Building a knowledge culture

Much more than the buzzword of the week, knowledge management has emerged as a critical competitive differentiator—a delicate balance of people, processes, and tools. It is an enterprisewide infrastructure that serves as an organizational “brain”—ensuring that experience is leveraged to drive future success.

Vendors of many shapes and sizes profess to offer a “solution” for knowledge management, ranging from groupware to data mining tools, to search engines, to PDAs, to portals. Many of these tools are efficient resources. However, the organization must first overhaul processes and overcome organizational biases—to create a knowledge culture.

The business world is struggling with the challenge. In today's Information Age, Knowledge is becoming the most valuable asset in any company, the key to a company's success. Yet companies remain perplexed with the idea of managing an entity that cannot be measured, let alone universally defined (Glasser, 1998). With a large portion of today's knowledge residing in the minds of the workforce, often, critical components are not captured and preserved in a useful manner for enterprisewide utilization.

The core challenge lies in the complexity of capturing an intangible asset. CIO reported on a recent study from the Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation and Business Intelligence Ltd. The survey found that out of 431 organizations in Europe and the United States, 94% of the company's executives felt it was feasible to leverage their current knowledge base (in their organization) to a higher degree (Glasser, 1998). Knowledge management offers organizations the ability to increase effectiveness through the gathering of institutional knowledge. This mirrors the human capability to increase efficiency and maturity through their accumulation of thoughts and experiences (Angus, Patel, & Harty, 1998).

Three key drivers are accelerating the requirement to improve knowledge management processes. Organizations must:

•  Capture the experience of a graying workforce—The “graying” baby-boomer generation will begin to retire around 2020, followed by a much smaller generation, which may not be able to demonstrate the same amount of knowledge as the retiring workers. Much of organization's knowledge is currently held within the employee's head. Businesses must be able to extract the experience and harness for workers with less knowledge.

•  Provide a more cost efficient way of doing business—In today's environment of rapid change, markets are becoming hypersensitive to achieving business results as efficiently as possible. Companies can leverage knowledge management to close the knowledge gap and in turn, offer better and more efficient service to customers.

•  Improve corporate agility—Organizational agility is often defined as the ability to thrive in a constantly changing environment through the efficient use of knowledge. Leveraging a knowledge management infrastructure gives organizations a competitive advantage by empowering them to move at the same speed as the economy and anticipate and satisfy future needs.

Two Types of Knowledge Management Initiatives

Organizations generally approach the “knowledge management problem” as one of two types of initiatives:

•  Knowledge Management Initiatives for Tacit Knowledge Capture: There are two types of cultural knowledge—explicit and tacit (Spradley, 1980, 8–10). Explicit knowledge is a broad knowledge, which can be formalized easily. It encompasses what an organization or individual already knows, and can be communicated with relative simplicity. For example, it is common knowledge that if an individual goes outside in the rain without an umbrella—he will get wet.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge held usually by an individual and results from the individual experiences of that individual. The holder of the tacit knowledge is the “expert” on that subject matter. Often times, this knowledge is transferred to others through word of mouth advice or other informal processes.

Knowledge management infrastructures work to capture tacit information and translate that information into a stored resource for future use, eliminating second-time mistakes, avoiding redundant efforts, or to merely capture key corporate information an individual employee holds on suppliers, customers, or competitors (Angus, Patel, & Harty, 1998).

•  Knowledge Management Initiatives to Build a Knowledge Management Infrastructure: Many organizations approach knowledge management from the infrastructure perspective—working to improve the processes that drive consistent peer-to-peer communication practices—for example, monthly telephone status meetings, e-mail distribution lists, groupware, data warehousing tools, web-based knowledge centers, etc. Utilizing and leveraging these technologies enables businesses to effectively sort, store, and disseminate both explicit corporate knowledge—however, they currently fall short in the capture and dissemination of tacit knowledge. More than 90% of the world's information is considered “unstructured documents” or documents that are not form based. Emerging technologies are starting to improve knowledge capture for these unstructured documents—which— alongside the minds of the employees’—house the lion's share of tacit knowledge. However, to date—the majority of infrastructure solutions are focused on explicit, rules-based knowledge capture.

Organizations are finding that a combination of the two standard knowledge management initiatives is required to achieve real progress.

