Using cross project learning to improve project management


Performance is enabled by an organization’s ability to create and use knowledge (Polanyi, 1967; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Tsoukas, 2003). In this ever changing business environment, pursuing performance suggests a need for information technology (IT) project managers to be agile and adept at creating knowledge, and more specifically, at maximizing the value and impact of knowledge from prior project experiences within and across project teams.

This paper discusses how IT project outcomes and processes can be repeated and optimized over time by creating enabling project environments and by sharing and using project knowledge. The paper concludes with some key recommendations for improving project management effectiveness and project performance.


Studies show that sharing and using knowledge within and across project teams is a challenge (Newell, 2004; Von Zedtwitz, 2003). This conclusion is apparent in information technology projects which typically involve temporary teams organized and often mandated to implement changes in business processes and structures. Information technology is the functional area responsible for programming, managing, and integrating the hardware and software toward business objectives (Rosen, 2004). IT projects include temporary projects to install, migrate, or update hardware and software; and projects to design, implement, and manage related IT services. Enterprise-wide projects support the functional areas of an organization, affecting systems that run across the entire enterprise (Groman, 2007; Rosen, 2004). These large-scale projects are designed to deliver unified, comprehensive systems to support business activities and business process integration across departments. IT projects are often managed by a project manager who directs the teams’ knowledge, skills, tools and techniques towards the achievement of the project objectives (Project Management Institute, 2004). In this context, project management is a set of processes for bringing about a needed change and managing its implementation (Groman, 2007). Once a project is completed, knowledge from these experiences can be used to improve future project performance. This process is called cross-project learning, and when effectively performed, it is a process for creating actionable knowledge from an IT project management experience.

To research how to optimize IT projects while repeating successful prior outcomes through knowledge sharing practices, this study collects data from a sample of 917 members of the PMI® Information Systems Special Interest Group; and examines relationships among the IT project context, the practices for sharing and using project knowledge, and the project manager’s perceived effectiveness and project performance.

Project management knowledge re-use, it is argued, is low due to the nature of cross-project learning, which is problematic because the knowledge systems in place may be ineffective (Carrillo, 2005; Newell, Bresnen, Edelman, Scarbrough, & Swan, 2006); because the knowledge capturing process may be too informal (Komi-Sirviö & Tihinen, 2005; Von Zedtwitz, 2003) and not incorporated into the organization’s process (Levit & March, 1988; Marsick & Watkins, 1999). The researcher suggests that cross project learning is more likely to occur systematically in an environment committed to both improving project management and making knowledge accessible. Such a project context not only includes the organizational structures, policies, and procedures for managing projects, but it also includes the policies and practices associated with creating, organizing, and sharing knowledge in a way that makes it available and retrievable by others.


Project management was created in the 1990s as a tool for establishing standard practices for managing projects (Crawford, 2006; Kerzner, 2003; Pacelli, 2004; Project Management Institute, 2004; Rosen, 2004). A project consists of a temporary organization of cross-functional members that disband at the end of the project (Williams, 2007; Project Management Institute, 2004). To manage and implement projects, project managers apply certain knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities using five project management process groups: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring and controlling, and closing (Marbach, 2003; Project Management Institute, 2004; Sidenko, 2006; Tarnow, 2002). These process groups categorize 44 processes for managing projects. Each of these five process groups include the task of using project context elements or organizational process assets, such as policies, procedures, lessons learned, and historical information, to achieve project objectives (Project Management Institute, 2004). This is particularly true in the planning process group, where Lewis (2007) acknowledges that the time and effort spent in the planning phase supports learning, knowledge sharing and use. In fact, this effort is described by Love, Irani, and Edwards (2003) as a cost avoidance measure. While each process group has different information and resource needs, the practice of using lessons learned is debated and not as common as one would expect (Williams, 2004).

Project Management Process Groups

Exhibit 1 - Project Management Process Groups

(Project Context and Boundaries, adapted from the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2004.)

