This is What Managing Project Knowledge is All About

So, what specifically is this process we call Manage Project Knowledge? Is it just one more thing for overworked Project Managers to do?

Managing project knowledge is important for ongoing project successIn my early years as a Project Manager, at the close of a project we would summarize the lessons learned and go on to our next project. Clearly these were rote responses to requests from management (which were seldom followed up).

Almost every new project would begin without the benefit of past learnings because they were hastily assembled and/or inaccessible. When issues arose on other projects, the Project Manager might remember to go back to previous lessons learned documentation (if they could be readily located) to see how we may have handled similar issues in the past. However, this often proved to be too much effort.

Fast forward to recent times. In assisting client organizations in developing their procurement documents, my team typically included a Lessons Learned Register as a deliverable in the Statement of Work. This Register was designed to build upon an existing institutional project knowledge repository or create one from scratch. Additionally, the funding organizations, which sponsored similar projects all over the country, requested this documentation for their own national repositories.

We also encouraged the bidders to describe their own best-of-class learnings from previous implementations. This alerted them to the contracting organization’s desire to benefit from previous successes and to avoid issues encountered in past projects.

Back to my initial question: What specifically, then, is this process we call Manage Project Knowledge?

The major premise behind knowledge management is to take full advantage of previous learnings and expertise developed over numerous project executions, while also capturing new and/or improved knowledge gained from the delivery of the current project. As more and more projects are completed, the body of knowledge continues to grow. As this knowledge becomes inculcated into our industry’s common project knowledge repository over time, project success will be much more assured. (For a description of our industry’s dismal track record in its ability to deliver successful projects, refer to my article “This is Why So Many IT Projects Fail: A “People First” Companion to the PMBOK”.)

The Project Management Institute (PMI) now considers this process to be essential to how we direct and manage IT projects. PMI has included an entirely new section in the sixth edition of the PMBOK® Guide: “4.4 Manage Project Knowledge” (Project Management Institute, 2017, pp.98-105).

Project knowledge is garnered mainly in two forms:

  • knowledge that can be codified in writing, pictures, videos, or numbers; this is commonly referred to as explicit knowledge, and
  • knowledge that is implicit or tacit and more difficult to express in an explicit fashion; this knowledge is found in individuals’ experience, insights, beliefs, and skill.

Explicit Knowledge

The primary document used in capturing explicit project knowledge is the Lessons Learned Register. This Register contains lessons from past project experiences and is updated with lessons from the current project as it is executed. It is a “living document”, serving as input to each new project phase and output at the close of each phase with new learnings. It fits easily into the process aspects of project management.

Typically, the Register contains lessons learned arranged by category. It includes a description of the situation and its impact on project delivery, and actions taken to handle the situation.

Project Managers typically think of lessons learned as negative situations that were overcome and therefore would serve as lessons for future phases or projects. However, lessons learned as the result of an innovative method or process should also be documented.

I have had the privilege of working for forward-thinking IT providers who were conscientious about gathering lessons learned and codifying them in easily searched repositories. Over the years, many of these lessons learned found their way into the IT providers’ project delivery and project management methodologies. It is no wonder that these organizations have project success rates that far exceed the industry averages.

Tacit Knowledge

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is in some ways more useful for future projects, but harder to express in writing. I say “more useful” because tacit knowledge goes beyond just process. It brings wisdom and intuition and experience to the situation.

For example, on more than one occasion while consulting to client organizations, I predicted exactly how their IT vendor would react in given situations. My clients were always astonished at the accuracy of my predictions. They became trusting of my counsel and knowledge borne of my many years in the project delivery trenches.

It is this tacit project knowledge that is difficult to codify in a lessons learned document. Perhaps my clients responded so strongly to this aspect of knowledge management because it demonstrates the people aspects of project management.

