FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email


Community spirit: What organizations can learn from GSK Consumer Healthcare’s community of practice initiative

Published 17 December 2022 in Governance • 5 min read

Following the merger of the consumer healthcare divisions of GSK and Pfizer, GSK Consumer Healthcare faced the challenge of uniting two large organizations in the shadow of COVID-19. But from this adverse environment, GSK developed its successful communities of practice initiative.

In August 2019, pharmaceutical giants GSK and Pfizer announced plans to merge their respective consumer healthcare businesses into a single entity: GSK Consumer Healthcare. With 25,000 staff, this would be the world’s largest consumer health company. Moreover, GSK and Pfizer revealed that they intended to spin off the business as an independent company within three years.

Integrating two such giants of the industry, let alone preparing to launch a spin-off business in such a short space of time, constituted a huge challenge. The extreme nature of this challenge was exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, obliging GSK Consumer Healthcare’s workforce to operate remotely for extended periods rather than allowing the organization to smooth the new relationship through in-person working.

The company’s response was to launch an innovative “community of practice” (CoP): a self-organizing system of project managers from around the world. The intention was to establish a team identity by encouraging members to share their passion for their work and participate in an exchange of skills to build capability, improve motivation, and ease pain points.

Further details of the CoP are outlined in this case study:

Community of practice delivers success

GSK Consumer Healthcare’s CoP initiative delivered on its goals in tangible ways:

  1. Creating a shared identity and culture

A key principle of the CoP was that it would not be measured with quantitative metrics. Rather, the initiative set out to foster a sense of alignment and pride in both individual roles and the overall organization. The initiative helped GSK Consumer Healthcare’s project managers to gain clarity on what they were trying to achieve while also overcoming the sense of isolation that had arisen amid the overwhelming pressure of achieving integration while coping with COVID-19. Qualitative feedback from participants confirms the success of this approach.

  1. Driving consistently high-quality performance

GSK Consumer Healthcare knew its global team of project managers was a crucial element of its growth strategy. The role of project managers (PM’s) is complex, involving coordination of the organization’s activities across R&D, marketing, supply chain, regulatory, technical and more. Ultimately, the PM’s are responsible for bringing products to market. The CoP enabled 78 project managers in 12 locations to co-ordinate and collaborate in the most unified and efficient way possible.

  1. Supporting the business’s strategic goals

GSK and Pfizer were able to deliver on their goal of spinning off GSK Consumer Healthcare – and to do so at a premium valuation. On 18 July, 2022, the venture, now known as Haleon, was listed on the London Stock Exchange with a secondary listing on the New York Stock Exchange. The business was valued at £31bn ($37.6bn) on its first day of trading.

Creating a community of practice at GSK Consumer Healthcare

The concept of a CoP was first described by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M Snyder in 2002[1]. They described such an initiative as “a group of individuals participating in communal activity and continuously creating their shared identity through engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities.”

For Marcus Chambers, Senior Director Pain Relief Project Management and

Operations at GSK Consumer Healthcare, this concept seemed to encapsulate the challenges he and his fellow project managers were facing in the early days of the new venture. He recognized the need to build capability rapidly, and saw the imperative for supportive attitudes and sharing of experience in order for people to become more effective and energized.

Chambers saw the initiative as a way to move past the cultures and silos that divided the legacy companies, geographies, and product categories. The goal was to create a means by which groups within the organization could define and share solutions to problems among themselves.

Chambers and his colleagues took a series of steps to turn the idea into practice:

  • Formation: A core team of representatives across regions and categories worked to identify needs of project managers and address their concerns within the CoP.
  • Knowledge-sharing sessions: These 70-minute sessions, created “for the community by the community” and delivered via Microsoft Teams, offered expert input from members of the community. Examples included sessions on use of the business’s joint-planning tool, clarifying decision-making roles, and courageous conversations.
  • Buddy Bank: The idea was to identify key capabilities within the project management community. Project managers were invited to put offers of help and requests for assistance into a central “bank”. The buddy bank was voluntary and not monitored by management, with people offering to share experience and input and requesting support.
  • Development pathways: These created the opportunity for members of the community to gain project management training and accreditation; 20 people took up the offer to upgrade their skills and gain a professional qualification.

Crucially, attendance was open to all and non-compulsory. Nor was there any attempt to monitor who was and was not taking part, which supported the desire to create a sense of camaraderie and mutual support. The intention was to create a safe space in which project managers could share opinions, ask questions, test ideas without negative consequences, and exchange knowledge and experience.

The CoP was a useful way to build sociability and solidarity within the newly merged organization[2].

  • Sociability refers to friendly relations between people. This comes naturally when people can choose their communities and is a measure of the quality of non-instrumental relationships. It is based on similarities in ideas, values, and attitudes, and is sustained through regular face-to-face interactions and reciprocity.
  • Solidarity is the ability to pursue shared objectives effectively, regardless of personal interests. Relationships are based on collaboration around shared objectives. Solidarity does not rely on a network of exclusive friendships, but can arise among a project team and be an enduring aspect of corporate culture.

Summary: what can executives learn from GSK Consumer Healthcare’s CoP initiative?

With increasing frequency, organizations are having to deal with major change, requiring newly configured groups of individuals to work collaboratively. A CoP offers a means by which communities within organizations can identify how best to achieve goals for themselves, resolve problems, and identify opportunities from within the group, rather than through a top-down approach.

GSK Consumer Health’s CoP was highly successful in this regard. The lessons of the initiative include:

  • Creating identity among professional communities is vital in a newly merged organization. Shared identity contributes to a sense of belonging from which shared practices can evolve.
  • It is possible to enable a virtual CoP by paying particular attention to its purpose, membership, and stewardship.
  • Creating a CoP requires courage from business leaders to manage the emerging needs of a diverse community and a willingness on the part of its members to share knowledge gaps.
  • Self-direction is vital: members must be prepared to work together to determine how it is governed and which initiatives it undertakes.

Organizers and members must be prepared to accept different levels of participation, enthusiasm, and engagement.






Heather Cairns-Lee

Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication

Heather Cairns-Lee is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication at IMD. She is a member of IMD’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Council and an experienced executive coach. She works to develop reflective and responsible leaders and caring inclusive cultures in organizations and society.




Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

You have 4 of 5 articles left to read.