To efficiently manage projects through the five processes shown in Exhibit 1, project managers use 9 knowledge areas: integration, scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communication, risk, and procurement (Project Management Institute, 2004; Sidenko, 2006). The process groups and the knowledge areas are part of the project management body of knowledge which identifies the basic rules, routines, and procedures, described by Schon (1987) as the signatures of a profession.

The Project Structure and the Project Management Challenge

While the use of project management practices and project management offices has led to improvements in the performance of IT projects, successful organizations are managing fast paced projects with a level of agility and nimbleness that is not fully described in the project management process groups.

According to Zeng, Skibniewski, and Takeusiewicz (2008, p.1), “the project-based organization is an ideal form for managing increasing product complexity, fast changing markets, cross-functional business expertise, customer-focused innovation and markets, and technological uncertainty.” The project structure is not only ideal for implementing business objectives, but the project management methodology has been instrumental in reducing IT project failure rates. In 1994, the Standish Group found that 53% of IT projects exceeded their schedules and budgets, with 31% failing or being canceled (Johnson, 2006). Such performance numbers led to an increase in the number of organizations using the project structure and project management to more efficiently achieve their strategic objectives (Disterer, 2002; Judgev & Thomas, 2002). Andersen and Jessen (2003) state that “projects are seen as far more than solving technical problems, they are also venues for mastering business and change” (p. 457). Similarly, the PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2004) study found that the three main reasons for using projects is to implement IT changes (new technologies or upgrades), to improve performance, and to develop software. As an approach to solving business problems, seizing opportunities, or meeting requirements, projects are temporary organizations typically implemented to provide a specific product, service, or result (Hallows, 1998; Rosen, 2004; Sidenko, 2006; Tarnow, 2002). The organizations hosting these projects are then called project-centered organizations (Dinson, 2003) or described as managing by projects, or using “projectized” operations (Kwak & Ibbs, 2000; Sidenko, 2006). In fact, strategic organizational change is most likely facilitated and managed through an organization’s use of the project management disciplines (Cicmil, 1999; KPMG, 2005; Kotnour, 1995).

The Project Management Office

Some project-based organizations also have a central project management office (PMO) or a center of excellence (CoE) that is dedicated to implementing and coordinating project management practices across various projects. There is an increase in the number of organizations using PMOs (Julian, 2008). Having a PMO significantly improves project management practices and lifts some of the responsibility for project knowledge sharing and use from the IT project managers. It has been established that PMOs ideal for coordinating, sharing, and monitoring project management practices (Dai & Wells, 2004; Liu & Yetton, 2007; Lierni, 2004; Julian, 2008).

In one study, Williams (2007) found that 53.9% of the 522 participants surveyed said “that their organizations do most or all of their work in a project orientation; and 73.6% said that half of their projects are done in a project orientation,” (p. 62). In another study, Forrester Research (2007) surveyed 503 IT decision-makers in different North American and European Enterprise IT Management and Governance organizations. This study found that 46% had a PMO, and 64% of those with a PMO have the PMO within the IT organization. Thirty-five percent of those with PMOs found them to be very effective, while 58% found them to be only somewhat effective.

The PM Challenge

Several dissertation studies show that formal project management practices improve project performance (Dinson, 2003; Edington, 2005; Lierni, 2004; Sidenko, 2006). The practical evidence for this may be demonstrated by a Standish Group study that found improvements in the number of successful projects (see Exhibit 2). Thus, given the efforts to use more standard management practices, the IT performance rate has improved but the failure rate still remains in the double digits.

IT Project Performance Trends, Reproduced from the Johnson (2006)

Exhibit 2 - IT Project Performance Trends, Reproduced from the Johnson (2006)

The challenges that may face the field of project management relate to the need to be more nimble and flexible with defining and implementing projects with virtual teams while resolving changes in a fast paced business world that rewards those who are responsive. This calls for changes that build upon the process groups already established for structuring how projects are designed, implemented, and managed. In fact, the project management competencies suggest this level of awareness and flexibility in effectively executing a wide range of projects (PMI, 2007).

