negotiated identity through sustained engagement with community participants over time and over specific events, e.g., “I am a mechanic in the support services division.” The differentials in developing “identity” within either situation are essentially around the degree of negotiation of identity undertaken within the context, the degrees and focus of learning activity of the individual and the degrees of multimembership of other communities (Wenger 1998, 163). In a COP, the amount of negotiation in establishing an identity is higher, the learning potential more multidirectional and multifaceted, e.g., developing an ability to “fit within” the group; and the multimembership of other COPs are constantly interacting and influencing one’s behavior in each COP. In a project team, negotiation is comparatively less, the learning potential more narrow and focused on the task, but the multimembership remains strong in influencing one’s behavior within a project team. Even though comparatively the negotiation is less and the learning more narrow, the project team member by necessity still exhibits these aspects in establishing their identity within the project team. A project team does resemble a “shallow” or embryonic COP in this aspect as it has the potential to contribute to the development of the identities of team members.

In summary, a project team can be considered an embryonic form of a community of practice since it provides a focal point on a topic that people have an interest in; it necessarily engages team members in negotiating boundary objects and brokering to establish the context and actions of the team and the project; it provides an opportunity to learn and develop individual capabilities provided the focus of project teams is explicitly shifted to include learning; and it therefore possesses the potential to contribute to the development of the identity of team members and to the development of a “mobile” practice which can constitute learning between projects.

A New Conception of a Project Team from a Learning Perspective

Having introduced and discussed the attributes of the COP in relation to project teams, and the argument forwarded to consider a project team an embryonic COP—How might this conception be illustrated?

As previously discussed, project teams vary markedly to COPs in both a time and purpose dimension. They also act as a “knowledge exchange venue” for multiple COPs and as a “dumping ground” for other COPs artifacts. Members’ identities and relationships are forged primarily external to the project team. Exhibit 1 illustrates the features of this concept of a project team consisting of a conglomeration of COPs coming together around a particular purpose. The array of COPs exist due to the multimembership of many COPs by each project team member. In this exhibit, the multilayered COP person joining a project team by virtue of their external memberships and established external identities and practices, has a primary learning trajectory or bias external to the project team. Due to that alignment, a member comparatively spends only the necessary time on an inward learning trajectory, i.e., towards the project team grouping—enough perhaps to exchange knowledge and “do the dump” and get the project done as necessary. This lineament means that members migrate towards the periphery of the project team learning potential as they are attracted towards more familiar, external COPs. An inward learning trajectory or bias results in a movement towards the center of the diagram by the team members as shown in Exhibit 2. This is representative of an additional purpose for the project team to also include a focus on the development of individual capabilities through learning within the project. When these multiple COPs for each individual collide or abut each other in the project team, these interfaces or boundaries can become major learning and negotiation opportunities where practice can emerge. At these points of engagement, learning can be either supported or inhibited by attention or non-attention to the structural attributes for learning across the COP boundaries between people. If these attributes are ignored as not being necessary, then learning exchanges between players within the project team will most definitely be impeded.

Exhibit 2. A Preferred Project Team

A Preferred Project Team

Derived from the research case study through the use of an array of action research techniques, and relevant to the research case, the structural attributes that facilitate learning across these COP interfaces include:

• Learning Relationships. A definition for this structural attribute is: “The relationship you have with another person(s) from which you acquire/impart knowledge or skill to increase your/their capacity to take effective project action.”

• Understanding Cognitive Styles. A definition for this structural attribute is: “Cognitive style is a person’s preferred way of gathering, processing and evaluating information. It influences how people scan their environment for information, how they organize and interpret this information and how they integrate it into the mental model and subjective theories that guide their actions” (Hayes and Allison 1998, 847).

• Knowledge Management. A definition for this structural attribute is: “the way a project team manages knowledge transfer within and external to the project team.”

• Learning Mandate & Learning Environment Support. A definition for this structural attribute is: “The explicit/implicit instruction/authorization given to you to pursue learning within the project and the ongoing support in all its forms, provided by the project sponsor and/or the organization to realize that goal.”

• Pyramid of Authority. A definition for this structural attribute is: “Your individual ‘authority’ level within the project affecting your own political approach to your learning—it can be both at a perceived and ‘real’ level, i.e., your own perception of your authority or the organization’s assigned authority to you within your project.”

