Project management collaboration: Knowledge sharing among project managers

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Abstract

Experienced project managers have knowledge and skills which can be shared with project managers who are new to the organization or to the profession. Experienced project managers can also maintain, as well as improve, their own effectiveness by continuing to learn through knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer is important because an effective means of transferring learning from experience on projects was identified as one of the key factors leading to an organization consistently having successful projects (Cooke-Davies, 2002). Project managers are focused on leading their projects and are often challenged with finding ways to transfer knowledge. The question is,, how to transfer knowledge among project managers. The purpose of this paper is to explore knowledge transfer practices, including what knowledge is essential, where this knowledge can be obtained, and how it can be shared among project managers. The discussion will include an overview of knowledge sharing, project managers and collaboration, learning activities offered by an internal Project Management Institute, Registered Education Provider (R.E.P.), and lessons learned. This paper will show that both experienced and new project managers can become more effective by sharing knowledge collaboratively.

Knowledge Sharing Overview

Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) describe knowledge as “a meaningful set of information” (pp. 58–59). Knowledge is continuously created in organizations (Nonaka and Toyama, 2003), is relational and context specific, and is grounded in values, experience, and purposeful action (Nonaka, Reinmöller, and Toyama, 2001). More specifically, knowledge is continuously created in organizations through the synthesis of contradictions between the organization's internal resources and the environment (Nonaka and Toyama, 2003). Lastly, knowledge can be tacit or explicit and is used to create knowledge assets.

Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

Knowledge can be either tacit or explicit. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that is embedded in a person's mind (Bower and Walker, 2007). It is difficult to articulate because it is highly personal, is hard to formalize, and consists partly of technical skills (Nonaka, 1991), which makes it difficult to communicate or share with others (Nonaka and Konno, 1998) or transfer to other projects (Morris and Lock, 2004). On the other hand, explicit knowledge is formal and systematic (Nonaka, 1991). Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that has been codified or clearly explicated, such as manuals and procedures (Bower and Walker, 2007). Fernie, Green, Weller, and Newcombe (2003) found that the dichotomy between tacit and explicit knowledge was useful for engaging interest but not for classifying emergent understanding. They indicated that emphasis should be placed on the learning process rather than the outcomes and that the focus should be on engaging the individual. Similarly, Davenport, Long, and Beers (1998) determined that since knowledge is created in the brain and cannot be seen, the motivating factors for creating, sharing, and using knowledge are very important.

Knowledge Assets

Tacit and explicit knowledge work together to create the organization's knowledge assets—the “firm-specific resources that are indispensable to create values for the firm” (Nonaka, Toyama, and Konno, 2000, 20). Knowledge assets can be considered as the “knowledge possessed by the organization and its workforce in the form of information, ideas, learning, understanding, memory, insights, cognitive, and technical skills, and capabilities” (Levin, 2010, p. 2). Knowledge assets, due to the tacit nature of knowledge, must be built and used internally, if their full value is to be realized.

Nonaka, Toyama, and Konno (2000), in an effort to provide an understanding on how knowledge assets are created, acquired, and exploited, categorized knowledge assets into four types: experiential knowledge assets, conceptual knowledge assets, systemic knowledge assets, and routine knowledge assets. Experiential knowledge assets (Nonaka and Toyama, 2003; Nonaka, Toyama, and Konno, 2000) are tacit and are shared among organizational members. This knowledge includes the skills and know-how acquired through hands-on experiences. Experiential knowledge assets are firm-specific, difficult-to-imitate resources that give a firm a sustainable, competitive advantage. Conceptual knowledge assets are explicit. These knowledge assets have a tangible form and are based on concepts, which are articulated through images, symbols, and language. Systemic knowledge assets are systematized and packaged explicit knowledge. Through a process of combination, systemic knowledge assets are made explicit as documents or data and therefore are transferable, which means they can be purchased or sold (Nonaka and Toyama, 2003; Nonaka, Toyama, and Konno, 2000). Routine knowledge assets are tacit knowledge that has been made routine. These knowledge assets are now embedded in the organization's actions and practices and are reinforced as they are shared among organizational members. Routine knowledge assets are created and shared by the organization through a process of internalization (Nonaka, Toyama, and Konno, 2000).

Knowledge assets, consisting of both explicit and tacit knowledge, are constantly evolving and must be managed by the organization. For example, an organization may have a defined project management methodology which provides a system of practices, techniques, and procedures for managing various types of projects. As the organization grows its project management practices, the project management methodology evolves, and this explicit knowledge is shared through process and tool-related documents. Meetings or just-in-time training may also be used to communicate these changes. However, it is the project manager's ability to tailor components of the methodology to fit the project, to select the appropriate tools and techniques at the right time, and to know when and how to adjust the project management approach as the project encounters environmental factors or disruptive events that require the project manager to respond with some form of change. This tacit knowledge is difficult to articulate and communicate but is needed, along with the new or revised process and tool-related documents. The ability to transfer tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge will allow project managers to share their experiences and know-how more effectively.