Cross Project Learning

When projects disband, project knowledge, if not captured, or if captured and not used, leads to a loss of knowledge that impacts performance and business objectives (Carillo, 2005; Disterer, 2002; Maya, Rahimi, Meshkati, Madabushi, Pope, & Schule, 2005; Newell, 2004; Newell, Bresnen, Edelman, Scarbrough, & Swan, 2006; Williams, 2004; Wasiyo, 2009). Given that the project management methodology improves performance, not capturing and using project knowledge that affects the implementation of future projects is a counter productive practice that negatively affects organizational performance (Tiwana, 2001; Wasiyo, 2009). However, there is a need for further objective evidence for this link, which connects sharing and using project knowledge to project performance. Sharing project knowledge in a way that makes projects repeatable and optimized in other projects is the driving factor for cross-project learning. In agile project management, projects are optimized in iterative intervals within a project – the project team learns from each other and the stakeholders to improve upon the project deliverables as they are being implemented.

Cross-project learning is a process or practice of “capturing the learning from projects so that it is available for use by other projects” (Newell, 2004, p. 1). It is the essence of learning and harvesting knowledge from one project for application in another project (Schindler and Eppler, 2003). In agile implementations, each interation can be described as a component project. Lessons learned are the “learning gained from the process of performing the project and they may be identified at any point. They are also considered a project record, to be included in the lessons learned knowledge base, a store of historical information and lessons learned about both the outcomes of previous project selection decisions and previous project performance.” (Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2004, p. 363)

Studies use the terms cross-project learning and lessons learned to describe the process of creating and sharing project knowledge. Ideally, lessons learned are a practice of capturing information for re-use in subsequent tasks or future projects (Tan, Carrillo, Anumba, Kamara, Bouchlaghem, & Udeaja, 2006; Udeaja, Kamara, Carrillo & Anumba, 2008). It is ideal because, as Cooper, Lyneis, & Bryant (2002) assert, “we have yet to discern how to systematically extract and disseminate management lessons as we move from project to project” (p.213). A later study by Williams (2007) also notes the need for “a more systematic collection and distribution of lessons from projects” (p. 7).

Cross-project learning, by its definition, implies actions of creating, sharing, and using prior project knowledge. However, the literature on cross-project learning typically focuses on issues of creating and sharing project knowledge, and less on using lessons learned and other forms of project knowledge in subsequent projects. Studies show that although lessons learned have been created, they are barely perceived and reviewed in subsequent tasks or projects. If reviewed at all, lessons learned tend to be hard to apply (Newell, 2004; Newell et al., 2006; Williams, 2007; Von Zedwitz, 2003). Cross-project learning with a focus on using project knowledge is what defines project knowledge sharing and use. As Trevino and Anantatmula (2008) note, “engaging in this practice (lessons learned) involves performing two essential activities: capturing important lessons learned and making effective use of them” (p. 1). However, the challenges to using lessons learned have yet to be fully addressed (Besner & Hobbs, 2006; Newell, 2004; Williams, 2004).

