Communities of Practice to encourage knowledge sharing in project-based organisations

This month’s ‘Insights’ blog shares lessons from applying a community of practice (CoP) approach to encouraging knowledge sharing across a project community.  While the research examines multiple PMOs in a large global organisation, I feel the insights are also applicable to the single PMO attempting to promote the sharing of best practices and lessons learned in the project manager community.

The paper gives us some insights into the challenges faced in promoting knowledge sharing, the success factors for the formation of an effective community and how you might recognise that your community is maturing (or not).

“If only we knew what we know…”

Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services (HPES) is a global organisation with over 200 PMOs of various sizes, types and maturity levels.  Conscious of the problems of knowledge ‘stickiness’ (the inability to transfer learning and information across the organisation) and ’leakiness‘ (learning benefitting the external client but not making it back into the organisation), HPES PMO leaders and senior management agreed that some form of intervention was necessary to improve peer-to-peer visibility and encourage dissemination of innovative practices.  This challenge was neatly summed up in a comment from an HPES manager

“If only we knew what we know…”

Kelly and Turner’s paper in IJPM reports on a 2-year collaborative action study with HPES on the formation of a community of practice; its membership, and the value gained regarding knowledge sharing.

Communities of practice are member driven
The fundamental principle that underpins communities of practices as described by Wenger (the founder of CoP literature) is that the community is participant centred – driven and directed by the members needs rather than structured and controlled by an external agent such as senior management in the organisation.  It is the autonomy of the group which differentiates a community of practice from other forums, formally set up and governed by the organisation.  The need to balance autonomy and management control is an unresolved management dilemma.  The formation of spontaneous communities is rare in the busy achievement-oriented corporate environment, but where participation is mandated or simply encouraged through reward and recognition, then participation is often reduced or impacted negatively by the real and perceived agendas of the organisation.

In the HPES example, a ‘purposeful community’ was instigated – led by members of the PMO community.  Senior managers in HPES communicated their support but went out of their way to ensure that membership was seen as voluntary.  No performance targets were set on the group or on the individuals who took part in its formation.

Why would busy, dispersed, project support professionals want to join and participate in a deliberately organised CoP?

The HPES CoP had some practical challenges to face.  With PMOs globally dispersed, even just finding a good time-slot which would suit the many time-zones could be difficult.  Various technology solutions were used to encourage participation and to allow people to view and gain from sessions they could not attend.  Participation at the beginning was tentative, led largely by the conveners for the session.  The motivation for staff taking part on the HPES CoP seemed to be focused on finding best practices to apply in my area.  However, as the community developed and people learned to become part of the virtual CoP, more peer-to-peer sharing occurred.  Sessions were more typified by across-group sharing rather than centralised information giving.

How does the CoP mature and grow?

With the decreasing formality of events, the type and usefulness of information exchanged by members evolved.  Efforts to give or take information gradually gave way to extended dialogues on lessons learned, shared experiences, and shared solutions.  This is in line with Wenger’s suggestion for the development of the maturity of a CoP.

Indicators of CoP formation Example observations from study
Customary manner of interactions Decreased formality at events – meetings start quickly with no need for introductions
Shared styles and discourses Reduced need for convener intervention.  More spontaneous Q&A sessions
On-going participative activities People swapping war stories and tips for dealing with ‘difficult’ clients shared
Mutual relationships Members confirmed that relationships built in sessions were maintained offline
Personal identification with the group Members reported that they saw themselves as part of a professional community and were keen to align their practices with the wider community
Continuous and conspicuous shared repertoire Members involved in similar tasks or sharing interest would seek help and advice from one another and then bring the learning and improvement to subsequent meetings

The success factors for CoP formation

The authors identify three characteristics of effective CoP participation:

  • Autonomy: A contributory factors for CoP success is to ensure that individuals retain the personal freedom to decide their own ‘socialisation’ strategies.  Rather than seeking to pressurise people into joining, the HPES’ voluntary approach has helped engender a more effective and enduring commitment to the CoP.
  • Competence: In the early stages of the CoP the motivation for participation were often around gaining knowledge and understanding of best practices. Events hosted by invited specialist speakers were particularly well attended.  Interactions across and within the communities allowed individuals to build a view of who knew what and who the ‘go-to’ people might be.  This is particularly important in large or dispersed organisations.
  • Sense of belonging and relatedness: In the study, members quickly saw themselves as part of a professional community; “It’s good to be seen, to belong, and be more visible in the ”  The idea of building up one’s professional reputation was a common theme in the feedback from participants, as was the value of making new connections with others in the organisation.

The HPES CoP was an opt-in community group, and while the group grew over time, there were people who elected not to take part.  By limiting the remit of the convener, and promoting voluntary membership, senior management demonstrated their light touch approach, avoiding the threat of over-control and loss of choice.  It is ironic that this informal strategy was interpreted as a lack of commitment by members who were struggling to find the time to engage in CoP.  It’s clear that for the CoP to maintain its relevance in a large organisation, backing by senior management must be ‘cautiously visible’!

And was it valuable?


Wenger: Calue of CoPs

The value of the CoP in HPES has not been evaluated in financial terms or against other tangible metrics.  Evidence from feedback from the participants and management suggest that:

  • Knowledge sharing has resulted in a myriad of incremental improvements
  • The CoP has become an important source of PMO contacts
  • These contacts help group members in solving problems and develop tools that are shared
  • The presence of the CoP has contributed to the recognition of the PMO as an important function within the organisation

This month’s paper

This month’s paper is taken from the International Journal of Project Management, Volume 35 Issue 1:

Lee-Kelley, L. and Turner, N., 2017. PMO managers’ self-determined participation in a purposeful virtual community-of-practice. International Journal of Project Management35(1), pp.64-77.

Other references:

Wenger, E., 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.


  1. Why do PMs attend forum sessions in your organisation?
  2. What level of maturity do you feel the PM participation is at (compared with Wenger’s indicators of CoP formation)?
  3. What works well/ not so well in promoting the sharing of project knowledge in your own organisation?



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