Project Knowledge Must Be Shared

Of course, the benefit of gathering both explicit and tacit project knowledge is realized only when that knowledge is shared. Because so much of that knowledge lies in the minds of the individuals who possess it, sharing it requires an atmosphere of trust.

You know the old adage, “knowledge is power.” That was certainly the practice when I began my career. It seemed that everyone hoarded knowledge rather than share it. It was believed that the smartest person, the one with the most knowledge, would win. In fact, in my latter career, on a project on which I shared PMO responsibilities, one of my peers asked me to explain a complex concept to him. He then passed it off to the client executive as his own. It doesn’t take much to breach trust, which leads to a reluctance to share knowledge.

Today’s new adage must be, “knowledge is shared.” With shared knowledge comes success.

So, what are some concepts for managing project knowledge and assuring that it is passed on to future projects? The following is a list of essential ones:

  • Make project knowledge a project artifact. As noted earlier, a Lessons Learned Register can be required as a formal deliverable to capture project learnings, both from negative and positive project situations.
  • Collect lessons learned as they occur. In my early days as a Project Manager, lessons learned were gathered at the close of the project (if then). Unfortunately, for projects that spanned several years, many learnings were forgotten and therefore lost.

    The project schedule should require tasks that formally document lessons learned at the end of each phase or gate review. Similar to the retrospective meetings utilized in Agile methodologies, formal learning reviews should be scheduled at strategic points in any of the system development lifecycles.

  • Build upon the project knowledge repository. As project knowledge is acquired and documented in the Lessons Learned Register, it should also be added immediately to the organization’s project knowledge repository. There is no benefit to waiting until the end of the project to update the repository when another project could benefit from your learnings.

    For larger, more sophisticated IT providers or internal IT departments, the knowledge repository should reside in a centralized Project Management Information System (PMIS) or document management system that is readily accessible by project staff.

  • Implement lessons learned as soon as possible. One of the benefits of documenting lessons learned as they occur is that many of the learnings can be implemented immediately to correct the situation.
  • Share tacitly derived knowledge in various forums. Although difficult to express in writing, tacit knowledge can be shared while still fresh in everyone’s mind. Tacit knowledge is dependent on context, and context is best remembered while still fresh.

    For example, in one of the firms where I worked, we held quarterly meetings of special interest groups or communities of practice to share knowledge across different projects.

    Another powerful technique we used was a form of work shadowing whereby a member from another team or project worked alongside a knowledgeable individual to glean experience. This was especially useful with cross-functional teams as the shadowing team members gathered knowledge for their own upcoming activities.

    Similarly, tacit knowledge can be shared in networking circles, online forums, focus groups, industry meetings, seminars and conferences, workshops, and interactive training. These can be organized within your firm or with participating, like-minded organizations.

  • Share knowledge with and solicit knowledge from client project staff. So often we in IT seek the project knowledge that comes from other IT professionals and/or experiences. We often forget the contribution of our client’s staff who have been loaned to the project. IT is only one aspect of the project. Satisfying the client’s business problem is the main aspect. Therefore it is incumbent on us to share knowledge with our end-user counterparts, and to glean new knowledge from their contributions.
  • Provide knowledge transfer to your client’s IT staff. During much of my IT delivery career, our typical contracts required us to design and develop a new system, train the end-user staff on the system, and implement it. Depending on the readiness of the client’s own IT department to take responsibility for the system, our firm was often awarded a maintenance and operations contract for a year or more.

    Later in my career, many client organizations began requiring knowledge transfer of the internal design and workings of their new system to their IT department. To be most effective, the activity of knowledge transfer should begin at the start of the project and continue through implementation. Only then will the client’s IT staff be prepared to assume the responsibility for maintaining and operating the new system.

Managing project knowledge does seem to be just one more thing for Project Managers to do while they are in the throes of directing and managing project work. But the payoff for future project efforts is incalculable.

Footnotes

Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition. Newton Square, PA: PMI Publications, 2017, Print.


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