Kotnour (2000), Komi-Sirvio and Tihinen (2002), and Udeaja et al. (2008) have identified factors in the project environment that lead to knowledge fragmentation, which is an inhibitor of knowledge re-use. Kotnour (2000) found that project management performance is positively associated with project knowledge. Udeaja et al.’s (2008) research on how to “facilitate the live capture and reuse of project knowledge” found that despite high tech developments in the knowledge management field, “there are still challenges in the management of project knowledge … because the knowledge required to deliver projects is fragmented and it is held by different professionals who are based in separate organizations” (p. 839). Komi-Sirvio and Tihinen (2002) asserts that the reasons for knowledge re-use failures revolve around informal knowledge capturing processes, the lack of integration with the organization’s processes or the lack of support by the structure of the organization. There are only a few systematic studies that go beyond identifying lessons learned and focusing on using lessons learned as a vehicle for project performance and project manager effectiveness, although the problem is acknowledged in previous studies (Marbach, 2003; Newell et al., 2006; Williams, 2007). Using lesson learned can be an aspect of the project evaluation process for performance or return on investment. Czerwinski’s (2008) study, in which 1,100 Project Management Institute members accessed the PMI research page to take the survey, indicates a strong relationship “between the firm conducting ROI evaluations throughout the various phases of the project life cycle and project success” (p.118). However, the connection between project performance or project manager effectiveness and the practices for sharing and using prior project knowledge, particularly lessons learned, in subsequent projects has yet to be fully validated quantitatively among IT project managers. Given the differing project organizational structures and practices, the project failure rate, and the need for further research in cross-project learning, the current study is an effort to understand the challenges associated with project knowledge sharing by investigating how IT project managers can improve their perceived effectiveness and performance by more efficiently sharing and using project knowledge.

Key Conclusions and Recommendations

The study used factor analysis, correlation analysis and regression analysis to reach the following conclusions and recommendations. The detailed implications of these findings are available at

First, factor analysis revealed that improving project management consists of not only infrastructural elements such as policies or processes for improving project management, but practices that generate a shared vision and that acknowledge others for sharing knowledge. This is consistent with several researchers (e.g. Anbari, Carayannis, and Voetsch (2008); Criscuolo, Salter, and Sheehan (2007), Zika-Viktorsson, Hovmark, and Nordqvist (2003), and Dingsoyr (2002). Zika-Viktorsson et al (2003) suggest considering the psychosocial aspects of project work and Cooke-Davies, et al, 2007 particularly noted the limitation of the project management maturity model due to its Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm.

Second, improving project management and proactive knowledge accessibility has significant effect on project knowledge sharing and use, which is defined as retrieving knowledge informally, having inclusive and frequent project review meetings, and engaging in the complete lessons learned lifecycle. This finding is confirmed or supported by Wenger’s (1998) concept of communities of practice and by Anbari, et al (2008), Cooke-Davies, et al (2007), Von Zedtwitz (2003), Walker and Christenson (2005). The results are also consistent with Dingsoyr (2007), Jones (2007), and Koners and Goffin (2007).

Third, improving project management is a significant predictor of project manager effectiveness and project performance. This is consistent with Thomas and Mullahy (2008), Jugdev (2003), Sidenko (2006), Dingsoyr (2002), and Besner and Hobbs (2006). Proactive knowledge accessibility was statistically significant for predicting project manager effectiveness. The results confirmed or support by Saladis and Umlass (2008) who note the value of acknowledging knowledge sharing starts; by Bergman, Jantunen, and Saksa (2004) who show the value of proactively creating knowledge through scenario planning; and by Heffner (2006) who recommends that knowledge for re-use be designed with users in mind. The study revealed 5 major other practices for improving project management: social capital, causal clarity, and several other related to how knowledge is shared. More information is available at

Implications for IT Project Managers

Correlation analysis showed us that project manager effectiveness correlates with the proactive knowledge accessibility factor, lessons learned lifecycle, causal clarity and retrieving knowledge informally. Whether it is a large or small organization, with or without a PMO, and at any level of the project management maturity model, IT project managers can become more effective by engaging in the following practices.