Project Managers and Collaboration

Project managers can collaborate with other project managers to increase their effectiveness. This section explains the project manager's role and the current skills needed to manage a project effectively. It then discusses the importance of trust followed by a discussion on how team learning and project manager mentoring can be used to share knowledge among project managers.

The Project Manager's Role

A project manager has always been responsible for the delivery of a successful project. Over the years, the definition of project success has changed from using the time, cost, quality triangle as criteria (Atkinson, 1999; Baccarini, 1999; Baker, Murphy, and Fischer, 1974) to completing the project within the constraints of scope, time, cost, quality, resources, and risk as agreed upon between the project managers and senior management (Project Management Institute, 2013), and business value achieved through the realization of benefits. The project success definition can also be defined to distinguish between project management success and project success (Ika, 2009), with project management success, being quantitative and focusing on being efficient by meeting the time, cost, and performance objectives, and project success being qualitative and effective by measuring client satisfaction.

As the definition of project success has changed, so has the role of the project manager. As stated in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide—Fifth edition), the project manager's role has become more strategic. Just understanding and applying knowledge, tools, and techniques, recognized as good practice, are not sufficient for effective project management. To be effective, the project manager must have area-specific skills and general management proficiencies, along with the ability to apply project management knowledge (perform) using behavioral skills (personal) while performing related project activities. Area-specific skills include technical or industry expertise and general management proficiencies include business principles, specifically strategic planning, and execution.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide—Fifth edition) identifies 11 important interpersonal skills that, when used appropriately, would assist the project manager with managing the project effectively. These 11 interpersonal skills, explained in Exhibit 1 are: leadership, team building, motivation, communication, influencing, decision making, political and cultural awareness, negotiation, trust building, conflict management, and coaching.

Interpersonal Skill Explanation
Leadership Focusing the efforts of a group of people toward a common goal and enabling them to work as a team.
Team Building Helping a group of individuals bound by a common purpose to work with each other, with the leader, with external stakeholders, and with the organization.
Motivation Creating an environment to meet project objectives while providing maximum satisfaction related to what people value most.
Communication Understanding the cultural nuances and norms, relationships, personalities, and overall context of the situation; having an awareness of the communication channels, sharing information, and listening.
Influencing Sharing power and relying on interpersonal skills to get others to cooperate towardcommon goals.
Decision Making Using the appropriate decision style— command, consultation, consensus, and coin flip (random)—and the four factors that affect the decision style— time constraints, trust, quality, and acceptance—to make decisions.
Political and Cultural Awareness Understanding the political environment and cultural differences to create an environment of mutual trust and a win-win atmosphere.
Negotiation Conferring with parties of shared or opposed interests with a view toward
compromise or reaching an agreement.
Trust Building Establishing positive relationships through cooperation, information sharing, and effective problem resolution.
Conflict Management Building the trust necessary for all involved parties to be open and honest and to engage in seeking a positive resolution of the situation creating the conflict.
Coaching Developing the project team to higher levels of competence and performance

Exhibit 1: Interpersonal Skills and Explanations

So where does the project manager gain the knowledge and skills to become effective? One way is through collaboration. Organizations can learn to be collaborative by identifying potential collaborators, negotiating the form and specifics of collaborative agreements, managing and monitoring the arrangements, knowing when to terminate them, and transferring knowledge (Simonin, 1997).

Collaboration and Trust

Collaboration occurs when all members of the team share a common purpose, there is mutual trust, and everyone uses agreed-upon approaches for the work (Gottesdiener 2002). The project manager role requires spending significant time with project stakeholders. However, project managers need to build relationships with other project managers so, as things change over time, they will know what knowledge is essential and where it can be obtained. The challenge is for project managers to leave their comfort zones of focusing only on their projects, to reach out to other project managers and form collaborative relationships based on mutual knowledge sharing with the deliberate intention of learning to become more effective project managers.

Trust is the positive expectation that the other person will deliver. It takes time to form a trusting relationship because trust requires a form of knowledge and familiarity about the other party. When trust is broken, it can seriously impact performance and may not be easily restored. According to Robbins (2005, pp. 320–322), there are three types of trust in organizational relationships: deterrence-based, knowledge-based, and identification-based. Deterrence-based trust is based on fear; knowledge-based trust is based on the behavioral predictability that comes from a history of interaction; and identification-based trust is achieved when there is an emotional connection between the parties. Since collaboration flourishes in a climate of trust (Cleland, 2004), both knowledge-based trust and identification-based trust allow project managers to transfer knowledge.