These structural attributes do not attempt to provide “an expert led and controlled solution” to this situated learning opportunity as that would be contrary to the principles of situated learning theory and to the localized development of a practice. Nor are they “unspecific” enough to simply postulate some principles that one might find hard to translate into effective project actions. They have evolved from this research case that was a specific project type and, they provide enough detail to pose challenging questions for a project team member to translate the concepts of learning into personal and project team actions via a “self-design” approach. For a more detailed discussion on these attributes, refer to Sense 2001.

The Key Implications for Research and Practice

Firstly, the conception of a project team presented in this paper raises a number of issues for researchers in the project management field. The primary challenge for researchers is to consider addressing the social aspects of learning in a project team as opposed to, or in conjunction with, the psychological aspects of learning. An understanding of the psychological aspects of learning is vitally important and this paper has no dispute with those well-established principles. However, a conception of learning in a project team that only considers that realm delimits the potential for learning within a project team to the individual level and indeed, I might suggest actively impedes it. Situated learning theory is now established as a legitimate perspective on learning. If researchers are to adopt this rationale, then many questions can be asked about our research foci. Are we researching the correct attributes for learning in projects? Indeed, are there substantive differences in supporting learning between different project types? Are there substantive commonalities that could add to a “Project Management Body of Knowledge”?

At the core level, this conception has introduced a social constructivist perspective into project management practice. As Wenger et al suggests: “COPs do not reduce knowledge to an object. They make it an integral part of their activities and interactions and they serve as a living repository for that knowledge … It resides in the skills, understanding, and relationships of its members as well as in the tools, documents, and processes that embody aspects of this knowledge” (Wenger et al 2002, 9 and 11). This perspective may be somewhat different to the accepted and dominant objectivist approach typically found in the project management field. These two epistemologies raise debates that go way beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice to say, this paper and others like it may prompt debate about commonly held views on how meaning is derived. I leave it to the reader to initiate that discussion.

Secondly, and importantly, this paper raises some important practical issues for practitioners interested in supporting learning within their project teams. Should they adopt a constructivists view on project learning and seek to address the practical and social dimensions of learning? If they do, how do they practically change the purpose of the project team activity to explicitly include a learning agenda? Within such engagement, the practitioner will necessarily confront and review their learning strategies/processes beyond just the predominant psychological viewpoint of learning. They may then address how they might simulate a “temporal COP” arrangement (as shown in Exhibit 2) that will stimulate the contextual learning potential within the project team. In arriving at that point, practitioners will identify and locally construct ways of addressing those structural factors that will support/impede the development of that “temporal COP,” i.e., how does the practitioner support learning between the project team members? Those structural factors come into play at the intersection of the boundaries of the multiple COPs within the embryonic COP of the project team. They are diverse and demanding and not normally considered a priority item of project team management. Nevertheless, if a practitioner does include a learning purpose within their project activity—these factors must be deliberately addressed. To ignore them will only impede learning. In that respect, one project team member reflected on his initial view of project teams and their purpose and the barriers to learning: “As far as looking to reduce the barriers where you can build learning relationships … I’m usually pessimistic in all these things. … I don’t see it as being the primary function of anything we’ve been trying to do. We’ve been trying to drop barriers and change the structure and that’s been about output rather than process. Within that, there are by-products in that you learn things. But as a learning organization we haven’t been doing much about solely learning.”


This paper has presented an argument that project teams should be considered an embryonic form of a COP. In doing that, it has also offered an alternative conception of a project team from a learning perspective. This conception, which includes multiple COPs, interacting and exchanging around a particular task activity, i.e., the project, has significant implications for how one might implement a project team learning agenda. It challenges perspectives on learning in project teams and briefly identifies the types of structural attributes that should be addressed in order to support the situated nature of learning across the multiple COPs within a project team.

In an attempt to simulate a COP condition within a project team as evaluated in this paper, it is important to note that communities of practice cannot be legislated into existence or defined by decree—they can be recognized, supported, encouraged, and nurtured, but they are not reified, designable units (Wenger 1998, 229). In acknowledging those conditions, practitioners who desire to embrace a learning purpose, i.e., see their project teams as “learning entities,” will spend time and energy on exploring the structural attributes of situated learning and devise their own specific approaches to facilitating learning within their project team. Provided these attributes are constantly addressed, the project team is on a trajectory towards simulating a temporary COP and learning in the project team is enhanced. One project team member noted whilst reflecting about the process of learning within his project team, “X often challenges us on what are the behaviors we are exhibiting and are they the ones we bemoan other people exhibit? So getting some of those ‘undiscussables’ out is really where the barrier is and it has been quite a deliberate exercise to get to know each other better and become more confident to share and to know how to share some of those things.”


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