Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

CoP & Projects: A Toxic mix?

I’ve been exchanging tweets with Matthew Loxton about whether communities of practice (CoP) and projects are a good fit. He’s sceptical; I suggested it can work, depending on context and on definitions of a project. I haven’t written specifically about this before, so thought it was worth sharing preliminary thoughts in a blog post.

First, I think Matthew is correct to be cautious for at least four reasons. 1) The fuel for CoP is passion for a topic, and sometimes the grunt work needed for projects can eat away at that all-important passion. 2) In my experience, many executives don’t know how to manage (or more appropriately, not manage) CoP.  So any activities that make the communities look like more familiar animals—such as project teams—can put the distinctive nature of these groups at risk.  3) As the flip side of the same coin, the community might begin to equate its work with deliverables rather than good communication, support, inspiration, learning and improved practice. 4) Project work could put a community into a form of direct competition with other workplace groups. This could be a lose/lose. Fabulous results could result in unproductive tensions; poor results could erode hard won support for the CoP.

When I commented on projects being potentially valuable, I realized I was drawing a fuzzy line between two types of communities of practice: intra- and inter-organizational. I’ve seen the latter have a whole lot more freedom, diversity, longevity and sometimes creativity. This isn’t always true, but the distinction is worth thinking about. Executives don’t quite know what to do with inter-organizational communities, if they even know about them. They clearly cannot control them. If they come to see value in these groups, they might treat their member employees as intriguing internal consultants on loan, capable of bringing project benefits back into the organization.

As examples of successful project work, consider early days of CompanyCommand, when the “failed” project of the good practice guide was replaced—again on a volunteer basis—with the launching and development of the community itself. For years it crossed organizations, but had enough momentum to continue as an intra-organizational community of company commanders (who were always the intended beneficiaries). Another example is Canada’s counter-terrorism network of communities—CRTI—about which I have written in the past. Community members came from many federal government departments as well as from a range of first responder organizations. Some of the project work was funded through a proposal process.

I also commented about the definitions of project work. We usually think of projects as intimately tied to organizational goals (and my comments above are in that context). However, I have seen communities of practice take on learning-related projects. CPsquare (I’m fortunate to have a great vantage point by being in the leadership group) does this quite regularly.

I welcome other perspectives on Matthew’s question.

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  laurentmarbacher wrote @

Hello Alice,

I re-twitted your post because this is a highly relevant question for me right now.

Here is my thinking :

1. You probably recall that table where E. Wenger and alii compare CoP with other groups/teams (it is p.43 in the edition I have of “Cultivating Communities of Practice”) > they show how different they are in purpose, boundaries, “glue”,… So I think we cannot confuse both (in that respect I agree with Matthew Lowton view)

2. Now, the question relates for me to the nature of any particular project :

a) the content of the project might imply that people develop knowledge and practice sharing. For instance, I worked in a large transportation company on a PROJECT (18 months) which had – as a deliverable (and among other deliverables) – to foster internal networks and communities of practice among legal affairs specialists (around 140 people formerly isolated in various divisions and subsidiary companies).

b) the way a project is run can lead – or not – towards a community of practice-like form. Some projects just do the job and deliver. But I have the experience of projects where different projects leaders and participants (all parts of one major initiative) are given specific time and ressources to grow through the projects. It then becomes a community of practice around leadership, project management, etc. This kind of thing can be done for all projects in an organization and thus develop habits really close to CoP.

I don’t know if this helps. I’ll be glad to listen to more points of view here. My question now is the following : I a am currently coaching a team of 17 high potential in a global Group of 10,000 people. They are responsible for a PROJECT and the goal of this project is to develop internal networks for knowledge and experience sharing (CoP?)… What do I do ?

Thank you,


  amacgillivray wrote @

Hello Laurent. Yes, I am familiar with Etienne Wenger’s (and colleagues’) matrix about different kinds of groups and find it a very helpful tool for work with executives. But as you point out in your last paragraph, life rarely looks like a matrix; it’s often more like a social network analysis graphic. The project you describe is interesting, because–as a project–there will likely be project-like expectations. Reminded of that bad Grade 2 joke of the boy scout that successfully helps the elderly woman across the street, but she didn’t want to go.
I think we are now talking about three kinds of projects? 1) Traditional output-oriented workplace projects; 2) Projects about learning capacity (such as nurturing CoP) or 3) Learning projects (such as researching how different organizations or parts of a firm do X, and what is working best). Blurred lines again, but I think of them differently in relation to networks and communities.
In our culture, we tend to separate being and doing. If one lives the principles of a CoP, one doesn’t act in a traditional project management way. (Is your CoP within scope???) One of the leaders I worked with in my PhD research had three roles: head of a company, senior manager in government and facilitator of a CoP. In describing the final group and role he said “In this situation, the model that has to work is the communities of practice model, simply because I don’t have the line management authority to say
go do this. And neither does anyone else…” (MacGillivray 2010). He also said that in his government role, if I wasn’t hearing anything from his staff members it wasn’t a good thing, whereas in the CoP it was: it meant they were busy learning, doing, working on projects etc. Thank heavens there aren’t metrics for how often we do X with family or friends, given that–at times–it’s best to sit back and observe but do nothing.
Your current situation reminds me a bit of questions I’ve had a conferences. Sometimes senior managers have a sense that networks and communities are important, but haven’t thought much past that. There can be a lot of effort put into “creation of at least three CoP in next fiscal” etc. without strong ties to business priorities or thoughtful capacity building. Hopefully you can avoid that trap?

  laurentmarbacher wrote @

Thank you Alice.

I like your distinction between the 3 types of projects.

Your example about the leader “not hearing anything from staff members” makes me think that this really has to do about one’s representation of “what does it mean to be a leader or a manager ?”. I think that management innovation (revolution ?) also has something to do with this. Is the manager supposed to command and control or is she primarily a Knowledge Officer as Nonaka puts it ?

I think that what you talk about is also the leadership required to let people free. Isaac Getz wrote about this : I highly recommend you his book “Freedom,Inc”(see

Regarding my client’s project, I’ll tell you how it evolves.

Thank you for taking time to answer my comment.


  amacgillivray wrote @

Absolutely agree on your observations about the nature of leadership.
Thank you for the link to Freedom.Inc. Your comments about leadership as controlling or as freeing has so many systems implications. If we are societies/businesses/systems that are mechanistic and driving certain types of behaviour, it is not easy to free up a portion of the machine. But if one creates a different sort of ecosystem that complements the machine without emulating it, good things can happen locally and a new model can be safely observed.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

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