Communities of Practice (CoP) and the PMO
Within the PMO Competency Framework, communities of practice (CoP) are mentioned in two different competency areas.
The first one is knowledge management and the second is capability development. Communities of practice are created within organisations today to help share knowledge between people within the organisation and to also help them develop, using communities of practice as a form of social learning and social interaction.
The bottom line is, communities of practice, when implemented and managed well, help to improve performance and when we talk about CoPs in relation to project management, that means they can help us improve project delivery performance.
With the PMO, CoPs can mean something which people within the PMO choose to join and get involved in. This could be within or outside their organisation. It can also mean that the PMO itself runs a CoP of their own within the business – especially if its a large or global business with many people working in PMO roles.
The PMO can also help support other COPs within the organisation, for example, if there is a project management or technically focused practice which needs help in arranging, facilitating or managing events and get-togethers.
The PMO are in a great position to support knowledge management activities and contribute to capability development within the organisation.
Let’s understand more about what communities of practice are:
What is a Community of Practice?
Communities of practice have been defined as:
a group of people who share a concern; set of problems or a passion for something they do and want to deepen their knowledge and expertise by learning how to do it better as they regularly interact with others.
Much of the research and papers about communities of practice within business and organisations stem back to Etienne Wenger in the early 1990s where the idea initially was about different types of learning – situational learning – before becoming connected with the management concept of knowledge management.
Simply put, most of our work is about interactions with others, and the knowledge we have about our roles and our work is often tacit i.e., it’s not written down.
As a group of people interested in getting better at what we do, there is much we can learn from each other.
CoPs help to bring people together, and with a good structure in place and leadership in place, CoPs can help to invent new practices, create new knowledge, even define completely new territories and develop a collective voice for a whole profession or subgroup.
Within project delivery organisations today there are many different types of communities but all have practitioners as members.
Communities of practice are just one type of knowledge management approach which the PMO can actively get involved in defining, setting up and managing – they can also create a community of practice for themselves – and they can also join external communities of practice, just like this one, the House of PMO.
The Characteristics of Communities of Practice
We like the definition which focuses on solving problems and having members that are passionate about a common concern or theme.
A CoP brings people together to help them help each other, to share their expertise and insights, to take part in joint activities and discussions. Building relationships and caring about other members of the community – and genuinely caring about the problems you are trying to solve are also key.
At its very basic, members of the CoP have to interact with each other and they need to learn from the experience. CoPs are places of shared practices and that can mean sharing tools, experiences, stories – anything where insights about practices can be actively shared.
To be successful there has to be three main elements in place:
The Key to Successful Communities of Practice
Many communities of practice fail after the initial flurry of activity of setting them up and carrying out a few events.
Research (McDermott, Harvard Business Review) shows that this is often down to three different elements:
There has to be a reason to meet and participate – and that reason has to be a strong one to overcome people’s reluctance – which could be based on how much time they have; how likely they are to want to participate; what the objectives of being a part of a CoP might be etc
All communities of practice need a clear goal – what is trying to achieve. Goals need to be set with clear accountability and the ability to measure the impact the CoP is having.
A community of practice has to be an actively managed part of the organisation with specific goals & deliverables, accountabilities and executive oversight. It has to have the backing of management, with active sponsorship and governance. CoPs should be linked with the strategies of the business – they’re there to delve into challenges the organisation faces so it stands to reason that management should be nurturing and guiding the communities.
Communities of Practice Activities
There are so many different types of activities that you can utilise when you’re bringing people together within a community of practice. The objectives are that we learn new things from others; have the opportunity to talk and share experiences with others and work together to perhaps create something or drive something forward.
CoPs need different ways of doing that and my scribbles below are just a brain dump of all the different ways to meet the objectives. These should give you a few ideas if you’re looking to run any CoP sessions.
What We’ve Learnt from PMO Flashmob and House of PMO
We’ve been running a community of practice since 2013 and over that time we’ve learnt so much about running one. Here are some of our insights from over those years that could help you when thinking about getting involved or even running one:
- You can get started with just a small number of people – it’s not about quantity, it’s all about quality.
- You need to do something with the CoP regularly – whatever you choose to do, keep doing it – weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly.
- Think about what makes people comfortable in these kinds of meetings and meetups – and try to create an environment that allows people to talk and share freely.
- Choose different activities or exercises – introduce new and different ways to get people talking and sharing. Be surprising sometimes too (PMO Karaoke springs to mind a few years back!)
- Think about the things that people have in common – both the positive and the challenges they have.
- Allow others to take the floor and share their experiences – either formally (a presentation) or informally (running an interactive session with members)
- Share widely, it’s not just about the people in the room – others are watching from the sidelines and want to get involved and sometimes can’t (for whatever reason!)
- Don’t be afraid to try something that might feel uncomfortable (within reason!) it’s all about keeping things interesting.
- You’ll be surprised just how much people can change and develop with their attendance and involvement – the stories really make it worthwhile.
- Make sure you engage the audience and really try to give them what they need, get that feedback and act on it.
There was a great session with Jonathan Norman on the Project Chatter podcast and show where he talks about project management based communities of practice.
Jonathan is part of the Major Projects Association as the Knowledge Manager and runs their Knowledge Hub – a community of practice.
There are a few insights here that are useful to PMO practitioners (and a lovely mention about PMO Flashmob):
- Passionate and unstructured conversation makes for a great community of practice.
- Having experts coming in to do hot seat sessions is a great idea – especially external people to the organisation.
- A community of practice doesn’t have to have zealots to make it work – people will drift in and out all the time.
- Take a look at the more academic resources available from wenger-trayner.com
- “We don’t know what our lack of knowledge is” that’s why the conversations at CoPs can open up a completely new world.
- “It’s just as much about emotions and relationships as it is about intellect and knowledge” People need to time to have conversations and build rapport.
- The virtual world has allowed a more democratic conversation and debate in CoPs – everyone has an opportunity to chip in (Miro, Mentimeter etc)