Project Management Institute

In the know

Your experienced staff possesses the
knowledge to prevent future project
foul-ups. Tapping those lessons learned
merits a closer look.

by Malcolm Wheatley

International engineering and design firm Ove Arup knows projects: Its portfolio spans from the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, to the renowned Phoenix Library, Phoenix, Ariz., USA. But even more impressive, Ove Arup can leverage every scrap of expertise possessed by its 6,000 employees in 30 countries around the world.

Lessons Learned

  • How knowledge management can boost project effectiveness
  • Where to begin when setting up a knowledge management system
  • How technology helps access hard-to-find and tacit project data.

When it comes to sharing best practices, pooling information and quickly solving problems, knowledge management enables the firm to deliver. “We've long recognized that everything we do is project-based, and that within those projects, everything we sell is knowledge-based,” says London, U.K.-based Tony Sheehan, the firm's group knowledge manager. Through a combination of searchable knowledge repositories, Web-based “communities of practice” and archived project review close-outs, Ove Arup's project managers can discover a range of secrets from managing an international project to the performance characteristics of the newest polymer composite.

Ove Arup doesn't view knowledge management as a gimmick: The firm has long dismissed management fads, Sheehan says. “When business process reengineering came along, we just ignored it, but when knowledge management arrived, we sat up and took notice,” he says. “The business case was just too compelling. We've always known our knowledge was valuable, but now we can share and apply it consistently around the world.”


When planning a knowledge management system, Andrew Anderson, knowledge management guru at Robbins-Gioia, offers four steps for success:

1. Create a strategic picture of what you're looking for knowledge management to deliver.

2. Determine the detailed knowledge gathering and sharing objectives that stem from this mission.

3. Draw a road map of how each knowledge- gathering and sharing objective delivers the overall knowledge management mission. Don't think technology offers the only or best answer.

4. Figure out the best technology for each objective.

Trouble is, most project managers don't meet Ove Arup's high standards for knowledge management. “In truth, project managers aren't doing too well with knowledge management today,” says Gina Davidovic, vice president of project solutions at Bay 3000 Consulting Inc., of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “All too often, most simply wait until the end of the project, ask a few questions about what went well and what didn't, and then archive the results.”

Not surprisingly, the resulting information is of limited value, and people place even less emphasis on gathering and storing it the next time. To break out of this vicious circle of “garbage-in, garbage-out,” project managers should begin gathering knowledge early, Davidovic says. “Undertake ‘lessons-learned’ reviews throughout the project, ideally at every deliverable,” she says. “At each stage, do an after-action review: What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? And what accounts for the difference?”

Another tip: Don't discount the value of project artifacts. “Just by virtue of doing the project, a lot of artifacts arise that are ripe for putting into a repository and reusing,” she says. “People think that knowledge management isn't about such things, but they're wrong. Risk logs, templates, work breakdown structures, issue logs all contain valuable nuggets of information that often end up in the dumpster.”

Start thinking about knowledge management, otherwise you can lose knowledge in your enthusiasm to get the job done, says Patrick Durbin, CEO and founder of project management planning company PlanView Inc. of Austin, Texas. “Know in advance the knowledge that you want to track and capture,” he says. “Then use the project office and formal change management to capture all the additional requests for information that come in during the project.”


We've long recognized that everything we do is project-based, and that within those projects, everything we sell is knowledge-based.



Undertake ‘lessons-learned’ reviews throughout the project, ideally at every deliverable. At each stage, do an after-action review: What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? And what accounts for the difference?


Thought Technology

Many project managers puzzle over how to access and sort through the tons of information they generate over the course of a project. “It's all about making available the scars that come from learning,” says Andrew Anderson, knowledge management guru and vice president of operations, state/local government, with project management company Robbins-Gioia, Alexandria, Va., USA. “We're all knowledgeable people, but how do you make that knowledge available to others, especially when it's in someone's head or in their personal files? And how do you do it before they retire, when you'll need to pay them twice as much to come back and do their old job as a consultant?”