In addition—organizations must first invest in a thorough assessment of the organization's culture to assess the overall knowledge management maturity level, which determines how conducive the environment is to knowledge sharing.

In order to maintain a successful knowledge-sharing environment, the organization must reward individuals for supplying information to others to combat the typical phobias associated with sharing knowledge. The workplace has become increasingly competitive, and many times, workers feel as though they would jeopardize their job security by sharing their tacit knowledge. Knowledge often ties directly to power, and few are willing to hand over their knowledge if an organization doesn't have the right set of incentives in place.

Significantly, the Ernst & Young study reported in CIO noted, “56% of executives identify changing people's behaviors as the greatest single obstacle to knowledge management initiatives” (Glasser, 1998).

Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president of the Delphi Group Inc. in Boston, believes that the first step in ensuring the workplace is conducive to sharing information is to conduct a knowledge audit, or a “benchmark of where the organization is from a technical standpoint, a leadership standpoint, a work habits standpoint, a cultural standpoint, a communication pattern standpoint and a team structure standpoint.” He noted this “will give insight as to whether the whole process of knowledge harvesting is going to be perceived as beneficial. If the audit reveals that your organization is not ready, you could do all the harvesting you want, but it won't be viewed as valuable or utilized.” Frappaolo also feels that to implement a knowledge management initiative successfully, organizations may need to “change the way the culture is instilled and the way people think about the value of sharing what they know with other individuals. It may mean you have to change the way teams get structured and rewarded. All that needs to be put in place” before expecting people to share their knowledge with others (Eisenhart, 2001). A mature organization is important to creating synergies of knowledge sharing within and across peer groups.

Project management provides the discipline to first evaluate, then assess, and then—to implement. Too often organizations jump to stage three—implementing a system without the supporting processes to grow and evolve the system. As a result, the initiative frustrates the workforce and fails to achieve the desired objectives.

The assessment should evaluate the people, culture, politics, and other factors impacting the knowledge management system's success. Through this assessment, organizations will not only be able to identify the purpose of the system, but also define its relationship to the organization's strategic vision and communicate the desired outcomes to the appropriate parties. In order to do a cultural assessment, the project manager will need to assume the role of a participant observer, as described in Participant Observation by James Spradley.“The participant observer comes to an organization with two purposes (1) to engage in activities appropriate to the situation and (2) to observe the activities, people, and physical aspects of the situation” (Spradley, 1980, 53–62). To examine and assess the culture of any organization, the participant observer evaluates nine dimensions of the organization. The dimensions according to Spradley are:

  • Space: The physical place or places
  • Actor: The people involved
  • Activity: A set of related acts people do
  • Object: The physical things that are present
  • Act: Single actions that people do
  • Event: A set of related activities that people carry out
  • Time: The sequencing that takes place over time
  • Goal: The things people are trying to accomplish
  • Feeling: The emotions felt and expressed (Spradley, 1980, 78–86).

These nine dimensions serve as a reference for developing grand tour and mini-tour observations, as described by Spradley. The grand tour observations focus on the larger questions, such as, “What are the major events in this situation?” from this you can derive mini-tour questions, such as “In what ways do events change relationships among actors?”

Utilizing the nine dimensions and the idea of both grand and mini-tours, the participant observer should develop a descriptive question matrix, which will help in the cultural assessment. Sample questions provided by Spradley include:

  • What are the ways that space is organized by act?
  • What are the ways space is organized by goal?
  • How do activities vary at different times?
  • What are all the ways activities involve actors?
  • How are goals related to time periods?
  • How are actors involved in events?
  • What are the ways that goals involve the use of objects?
  • Which goals are scheduled for which times?
  • What are all the ways goals evoke feelings?
  • What are the ways that feels affect activities?

After collecting and recording data from the descriptive questions matrix, the participant observer must begin the analysis and search for patterns in the collected data (Spradley, 1980, 78–86).

Preparing to Launch a Knowledge Management Initiative

Planning is critical to the successful development of a knowledge management system. The organization should:

•  Attain corporate sponsorship at the highest levels

•  Ensure a strong project manager is available with good knowledge of program management best practices and knowledge management stages

•  Evaluate the corporate environment to ensure workforce readiness. The organization must be conducive to change—as knowledge management demands changing culture.