Team Learning

Teams provide a shared context where individuals can interact with each other and create new points of view through constant dialog and discussion (Nonaka, 1991). Research indicates that it is difficult for teams to create knowledge among team members and project stakeholders (Huang and Newell, 2003) as well as to transfer tacit knowledge to other projects (Morris and Loch, 2004). In projects, because of the heavy reliance on social patterns, practices, and processes, it is important to have mechanisms for knowledge diffusion that replicate the social nature and dynamics of knowledge management and learning processes. (Bresnen, Edelman, Newell, Scarbrough, and Swan, 2003). Learning within projects requires practical learning actions consonant with the project activity and its environment (Sense, 2004). For example, in addition to their performance objective, teams should have a learning objective, such implementing a lesson learned that came out of a previous project. (Salvelsbergh and Storm, 2012). Team learning should involve sharing in formal and less formal ways (Jugdev, 2012).

The project manager works in collaboration with the project team to determine which processes are important, the appropriate degree of rigor for each process, the actions required to ensure that project performance matches expectations and that the right message is communicated to the right audience at the right time (Project Management Institute, 2013). Therefore, the project manager can share knowledge gained from a project team's experiences with other project managers.

Project Manager Mentoring

Project manager mentoring is a way to encourage collaboration among experienced and new project managers. This process can be formal or informal. A formal mentoring process can be for a new project manager and could last for the first 90 days, or it could be for an experienced or new project manager and could last for the duration of the mentoring program. Some mentoring programs have a one-year duration and include a formal agreement between the mentor and mentee. Included in this formal agreement are the mentor and mentee responsibilities and learning objectives.

An informal mentoring process can be agreed upon between the mentor and mentee. This will allow the experienced or new project manager to work with an experienced project manager to gain knowledge in a specific area. It can also be used to gain a better understanding of how to apply knowledge to specific project situations. This can be accomplished by having the experienced project manager shadow the project manager or sit in on project management meetings as an observer and then provide feedback to the project manager.

The project manager mentee, whether the mentoring process is formal or informal, should have a learning objective, desired results, and action steps which are agreed upon by both the project manager mentor and project manager mentee. During the mentor-mentee relationship, the project manager mentee is in a position to learn from someone who is doing the work and should value and respect the relationship by making sure that meaningful conversations are occurring and that trust is maintained.

Learning Activities: Internal Registered Education Provider

Knowledge can be acquired through education and training activities. While external education and training programs are an excellent option for gaining project management knowledge, internal learning programs and activities allow the project manager to gain knowledge specific to the organization. Some organizations provide just-in-time learning delivered by managers rather than trainers (Davachi, Kiefer, Rock, and Rock, 2010). This type of learning delivery is a good opportunity for project managers to share their knowledge, specific to the organization's project environment, with other project managers.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers a Registered Education Program (R.E.P.) for organizations that offer internal or in-house training programs for their employees. This allows an organization to align their course offerings with their project management business needs and PMI's standards for quality and effectiveness. In addition, the organization is able to offer professional development units (PDUs) to their employees who participated in the in-house training activities. The added value of being a PMI R.E.P. is that the project management organization can partner with its human resource department to develop a career path for project managers which includes an education and training program that provides the knowledge needed for competency at each level. Some of the ways an organization can use its internal R.E.P. program to support project manager collaborative learning are customized training courses and lunch and learn (brown bag) sessions.

Customized Training Courses

A customized training course allows an organization to “stimulate learning with concrete and work related cases, which is more appealing to most people than theoretical classroom examples” (Savelsbergh and Storm, 2012, p. 17). Learning can be a greater social experience by incorporating best practices through storytelling (Davachi, Kiefer, Rock, and Rock, 2010). Project managers can share with excitement and passion how they used the tools and techniques, thereby improving the learning experience and increasing the amount of learning that is retained. Customized training also reduces the amount of time it takes to apply the learning because the cases and exercises directly relate to the organization's project environment.

A training curriculum can include fundamental, intermediate, and advanced courses. The fundamental courses can be targeted to new project managers or project managers new to the organization. This level could include basic project management theory and how it is applied to specific projects. These courses could also incorporate the use of the technology required to manage projects. Another important element of the fundamental courses is leadership or soft skill training, with an emphasis on communication and team building. The intermediate and advanced courses could include a combination of project management theory, application, business processes, case studies, and leadership skills based on the specific needs of the organization. Also ad hoc courses could be included to focus on a behavior that is lacking or address a specific need, such as project planning techniques, managing multiple projects, benefits realization, or financial reconciliations.