Accessibility is a major concern for any lessons-learned system. “The toolsets that are available are still some way off being ideal,” says Paul Evans, Slough, U.K.-based program director with BancTec Inc., Dallas, Texas, USA, a manufacturer and installer of check-processing equipment and related financial services systems. “Ideally, all the data should be available to everybody who needs it, without duplication and without concerns over making information available to people who are remote.”

Instead, Evans says, valuable information is stored in a hodgepodge fashion across multiple systems and archiving forms—photographs, letters, faxes, documents—and in both paper and electronic forms. “A lot of project data resides in people's e-mail archives, in danger of being wiped or deleted,” he says.

Project managers should formally capture the information—in whatever form it exists—and hold it in a central repository where others can access it, says Herman van der Steen, principal knowledge and document management business consultant with Shell Information Technology International BV of Leidschendam, The Netherlands.

“The moment a project commences, it is formally set up within our knowledge management system,” van der Steen says. Once set up, every document raised in connection with a project—including its terms of reference and a formal lessons-learned statement drawn up at its conclusion—is archived and made available throughout Shell. A text search-and-retrieval database system enables accessibility.

But the technology provides a way of getting to the answers and must not be mistaken for the solution itself, van der Steen says. “Much more important is the information control policy that is in place within an organization.” In other words, if people aren't confident about sharing information or security policies prevent information being pooled, then knowledge management technology won't go far toward disseminating valuable lessons.

Rather than leave people to guess what the policy relating to a document is, Shell formally categorizes every document that is produced within the corporation.

Finders Keepers

Trouble is, text-retrieval on its own is something of a hit-or-miss affair. Finding exactly what you need can be harder than you think: Compare the results most of us get from an “intelligent” Internet search engine such as Google and those of an earlier generation, such as Lycos.



Explore these links to learn more about the science and technology of knowledge management, how people go about it in practice and what tools are available. Also, explore the CALL database itself to see knowledge management in action.


The next stage in knowledge management is to make inferences about what you're looking for, based on keywords that you didn't specify, but which might be relevant.


One solution is to use intelligence in much the same way Google does. Around the world, more than 575 organizations, including the U.S. Office of Homeland Security, Ericsson, Ford, Ove Arup, Deutsche Bank and Astra Zeneca, use technology from Cambridge, U.K.-based Autonomy PLC to help manage and maximize their knowledge assets. The heart of the software holds patented pattern-recognition technology, which analyzes information and identifies and ranks the main concepts. Core knowledge management processes, such as building taxonomies and linking disparate data into coherent information, then can be automated.


Although it's a big step in the right direction, improved searching and sorting technology is not the whole journey. Two barriers remain.

First, pattern recognition technology must incorporate the ability to cope with “fuzzy” questions. The knowledge management solutions of the future will help frame the question and look for parts of the answer, says Raj Patel, chief technology officer of Colorado Springs, Colo., USA-based FrontRange Solutions Inc. “The next stage in knowledge management is to make inferences about what you're looking for, based on keywords that you didn't specify, but which might be relevant.”

And if that sounds difficult, the second challenge is even harder: pulling in “tacit” knowledge from nontextual forms, including voice and video. Technology belonging to Convera Corp., Vienna, Va., USA, already can search and categorize text, video, image and audio information in 200 formats and 45 languages. Government and intelligence agencies are among Convera's 800 global customers who require its advanced knowledge management technology.

Senior Product Marketing Manager JohnHenry Gross says the U.S. military has invested big in knowledge management at the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), Fort Leavenworth, Ks., USA. In 1993, the army began constructing the CALL database, a repository of some 82 gigabytes of information, some of which is restricted, some not, says Scott Lackey, the information scientist running the database.

The repository of the military's tactics, techniques, procedures, lessons learned and research materials, he explains, is used principally by military and civilian personnel within the Department of Defense. “In the first half of 2002, we had approximately 72,000 queries made against the CALL database, and the trend is increasing,” he says.

If knowledge management has a valued place in high-stakes military projects, chances are it could pave its way pretty quickly into other places. PM

Malcolm Wheatley is a U.K.-based freelance writer who has written for CIO, Human Resources and Management Today.

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.




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