Attaining Corporate Sponsorship

Upper-management must support the knowledge management initiative in attitude as well as actions.A knowledge management initiative should be treated as a strategic and top-priority effort. Managerial support is essential as strategic shifts will be required for success. According to a recent Information Week article by Jeff Angus, Jeetu Patel and Jennifer Harty, “knowledge-management implementation requires a shift in philosophy for most organizations— not only in how people work, but more importantly in how they behave and interact with each other” (Angus, Patel, & Harty 1998).

The potential for a successful implementation increases when the knowledge management initiative begins with a positive outlook. In order to gain broad acceptance, the project manager must involve people at all levels of the enterprise and reach out to individuals feeling left out of the project. The project manager should solicit their participation and ensure they are well aware of the benefits to the organization.

Strong Project Manager

A strong project manager will continue to drive enterprisewide momentum toward the implementation of the knowledge initiative. With an in-depth understanding of knowledge management implementation stages, the project manager can keep the project on track, and continue to build enterprise support.

Implementing a Pilot Project

Pilot projects should also be implemented before a widespread organizational change program is launched—such as a knowledge management initiative. The pilot project works to secure confidence and define success metrics, building a strong foundation for an overall knowledge management initiative. In implementing a pilot project, the project manager must ensure the rollout illustrates enterprisewide benefits. Leveraging the benefits seen from a successful pilot project, the project manager can more clearly define the enterprise-wide benefits and garner increased support across the agency.

Implementing a Knowledge Management Initiative

In order to move forward with an enterprisewide knowledge management initiative, the project manager must develop a charter defining and documenting a position statement, strategic planning assumption, a mission statement, short- and long-term goals, and objectives. He or she should also take stock of available resources and clearly define program deliverables.

The following steps provide a framework for the implementation process:

•  Write a statement of how business objectives will be reached through knowledge initiatives

•  Specify projects to be undertaken, including order of doing them and reasons why

•  Plan for technology implementation that supports promised functions

•  Describe roles of sponsors and team members

•  Develop guidelines for communications

•  Develop guidelines for managing change

•  Create a way to review and revise relevance of the roadmap over time.

After a project charter is developed and accepted, the project manager must pick a team, which will be responsible for developing the plan, deciding how to implement, and providing risk management, change management, procurement management and communications management support to guide the knowledge management initiative.

Risk Management

Risk Management is the strategy for identifying and reacting to project hurdles. Risk management support is a key component to any knowledge management initiative. Carol Hildebrand's recent article in CIO states, “All CIO's eventually find themselves at the crossroads of IT investment, faced with multiple options and minimal certainty about the potential outcomes of their choices: Methodologies provide a way to choose which paths to follow and which paths are better not taken” (Hildebrand, 1996). According to PMI‘s PMBOK Guide, risk management consists of:

•  Risk Management Planning—Creating a methodology for dealing with a projects inherent risk

•  Risk Identification—Identifying potential project risks and documenting them

•  Qualitative Risk Analysis—Performing a risk analysis to determine and prioritize effects of possible risks on the project

•  Quantitative Risk Analysis—Calculating probability and scope of risks and their effect on the project

•  Risk Response Planning—Developing guidelines to improve opportunities and minimize risk to a project

•  Risk Monitoring and Control—Monitoring and executing risk reduction processes, evaluating and streamlining for future use (PMBOK 2001)

Configuration, Change Management

Configuration management is the IT process concerned with identifying, documenting, controlling, and tracking the configuration of interrelated IT components, at discrete points in time, throughout the development or maintenance life cycles (Fournier 1999). Changes in workplace configuration often cause an imbalance in the workforce, and therefore workers initial reaction is to resist it. However, in order for any initiative to be implemented successfully, change must be embraced and managed correctly (Mullich, 2001). Configuration management consists of:

Exhibit 1. Business Metrics

Business Metrics

•  Auditing—Performing an initial audit of the things or items to be managed

•  Baselining—Baselining the things or items being placed under configuration management

•  Change Control Board—Setting up a Change Control Board to review any changes affecting the established outline

•  Evaluating Impact—Control and manage those changes and impacts to the baseline

•  Maintaining—Report and monitor change.

Procurement Management

Procurement management is an essential step in managing the knowledge initiative. Procurement management standardizes and maintains the processes used to obtain goods and services needed in maintaining the initiative. According to PMI's PMBOK Guide, procurement management consists of:

•  Procurement Planning—Initial stage outlining what to procure and when

•  Solicitation Planning—Documentation of requirements and sources

•  Solicitation—Gathering information, such as quotes, bids, and proposals

•  Source Selection—Evaluating the information and choosing a provider

•  Contract Administration—Forming and maintaining a relationship with the provider

•  Contract Closeout—Settling the contract and tying up loose ends (PMBOK® Guide 2001).