The following is an example of a process that was used by an organization to create a course to address a specific need. Project leadership noticed they were getting inconsistent information in the financial components of the monthly status report. Further investigation revealed a need to provide training on the financial reconciliation process to all project managers. To determine exactly what was needed in the course, a survey was sent to all project managers with questions regarding their knowledge of the financial reconciliation process and their questions. The survey was confidential, which allowed project managers to be honest about their needs. Project managers were also given the option to participate in an interview to provide additional details. After the surveys were analyzed, interview questions were developed to address specific concerns. Project managers were asked to bring examples of their reconciliations and supporting documents to the interview. After the course was developed, a pilot was held with experienced project managers and leadership to finalize the materials and set realistic expectations. The expectation was that after taking the course, project managers would be able to prepare a financial reconciliation, following the guidelines and meeting the quality standards.

Lunch-and-Learn Sessions

Another way an organization can use their R.E.P. status is to provide PDUs for lunch and learn (brown bag) sessions. This also provides project managers a way to share their knowledge with other project managers. This sharing opportunity allows project managers to become more engaged in the learning process by identifying knowledge to be shared and having a forum in which to share that knowledge. This collaborative environment also allows for relationship building among project managers.

Project managers who wish to participate in lunch and learn sessions can present information obtained from numerous sources. For example, a project manager can present summaries from what they learned from a PMI® Congress or other project management, business or technical professional development event. Another source of information that project managers can share is examples of their practice for applying project management tools and techniques. Finally, the lunch and learn sessions are a good opportunity to provide just in time learning for new or revised processes.

Lessons Learned

Learning is seen as essential for the improvement and dissemination of new knowledge through the rest of the organization (Gieskes, 2002). Kotnour (1999), in his research, found that when project managers are managing a project, they have three learning goals: (a) to deliver a successful project, (b) to build capabilities, and (c) to deliver a series of successful projects. Kotnour indicated that a learning process, such as conducting lessons learned, would allow project managers to accomplish their learning goals.

“Lessons learned are defined as key project experiences which have certain general business relevance for future projects. They have been validated by a project team and represent a consensus on a key insight that should be considered in future projects” (Schindler and Eppler, 2003, p. 220). During lessons learned sessions, project team members participate in reflective discussions about the project, in an effort to acquire and assimilate the knowledge that the project team members gained during the project (Ajmal and Koskinen, 2008). Project managers could acquire relevant knowledge from lessons learned sessions, and use this knowledge to develop or enhance their skills for application on current and future projects.

This brings up an interesting question: Are project managers learning from lessons learned? Another question to ask is, Do organizations have a structure in place to share lessons learned? A suggestion is for an organization to have a department responsible for lessons learned (Williams, 2007) or someone within the organization specifically responsible for disseminating lessons learned to project managers. This would ensure that not only lessons are captured but more importantly, that lessons learned are shared.

Research indicates that lessons learned should be shared at the start of a new project and shared among projects within a program. Lessons learned could also be shared during learning activities, such as within a customized training class or during a lunch and learn session. A director of a project office mentioned that he incorporates actual lessons learned in with his project management course that he includes in a mandatory project management course offered to project managers new to the organization.

A survey given to 80 project managers provided the following suggestions for project managers to share lessons learned:

  • Share with the project team at the end of the project.
  • Share with other project managers during a lunch and learn session.
  • Incorporate lessons learned into risk management discussions.
  • Categorize lessons learned and put on a shared drive.
  • Consider how lessons learned could be effectively used and explain it prior to collection.
  • Make sharing mandatory and have meetings which allows lessons learned to be shared.
  • Make sure sharing consists of blameless communication.
  • All lessons learned should be vetted to make sure they have value.
  • Collect key metrics to go along with the lessons learned to support the value of the lessons learned.
  • Consider things that have gone right as well as things that have gone wrong. Then convert lessons learned into an action items list and assign responsibility to project managers for disseminating the lessons learned.
  • Lessons learned requires discipline; establish a process and then have project managers follow the process.
  • Have defined project management processes and templates in place, and then use lessons learned, along with the change management process, to keep these processes and templates current.

.Conclusion

Knowledge can be tacit or explicit. Both tacit and explicit knowledge are used to create knowledge assets. Knowledge assets create value for the organization and continually evolve as the organization's practices change. For this reason, project managers must become and remain effective with their project management activities. Project managers can become more effective by sharing knowledge with other project managers through collaborative activities such as team learning and mentoring. If an organization is a PMI R.E.P., they can offer opportunities for project managers to share knowledge and also award PDUs to the project managers participating in the learning activities. This allows project managers to become more engaged in the learning process and increases project manager participation in the optional events. Finally, lessons learned can be used as an opportunity for project manager collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Both experienced and new project managers can become more effective and increase their ability to deliver results by becoming more collaborative and sharing knowledge with other project managers. To motivate project managers to engage in collaborative knowledge sharing, the knowledge sharing activities should focus on how to use the organization's constantly evolving knowledge assets. Learning activities should include project management practices that align with business practices By having relevant and various types of learning activities, project managers will not only retain more, but they will also become more effective.

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