The relationship between projects and communities of practice—redux

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 21, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

Mark and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves over the last couple of days delivering our communities of practice workshops. The discussions were excellent. Thanks to all the participants.

One conversation led me to rethink how to conceptualise the relationship between projects and CoPs. In many organisations projects are the lifeblood. It’s how things get done. These projects consist of teams striving to kick goals and hit targets. Communities of practice, on the other hand, are designed for learning and improving the capabilities of their members. While they might have a stated mission their trajectory evolves rather than being predefined. I used to draw these two entities as an arrow and cloud.


Projects often pose questions to the communities and practice. The adept community of practice is aware of the projects it can assist and pro-actively provides answers and ideas.

The problem with this combination of metaphors (arrow and cloud) is it reinforces the stereotype that communities of practice are fluffy, ethereal, add-ons which are only exist to serve the real business of the organisation—the projects.

Here is an alternative depiction where the community of practice acts as the solid core supporting the project’s activities. The back and forth interaction between the community and the project remains but the message changes to one where the community is a solid and real foundation to how things get done around here.


I would love to hear of other ways to represent these ideas.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. joitske says:

    Good topic! I actually would put it the other way around: the CoP wider and the project inside. I think projects can be undertaken by the community of practice, and will ensure the projects are of direct relevance to practice. On the other hand, there will still be other projects commissioned by management somehow overlapping with the cop (come to think of it project is so wide: any activity with a predetermined duration and clear goal, that may the major distinction with CoP, cop continues)

  2. bob says:

    I agree with the previous commenter. CoP might be better depicted as enveloping a project. Problem with the diagram, however, is that it’s a perfect geometry. To use your word, ‘predefined’. As such it resists reception as ‘evolving’. Does this geometry acquiesce to the pre-existing bias for anything-but-fluffy? The problem with the cloud is not the cloud, but the platitudes about it.
    Perhaps the CoP could be drawn a little more complex, like a matrix, a lattice, a ‘web’ with nodes, something that looks atomic, a nuclear project orbited by community electrons. If it looks atomic, the legitimacy of your visual metaphor might slip under, through, around the stingy bias of critical reason.
    William Blake, the English poet, called Newton’s Reason the “single vision”. The poet’s is a double-vision. As in seeing the universe in a grain of sand.

  3. I agree that the community of practice can undertake projects. In fact I would say that it is essential for the CoP to do things with outcomes, that the members decide on, otherwise they will be jeopardizing their longevity in an organisation. Here is an approach to getting your CoP systematically identifing projects and getting members to do them.
    I think I would call these ‘projects’ ‘tasks’ rather than project.
    I like what Bob is saying about the visual metaphor and my bullet looking shape for the community of practice is way off the mark. Networks, nodes, interactivity need to be conveyed.
    But I’m still unconvinced that the project is a subset of the CoP mainly because many organisations see themselves as delivering outcomes through major projects, programs, initiatives—call them what you will. In my mind the CoP needs to support this while serving to create a space for learning and connecting.

  4. Mark says:

    Hmmm, all models are wrong…as a minimum I think you need to reverse the direction of the arrow ‘answers innovations’ to indicate that these are being provided by the community to support projects, rather than the other way around

  5. bob says:

    Best to be “unconvinced” as you are about the project as subset of CoP. Doing that drains prominence away from your main subject, which is projects, or a way to look at projects.
    For the present purpose, we don’t want to put the audience on stage and the performer in the cheap seats.
    You use the word “support”. I’m visualizing CoP as a vase supporting a bloom of project flowers. A vase envelopes but it ain’t the show. Just another image. Flowers draw nourishment from below, the support, the “flow” of ideas contained in the CoP. Output is scent and color. Outcome is an aesthetic, the beautification of a living space.
    Off to the florist!

  6. Matt Moore says:

    Well, you already know about my fish / water metaphor.
    How about: Trampolinist / trampoline? Bricks / mortar? Flower / soil? Fly / web? Church / crusade?
    A project is always goal-directed whereas a community just is.
    I would suggest that you might want to hit people with 4-5 metaphors & see what resonates.

  7. shireen says:

    arrow and cloud chart to establish a community of practice. so is right of this chart was first thought up by “Wenger”

  8. Shawn says:

    Hi Shireen, I’m unaware of whether Etienne Wenger has drawn a similar diagram.

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