Communications Management

Communications management guides the generation, collection, dissemination, and storage of information regarding the knowledge initiative. According to PMI's PMBOK® Guide, communications management consists of:

•  Communications Planning—Evaluating the needs of the stakeholders. This step should consider who, what, when, where and how.

•  Information Distribution—Disseminating information to project stakeholders as soon as it is available.

•  Performance Reporting—Gathering and dispersing information on performance metrics. This includes: status reports, progress evaluations, and forecasting.

•  Administrative Closure—Obtaining or sending out information relative to the completion of projects (PMBOK® Guide 2001).

Managing the Ongoing Knowledge Management Initiative

Once the implementation is done, organizations must continue to manage the initiative with controlling processes that ensure continuous improvement. The PMBOK® Guide outlines these processes, which fall into two categories—controlling processes and facilitating processes:

•  Controlling Processes: Include performance reporting and integrated change control

•  Facilitating Processes: Include scope verification, scope change control, schedule control, cost control, quality control, and risk monitoring and control.

Benefits and Return on Investment

Measuring the benefits of knowledge-related assets has become one of the most difficult and challenging issues for today's knowledge-based businesses. Quantifying knowledge is impossible, and measuring the direct results of knowledge management is not much easier. Benefits of implementing knowledge management initiatives range from tactical to strategic, affecting the whole organizations’ productivity and culture. Some benefits include:

•  Improving Competitive Response—Enabling organizations to respond to market changes and speed new product time to market.

•  Reducing Costs and Loss of Intellectual Assets—Capturing tacit knowledge allows an organization to leverage that information to streamline processes and eliminate costs in retraining employees and recreating an experts “lost” knowledge.

•  Meeting the need to operate globally—Geographically dispersed operations present unique cultural and knowledge management challenges—organizations with an effective KM culture can eliminate the “them and us” mentality and maximize dispersed resources.

•  Job Effectiveness—Implementing a knowledge management infrastructure tears down traditional boundaries and increases knowledge sharing in workers and in turn enhances job effectiveness.

•  Enterprise Effectiveness—Knowledge management tools, templates, and best practices, coupled with a knowledge sharing culture form a collaborative environment increasing enterprise effectiveness.

•  Strategic Direction—Leveraging a knowledge-sharing culture promotes creativity and innovation and in turn affects strategic direction.

A Gartner Group report, “Justifying an Enterprise Knowledge Management Program,” (Caldwell, 2000) notes as much as 30% bottom-line differential for enterprises that proactively management their intellectual assets over those that do not.

The report notes that “a disciplined approach to managing intellectual assets anticipates productivity increases in current business processes…Recent initiatives by General Electric and Bank of America suggest that expected productivity increases, particularly from net-enabled operations, range from 7% to 20%” (Caldwell 2000).

Knowledge management has moved front and center onto boardroom agendas. More than 90% of large private sector and more than 40% of federal public sector enterprises have begun at least one knowledge management initiative, according to the Gartner Group. The project management community has a unique opportunity—to deliver the discipline required to nurture broad strategic organizational change and build nimble and efficient knowledge-driven organizations.


Project Management Institute. 2000. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

Angus, Jeff, Patel, Jeetu, & Harty, Jennifer. 1998. Knowledge Management: Great Concept … But What is It? InformationWeek. (online) Available:

Caldwell, F. 2000. Justifying an Enterprise Knowledge Management Program. Research Note, Tactical Guidelines Gartner Group Research (online).

Eisenhart, Mary. 2001. The Process of Harvesting. Knowledge Management (online) Available:

Fournier, Roger. 1999. Keep Your Apps in Top Shape: Configuration, Change Management Ensure Reliability. Information Week (online) Available:

Glasser, Perry. 1998. The Knowledge Factor. CIO (online) Available:

Hildebrand, Carol. 1996. Roadmap for Risk. CIO (online) Available:

Mullich, Joe. 2001. Growing a Knowledge Management System. Knowledge Management (online) Available:

Spradley, James. 1980. Participant Observation. United States: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



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