The study suggests that effective project management is preceded by 5 key steps:

  1. Improve project management by requesting, supporting or using resources available to improve project management: using the project management maturity models as a road map for progress, complying with project review requirements, and being active in communicating the value of project management to generate a shared vision and acknowledging others for sharing project knowledge and experiences.
  2. Engaging in proactive knowledge accessibility by expressing interest and or looking for opportunities to observe other project review meetings, either as a silent observer or an external facilitator.
  3. Retrieve knowledge informally by engaging in conversations with other project managers to share and gather information relevant to your project.
  4. Consider the complete lessons learned lifecycle by creating and sharing lessons learned for use in a particular project, which suggests a need to be aware of what is happening on other projects.
  5. Acknowledging that causal ambiguity is often part of the business problems presented to IT project managers to resolve, and that it is beneficial to gain causal clarity by having an inquisitive mindset that seeks understanding about the causal connections between the actions and results of the previous projects. As Chris Argyris (1993) states, “causal reasoning guides action” (p. 257). Causal clarity is also enhanced by generating relationships that can support your efforts to gather information and understand prior project experiences and by promoting and participating in a process for systematically exchanging information and skills between projects.

Implications for Information Technology Project Management

Results suggest the need to provide different project management improvement strategies for individual IT project manager effectiveness and for project management practices.

Since project team size also affects the practice of sharing project knowledge among the IT project managers, the results also suggests the need to consider a range of methods to support cross project learning for different project team sizes. Correlation analysis shows a relationship between improving project management and causal clarity, proactive knowledge accessibility, and lessons learned. This suggests that project organizations, with or without a PMO, can take small cost effective steps to

  1. Improve project management by supporting practices which:

    a. Increase causal clarity in their domain of work;

    b. Direct the flow of knowledge by supporting project review meetings with a range of participants or embedding lessons learned in processes to support both content and analytical development among IT project managers, and

    c. Support the creation lessons learned for use in subsequent projects.

  2. Increase project manager effectiveness by supporting practices that facilitate

    a. Retrieving knowledge informally

    b. Creating and using lessons learned had significant effect on project manager effectiveness.

  3. Increase project performance by

    a. Enabling an appropriate frequency of project reviews that are more inclusive of different perspectives

    b. By enaging in lessons learned practices


In conclusion, project knowledge sharing and use – the practice of retrieving knowledge informally, of having inclusive and frequent project review meetings, and of engaging in a complete lessons learned lifecycle—is influenced by a project environment that is committed to improving project management and proactively making project knowledge accessible.

Holding these project characteristics constant, the results show that the predicted values for the factors describing the practices for project knowledge sharing and use increase significantly when there is an increase in the use of practices for improving project management, for making knowledge accessible, and for providing resources and opportunities for gaining causal clarity. The finding suggests the need to extend the dialogue on project maturity beyond the levels of project management maturity to include policies supporting knowledge sharing, as suggested by Cooke-Davies, et al. (2007).

Several researchers noted the limitation of the project management maturity model due to its Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm (Pitagorsky, 2001; Cooke-Davies et al, 2007; Wasiyo, 2009). Pitagorsky (2001) is one of the early researchers in the field to assert that “it is helpful to take a systems-oriented or holistic view of project management. It can be viewed as a set of interacting entities and processes in which any change anywhere may affect the system as a whole. For example, project management influences organization structure, performance, relationships, and strategy. Project management, in turn, is influenced by all of these forces. Despite the widespread recognition of these relationships, people still believe project management can be implemented or improved as an isolated initiative. That is a formula for failure. Project management is a critical business process that must be fully integrated with other processes,” (p. 80). The outcome of the factor analysis, correlation analysis and regression analysis support the above statements and show that the project management performance improves when it is not a linear isolated initiative. From another perspective, as the Chinese say, “the various features of a situation “arise mutually” or imply one another as the back implies the front … and vice versa,” (Watts, 1966, p.96). By creating project contexts that not only have the structures for enabling consistent project management but which have the processes and practices for facilitating the flow of experienced knowledge, knowledge sharing is more frequent and as a result a more critical factor for improving project manager effectiveness and project performance. While the study suggests the importance of identifying specific significant factors for improving cross project learning and or project management, a holistic perspective on the precedents, practices and impact of project knowledge sharing and use is needed to remain adaptable in a fast changing world.

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© 2010, Khaitsa Wasiyo
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC