Project Management Institute

Knowledge entrainment and project management

understanding project management as knowledge integration under time pressure


Knowledge integration is critical for the performance of companies in technology-and knowledge-based industries. However, previous research has paid limited interest to its preconditions and mechanisms. In particular, we argue that the dynamic aspects of knowledge integration need to be better understood to be able to enhance understanding of two basic questions for project management research: why do projects exist and what is the role of project management? To address the dynamic aspects of knowledge integration in projects, this paper elaborates on the notion of “knowledge entrainment” as particularly significant for the study of knowledge integration involving the coordination of multiple problem-solving cycles and distributive knowledge bases. The notion of knowledge entrainment emphasizes the dynamic and evolving nature of knowledge and is especially imperative for the effectiveness of knowledge integration under time conditions, such as those found in projects, task forces, and cross-functional teams. This paper outlines an approach that builds on the observation that involved parts of a knowledge integration process tend to maintain different time orientations and, as a consequence, engage in different cycles of problem-solving and knowledge processes—a difference generally affecting the “absorptive capacity” of the parts involved in the problem-solving cycle. Three classic examples from previous empirical research in project management are re-interpreted with the help from the theoretical ideas presented in the paper.

Keywords: knowledge integration, project, project management, time, deadline, entrainment, problem solving


Much recent thought in management and organization studies has emphasized the importance of organizational integration for competitive advantage (see e.g., Iansiti, 1995). This generally leads scholars to examine the application of various integration mechanisms across functional and disciplinary units and, concomitantly, the knowledge developed from such applications for, among other things, the development of new organizational capabilities. As stressed by Bartmess and Cerny (1993) “critical capabilities involve processes which nearly always cut horizontally across the functional groups in the company” and these capabilities “depend as much on the way that individuals/organizations have learned to work with each other as they do on the particular expertise of the individuals/organizations themselves” (p. 82). This paper explores a particular kind of organizational integration—knowledge integration—and how to understand the way that individuals/organizations have learned to work with each other, specifically with regards to work in complex projects.

The arguments presented here draw on the knowledge-based theory of the firm (e.g., Grant, 1996). The paper tries to capture and explore the linkages between a few dynamic dimensions of knowledge integration. Such a feat, it is argued, would be particularly relevant to the study of knowledge integration in projects—a form and mechanism of knowledge integration that has gained popularity in recent years (Sydow et al, 2004). In the following sections, we discuss the underlying theoretical foundations of the suggested approach in order to arrive at the main idea of the paper, namely the importance of knowledge entrainment in organizations, the mechanisms of knowledge entrainment, and the implications of knowledge entrainment for theory and practice. We will illustrate the value of the notion of knowledge entrainment and try out its explanatory power by revisiting a set of classic cases of problems observed in the context of product development and project organization. We argue that the notion of knowledge entrainment might not only improve the analysis of knowledge integration, but also shed new light on some classic problems by adhering to a dynamic view of knowledge integration. By doing so, we intend to contribute to the study of organizations and particularly organizations that operate under time pressure, such as projects (Ekstedt, Lundin, Söderholm, & Wirdenius, 1999). Such an approach would particularly be relevant since projects are increasingly considered hot spots for much of today's knowledge integration across disciplinary boundaries within a wide range of industries and sectors.

The paper is structured in the following way. In the following section, we discuss knowledge integration in further detail. Thereafter follows an analysis of the underlying reasons for the observed problems in knowledge integration processes. It is argued that many of the observed problems typically relate to differences in time orientation, and that these difficulties relate to the timing of knowledge processes. As a concept to address these problems better, we discuss the notion of knowledge entrainment. A few empirical examples follow that show in what way common knowledge integration problems specifically relate to failures of knowledge entrainment. The paper ends with conclusions and ideas for future research.

Knowledge Integration

Knowledge integration could broadly be defined as the process by which several individuals combine their information and uniquely held knowledge to create new knowledge (Okhuysen & Eisenhardt, 2002, p. 383). Knowledge integration, therefore, depends on how members know and integrate their individually held knowledge. New knowledge is thus created through processes of applying multiple perspectives on the same information. This application indicates “how the value of that knowledge can be increased through alternative combinations that are created through different ways of knowing” (p. 384). Knowledge integration, however, not only occurs at an individual level, but rather at different levels through different mechanisms within and outside the firm. Representative examples of knowledge integration mechanisms comprise multifunctional product development projects (Dougerthy, 1992; Ancona & Caldwell, 1992), top management teams with members from different functional areas (Eisenhardt, 1989), and product teams working on improvements of the manufacturing process (Tyre & Orlikowski, 1994). To make these mechanisms work and to lay the ground for effective knowledge integration is a difficult assignment to master, in particular when individuals lack a common or shared body of knowledge. This is also stressed by Grant (1996) who said that the efficiency of various mechanisms for knowledge integration largely depends on the existence of “common knowledge,” i.e., “a shared body of knowledge that allows for communication between actors” (see Carlile, 2004, p. 566). Common knowledge plays a key role to connect knowledge and knowledge bases to each other in order to achieve efficient knowledge integration, which highlights the importance of so-called well connectedness of knowledge bases that together with common knowledge permit “individuals to share and integrate aspects of knowledge which are not common between them” (p. 566).

Previous research has reported on a number of obstacles for high effectiveness of knowledge integration primarily stemming from lack of common knowledge, including unfamiliarity among individuals, distinctive thought worlds, different languages, cultural differences, physical distance, and priority variations (e.g., Dougherty, 1992). In addition, the inherent characteristics of knowledge, for instance, that much of it is local and tacit, and even sticky, which overall makes it difficult to transfer and integrate (Szulanski, 1996). These observations illustrate knowledge as a process, which would lead us to direct our interest towards addressing how knowledge is acquired, the specific nature of the acquired knowledge, and, perhaps most importantly, its degree of “tacitness” and “stickiness” (Polanyi, 1966; von Hippel & Tyre, 1996). Continuing along these lines and acknowledging the aforementioned process aspects of knowledge, we must therefore address the synchronization of knowledge processes. The effectiveness of knowledge integration largely depends on the how different knowledge processes are tied together and what time orientations individuals or teams have, who integrate their individually held knowledge with other actors. Along with this, they are also required to be structurally well connected. Paraphrasing Blackler (1995), we then not only acknowledge that knowledge can be embodied, embedded, embrained, encultured, and encoded, but also that it needs to be entrained—that knowing in an organizational context is dependent upon related processes of knowing and that timing and adjustments is important to be able to integrate knowledge. The latter problem is the major focus of the present paper.

Knowledge Integration and Interdependence

Contemporary organizations, in particular those found in innovation, engineering, research, and development, struggle with (at least) two fundamental problems. One concerns modularization and the attempts to improve modularization efforts. The other concerns the limits of modularization and how to integrate across modules, which usually require organizational solutions that thrive on interdependencies. In that context, various types of project solutions (such as cross-functional projects, project coordinators, project managers, project offices) have gained popularity to resolve, and in some cases, create interdependencies and achieve knowledge integration across functional and disciplinary boundaries (Allen, 1995). Along the same lines, knowledge-based theory suggests that interdependence is a key parameter to determine how to best orchestrate organizational initiatives. If knowledge integration can be fostered using routines, rules, and directives, then presumably the merits of a project solution that resembles a group-problem solution, would be of limited value. Yet, when interdependencies increase, the need for personal integrative solutions mounts, consequently, the value is added by that same project solution. Such interdependencies are frequently associated with the breadth and depth of the knowledge that is integrated. Echoing a classic organization theory, a high degree of differentiation in situations where there are interdependencies would require high levels of integration (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967).

Besides managing scope (and breadth of knowledge, number of knowledge bases, problem-solving cycles, etc.), most projects struggle with speed requirements (Shenhar & Dvir, 2007). This is, for sure, not a trivial problem, especially if one considers that the typical project displays a uniqueness that makes it difficult to accurately plan the activities in advance (Buchanan, 1991), and hence to set out rules, routines, and plans in advance. This uniqueness might bring about complexities that are hard and in some cases almost impossible to cope with for individual decision makers. Uniqueness and interdependencies would reduce the probability that impersonal approaches to knowledge integration either would exist or, due to the uncertainties and complexities involved, would work effectively. Hence, drawing on Whittington, Pettigrew, Peck, Fenton, and Conyon (1999, p. 592), the adoption of a project solution could be seen as a tool to realize potential synergies and complementarities among the various activities and processes involved, since system-wide changes pay better than piecemeal initiatives. Therefore, to realize the potential synergies, project solutions with management capacity to integrate knowledge across knowledge boundaries become important. This leads to the implementation of a group problem-solving mode and overarching managerial capacities. Due to requirements in terms of speed and the achievement of system-wide change initiatives related to scope and interdependencies, it seems like projects as an organizational form constitute a fitting solution to this organizational problem.

Knowledge Integration and Time Conditions

Somewhat simplified, we might consider knowledge integration in two extreme situations: one freestanding, and one under time conditions. The latter would be observed in groups working with tasks under time pressure or a team of engineers working on a project, whereas the former would involve knowledge integration without such constraints, such as a permanent group of experts working on repetitive assignments. By introducing a deadline and a time condition we might also say that a project solution has been chosen. The introduction of a deadline has some important effects, for instance it affects both what could and should be done and the ways to do it. This observation is generally supported in studies within social psychology of time which states that “work contracts to fit the time available, or it expands to fill the time available” (McGrath, Kelly, Machatka,, 1984, p. 29). This insight would then have us thoroughly examine the fundamental differences between these two extreme cases. This observation also affects how we are to address the “time condition” of knowledge integration, which emphasizes the role of management in these situations as an act of adhering to time limits and deadlines. In a project solution, a team/organization (for analytical purposes, we might think of this organizational unit as a temporary unit, see Katz, 1982) is given the responsibility of carrying out the task within the limits set. The deadline itself thereby constitutes a fundamental organizational rationale and principle for project organizing, intimately tied to the speed of the activities to be carried out. The role of management could therefore be seen as an action trigger and implementer of deadlines (and time pressure) to make the project progress in a way that makes it possible to reach the overall time limit (cf. Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997). As a result, the work of management is then primarily to infuse action and implement deadlines by the use of milestones and other time-based control mechanisms.

In our interpretation, then, organizing projects is a mechanism to impose a deadline and a time condition by implementing a kind of “macro pacer” to which the different parts of a problem-solving process and the different areas of expertise must adjust. Such time conditions do not only have coordinative powers and controlling effects, but seem to contribute both to the ‘reflective capacity' of the people involved in the project (Gersick, 1989; 1995) and, generally, to the group problem-solving mode decisive for the integration of knowledge (Hutchins, 1991). As mentioned earlier, organization theory generally assumes that certain tasks require more personal and communication-intensive forms of integration. For instance, Galbraith (1973) and Perrow (1967) stressed that high-interaction, non-standardized coordination mechanisms increase with task complexity and task uncertainty. However, literature also emphasizes that redundancy is an important feature of most knowledge processes inside and across firm boundaries. This implies sharing information that goes beyond the “operational requirements” of participants. In turn, such redundancy creates opportunities for individuals to “invade one another's functional boundaries” (Grant, 1996b, p. 115). In understanding knowledge integration, we must therefore acknowledge the various integration mechanisms for the organization and facilitation of such knowledge processes, but at the same time realize that the “group-problem solving modes” and knowledge integration are tightly connected to the subject of deadlines and different kinds of time-based control mechanisms.

Project Management and Knowledge Integration

The previous sections have laid out the underlying rationales for organizing projects and show how to look upon the value of organizing activities by using a project solution. We will continue the analysis of knowledge integration by looking closer at the role and practice of project management; since this is an increasingly common form relied upon for the integration of knowledge in a wide range of sectors and industries. Earlier, we highlighted the importance of deadlines for setting the overall pace of the organizational initiatives, but we did not discuss in depth the mechanisms that project management uses to arrange for high-quality knowledge integration. This will be explained in the following sections.

The prime focus of extent research on knowledge integration in projects has been on product development contexts (Becker, Salvatore, & Zirpoli, 2003; Enberg, Lindkvist, & Tell, 2006; Huang & Newell, 2003) and transnational projects (Adenfelt & Lagerström, 2006; Lagerström & Andersson, 2003). Studies on product development have mainly looked at the role of boundary objects in facilitating knowledge transfer across professional and organizational boundaries. The study by Enberg et al. (2006) focused on a project where frequency and homogeneity are high. The authors stressed that in these contexts project work may successfully be undertaken without intense communication and interaction among project participants. Different forms of silent coordinative mechanisms and transactive memories play important roles. However, as evidenced in other studies of projects, most projects cannot rely on such simple coordinative devices, but tend to require more active and personal forms of integration, due to the uniqueness, uncertainty, and complexities involved (see e.g., Lindkvist, Söderlund, & Tell, 1998). In many projects, the problems encountered emerge, learned, identified, and solved through a complex web of interactions and integration across organizational and disciplinary boundaries. A series of researchers would say that these are everyday features of project organizing and project management, such as the constant handling of “deviations” in complex delivery projects (Hällgren, 2009), the “detection errors” and problems in large-scale development projects (Yakob, 2009), and the coping with “emerging complexity” in complex development projects (Hao, 2008). The role and practice of project management, therefore, becomes essential both for the ongoing problem solving in a specific project, and, analytically, for the understanding of how projects are organized and implemented.

Of course, existing products, boundary objects, and related mechanisms play important roles for knowledge integration. However, and argued previously, they only provide half the answer to the problem of knowledge integration. Instead of these priori mechanisms, project management would be more a matter of finding out boundary objects and knowledge integration mechanisms during the course of the project, during the act of organizing, and during the knowledge integration process as such. Such a standpoint also has quite firm support from previous research on project management. In particular, research based on in-depth studies of the practice of project management has shown that project managers spend much time organizing for combined problem-solving and organizational development during the course of the project (Söderlund, 2005). It could thus be argued that organizing projects is a dual act of arranging for problem-solving and organizational development (Söderlund et al, 2008). One might also argue that a significant part of project management entails the establishment of common knowledge, such as a common language, symbolic communication, relatedness of specialized knowledge, and shared meaning and recognition of individual knowledge domains (Grant, 1996). This argument highlights that in situations plagued by uniqueness and uncertainty, common knowledge does not always exist a priori but has to be built in a similar way as “swift trust” has to be established in projects that are carried out by people who lack previous experience from common collaboration (Meyerson, Weick, & Kramer, 1996). The mechanisms of project management would then be centered on erecting common knowledge to improve the efficiency of knowledge integration. However, despite all efforts to build and erect common knowledge, knowledge integration often requires mechanisms to integrate knowledge using rules and directives, sequencing, routines, and group problem solving, which call for a more fine-grained analysis of the process dynamics operating in projects, specifically concerning the knowledge integration process.

Projects, Process Dynamics, and Timing

Given our focus on knowledge integration and time, the process dynamics involved in knowledge integration plays an important role. This is particularly interesting in the context of projects characterized by task complexity and a high degree of uncertainty. In these cases, Lindkvist and Söderlund (2002) argued that goal clarity and empirical tests during project implementation and the orchestration of reflective learning in projects are critical. The authors emphasized the role of project management in generating insightful hypotheses and “reality tests” for stimulating knowledge integration in projects. Similarly, Lindkvist et al. (1998) drew on the work of Gersick (1995) and stressed the potential that deadlines might have to stimulate “global thinking” and “reflective conversations.” Consequently, these authors highlight time-based controls for the investigation of projects as organizational forms and the study of the practice of project management. Given these authors interest in the effects of deadlines on social interaction in association with the suggested evolutionary view on knowledge processes in projects, these studies shed light on knowledge as a dynamic phenomenon and, we posit that knowledge needs to be absorbed by others in order to become efficiently integrated. In that respect, knowledge needs to be entrained to be understood and used effectively by others involved in the project.

Relying on the definition suggested earlier that knowledge integration involves the process by which individuals, teams, etc., combine their information and uniquely held knowledge to create new knowledge, the ability to take part in knowledge integration becomes a key factor, here defined as the individual's or the sub-project's ability to value, assimilate, and apply new knowledge. This interpretation echoes the idea of absorptive capacity discussed by Cohen and Levinthal (1990). In a project context, this ability is tied to individuals’, teams’, or even functional departments' understanding of when to act, where to act, and what to do at specific occasions or stages in the problem-solving process. This would include activities concerning what to receive and what to send to the other stakeholders within the project, such as the type of interconnections typically addressed in various types of design structure matrixes (see e.g., Ulrich & Eppinger, 2003). Yet the idea of absorptive capacity as a dynamic and evolving phenomenon points out the importance of time and timing, and not only the structural properties of knowledge integration. This problem generally calls for a better understanding and improved analysis of the relationships between time, timing, and knowledge integration. Put differently, we need to sharpen the “temporal lens” we use to address knowledge integration. As has been discussed earlier, this might be particularly important and interesting to study in a context of complex projects, and cases of knowledge integration under time conditions. A temporal lens would not only have us focus on processes and practices of knowledge integration but also on how fast knowledge integration is moving, its trajectories over time, how the knowledge processes, and problem-solving cycles are aligned and play together and the historical positions knowledge integration takes on the continuum of time (Ancona et al., 2001). When these matters are acknowledged, knowledge integration is not only about design concerning task interdependencies, but also about member/team temporal orientations, about temporal misfits and the adjustments of temporal misfits (Pérez-Nordtvedt, Payne, Short, & Kedia, 2008).

The value of assuming a temporal lens on organizational activity has offered several insights. For instance, Vermeulen and Barkema (2002), in a study of internationalization processes, found that the pace and rhythm of internationalization explained the success of firms, which indicates significant “time compression diseconomies” (Dierickx & Cool, 1989) in the sense that “experience that comes too fast can overwhelm managers leading to an inability to transform experience into meaningful learning” (Eisenhardt & Martin, 2000, p. 1115). However, it is not only a matter of pace but according to Vermeulen and Barkema (2002, p. 642), rhythm plays an equally important role and that organizations that can “implement and absorb changes in an optimal, rhythmical pattern may even reach a state of ‘flow.'” As Perlow, Okhuysen, and Repenning (2002) showed, the speed trap and accelerating decision making might be a clear case of organizational processes moving too fast without the possibility to reflect on feedback information, related knowledge processes, and lessons learned. Overall, the insights from these empirical studies would have us address the temporal dimensions of knowledge integration. For sure, this is a major task and in this paper, we can only focus on a small part of this complex matter. To offer one idea on how to apply a temporal lens on knowledge integration, we below suggest and elaborate on the notion of knowledge entrainment.

Knowledge Integration Through Knowledge Entrainment

Literature and writings on project organization has paid considerable attention to timing issues, but primarily in terms of activity coordination and the identification of so-called critical paths to optimize the implementation costs of complex projects. Lately, researchers have elaborated on contingency frameworks to explain differences of project management based factors such as complexity and uncertainty (Shenhar, 2001), and in some respects in terms of pace (such as regular, competitive, time-critical, and blitz, see Shenhar & Dvir, 2007). Furthermore, the notion of “projects as temporary organizations” (Lundin & Söderholm, 1995) has led researchers to embark on a research agenda that in various ways addresses time dimensions in projects, such as the role of deadlines (Lindkvist et al., 1998) and the significance of temporary relationships (e.g. Meyerson et al., 1996). A few researchers have developed some of these ideas even further. Rämö (2002) focused upon time and timing in projects. Dahlgren and Söderlund (2001) argued that the relationship between partners in complex projects needs to be treated as a problem of pacing, i.e., that partners seem to have different time orientations that affects the coordination and communication costs project performance. So far, these attempts are scattered and give only limited attention to knowledge integration in projects.

In developing the notion of knowledge entrainment, we build on the work of Sayles and Chandler (1971) who stated that project management could be seen as an “organizational metronome” and work as a “time-keeping mechanism…designed to keep a number of diverse elements responsive to a central ‘beat' or common rhythm” (p. 207). Hence, “parts that would normally be responsive to an internal group rhythm” will respond to the same overall rhythm and beat in the project. Important here seems to be the framing of individual action in its larger context, to make people aware of the consequences of their action, and that diverse types of input force individuals and other managers need to make decisions and priorities in order to push the project forward.

A fundamental idea with the present paper is the acknowledgement of the dynamic nature of knowledge, such as what is true today is not necessarily true tomorrow and that we rely on tentative hypothesis, developing solutions, and knowledge largely by using the logic of trial-and-error (Klein & Meckling, 1958). This then also highlights the nature of knowledge in projects as being developed in a combination of “learning before doing” and “learning by doing.” The synchronization of knowledge processes is thereby put at the fore of our examination. However, although knowledge integration in projects is to some extent a matter of synchronization, knowledge integration is much more than conventional activity coordination. Instead, knowledge integration seeks to embrace time heterogeneity because of organizational differentiation, which was fundamentally one of the major points in the classic research on organizational integration by Lawrence and Lorsch (1967, p. 1). They asserted, “subsystems (sales, research, and production) in each organization were differentiated from each other in terms…member's time orientations and member's interpersonal orientations” (p. 1). Primarily, these authors focus on the open-systems dimensions of organizations, although in our approach we posit that time orientations are not only explained by external environmental factors but also by internal endogenous factors, such as the objective qualities of the task to be solved, the innate uncertainty in technology and the personality of organizational members. As for project organizing, this has some important effects in the adjustment and synchronization of tempos of work and problem solving, for example, a mechanical engineer would have a very different tempo compared to an electrical engineer, and that project management is to make these “incompatible habitual patterns” temporally aligned (Sayles & Chandler, 1971, p. 211).

The fact that we do not only talk about entrainment in the regular social sense, but recognize it as a knowledge process paves the way for a dynamic understanding of project management and knowledge integration. In many project management situations this dynamism is a very real and everyday matter that involve, for instance, making decisions about who among a select group of diligent technical experts is right on a hard-to-solve task. The problems with interdependence and knowledge entrainment typically also leads to a second problem related to interfaces between subprojects, teams, and subsystems. This generally would lead each development team to do their job on their own without being concerned, or dependent upon the problem cycles of other development teams. As research on project management and modularity has shown, interdependence can be reduced only mildly, which creates a need for cross-functional problem solving and knowledge integration. Usually the extent of interdependency is such that error detection becomes a very intricate matter (Lindkvist et al., 1998) and that correcting even simple instabilities or errors could involve a large number of complementary or corresponding readjustments (Sayles & Chandler, 1971, p. 226).

There is a close linkage between interface problems and time conditions, since speed requirements tend to increase interdependencies within an organization. In a laboratory study of 40 groups, Okhuysen and Eisenhardt (2002) concluded that groups in a “managing time condition” have significantly higher levels of knowledge integration. Gersick (1995) illustrated the important role deadlines have for collective problem solving (see also Gersick 1988). She pointed to the mid-term transition where groups halfway into the project transform their task and initiate reflection processes. Engwall and Westling (2004) studied similar processes of transition and identify the importance of the “peripety” in R&D projects, i.e., a moment of sudden change when the participants in a project come to a certain stage when shared conceptualizations lead to abrupt change and transformation in the project. These examples of empirical studies of projects generally point to the need of bringing deadlines and other time-based controls into the analysis, but perhaps equally important, how the rhythm and pace of knowledge processes are tied together within the project. Knowledge entrainment is thereby closely associated with how much knowledge a project (and its individual members) can digest.

A Knowledge Entrainment Approach to Knowledge Integration

The notion of knowledge entrainment is here suggested to address the dynamic nature of knowledge integration—a notion that might be particularly relevant in dynamic organizational contexts and problem-solving sequences such as those found in complex projects. The knowledge entrainment approach draws on literature that has explored entrainment and temporal factors in social behavior (McGrath & Rotchford, 1983; Ancona & Chong, 1996). The term entrainment in its original sense postulates that an endogenous body rhythm has been captured and modified in its periodicity and pace by an external pacer. A typical example is that of circadian rhythms that become entrained to the day/night cycle. Under normal conditions of life on earth, without the outside forces of the day/night cycle, the body rhythm would take on a very different character under so-called free-running conditions. We also know that being out of synch or not entrained with ones social environment can have quite dramatic implications for the individual's health and well-being, as well as “effectiveness of task and role performance.” Entrainment is thereby associated with a diverse set of time factors, including the perception of time, estimation of time, stress levels, and periodicity. In that respect, knowledge entrainment is meant to solve temporal misfits in processes of knowledge integration (see Pérez-Nordtvedt et al., 2008). In our conceptualization, it is aimed to make the study of project management and knowledge integration less time-free.

We make the following initial assumptions about knowledge entrainment (see also McGrath et al., 1984: (1) that much of human behavior at individual, team, project and organization, is temporal (cyclical, periodic, or rhythmic) in character; (2) that these are endogenous or naturally occurring rhythms; (3) that these rhythms become mutually entrained to one another; and (4) that they become collectively entrained to some powerful external pacer. In other words, we are asserting, “various temporary rhythms underlie all social behavior and that synchronizations among them (or the lack thereof) have widespread and crucial implications” (p.1–10) for cognition, social interaction, communication, knowledge processes, and ultimately task performance.

In an organizational context, knowledge entrainment occurs through different mechanisms operating at several different levels. A fundamental pacer is the creation and implementation of a project solution in the first place. This makes the involved individuals and subsystems within a project to be connected and required to respond to the same macro pacer. The awareness of the deadline also typically leads to the identification of interdependencies and interfaces in a free-running condition that might be left unnoticed. The evidence that people actually change behavior when having to work under the pressure of a deadline is also evidenced in studies of time conditions and their effects on knowledge integration (Okhuysen & Eisenhardt, 2002). Studies of groups in the sense that “having tight time limits…. seems to induce groups to concentrate more on task-oriented behavior and to spend less time engaged in task ‘irrelevant' interactions” (McGrath et al., 1984, p. 33). These observations imply that both “task performance patterns and social interaction patterns…are very sensitive to both internal and external time pacers and rhythms” and that people in interaction tend to “entrain one another, and their mutually-entrained patterns of task performance and interaction in turn become entrained to temporal markers and cycles” both at the micro, meso, and macro levels.

We define knowledge entrainment as the adjustment of the pace or cycle of one knowledge process or problem-solving sequence to match or synchronize with that of another in order to allow for processes by which individuals combine their information and uniquely held knowledge to create new knowledge. If two knowledge processes or problem-solving cycles are entrained, then the absorptive capacity is improved at the system-wide level because the integrated knowledge is both tried out locally and made possible to understand at the system-wide level. The approach of knowledge entrainment thus has several implications and is fundamentally a multifaceted concept, which borrows theoretical underpinnings mainly from knowledge-based theorizing and the social psychology of time. The approach of knowledge entrainment could be summarized accordingly:

  1. A deadline imposes a time condition on knowledge integration, and thereby establishes a macro pacer that participating parts need to adjust to. Management will then chiefly be a matter of responding to this macro cycle, implementing activities and readjustments to entrain to the rhythm of the macro pacer.
  2. Separated in different parts and subsystems, and focusing on different parts of the environment, while involved in problems of different nature, individuals and teams engaged in knowledge integration tend to have quite different endogenous rhythms.
  3. The execution of problem solving and the processes of mutual adjustment in a particular part of the knowledge integration process are highly reliant upon mutual adjustments in other parts of the knowledge integration process. This becomes particularly important in situations of intensive technologies and speed conditions.
  4. To handle problem solving in situations of interdependence, knowledge processes need to be adjusted and readjusted due to individual and collective learning processes, with a combination of knowledge that produces new knowledge to achieve system-wide efficiencies.
  5. Knowledge entrainment views knowledge integration as a dynamic and path-dependent phenomenon affected both by the process of knowledge acquisition as such and the situated and tacit character of knowledge. This could be formulated as “knowledge depends on how it was acquired and where it was acquired.”
  6. Managing knowledge entrainment requires decisions about trade-offs to ensure that the system-wide knowledge process operates in a heedful manner meaning that the integration of a diverse set of individually held knowledge is progressing in an effective and efficient way that builds feedback both at local and global levels.

Classic Project Management Problems: A Knowledge Entrainment Interpretation

What then are the effects of our suggested approach? What new light will be shed on knowledge integration and organizational knowledge processes by the use of the outlined knowledge entrainment approach? In this section, we will discuss more broadly the role and practice of management and problems of knowledge integration through the lens of knowledge entrainment. We make use of three well-known examples from literature on product development and project management, namely the emergence of “glitches” in product development projects (Hoopes & Postrell, 1999), “peripety” in projects, i.e. moments of sudden change (Engwall, & Westling, 2004), and the “problem of sticky information” (von Hippel, 1994). These three problems could be viewed as problems tied to knowledge integration, and particularly problems of knowledge entrainment in complex projects. We will review these empirical studies and offer an alternative interpretation based on the approach of knowledge entrainment suggested here.

Hoopes and Postrel (1999) reported on an extensive study of glitches in product development projects. Glitches are defined as costly mistakes that could have been avoided if some of the parties involved had understood things that were known by the other participants. The study documents the causes of glitches with particular emphasis on project characteristics and process features. Given the authors definition of a glitch as an unsatisfactory result on a multi-agent project that is directly caused or allowed by a lack of inter-functional or inter-specialty knowledge about problem constraints, knowledge integration is singled out as critical (p. 843). In 25% of the studied projects that involved multiple teams, major glitches were reported. In particular, the absence of shared knowledge was considered a key explanatory factor for the surfacing of glitches. In addition, the study shows that the knowledge needed to avoid the glitches “not only exists, it resides among the persons involved in the product development process itself,” which would, the authors argued, indicate that the issue is not one of organizational learning, per se, but rather of “accessing knowledge that is already available” (Hoopes & Postrel, 1999, p. 843).

Engwall and Westling (2004) developed the idea of peripety in complex projects from the study of a large-scale development project in the telecom industry. The dramaturgical metaphor of the peripety is used in the study to analyze the observed moment of sudden change in the project. This moment of sudden change leads to a complete rethinking of the project, the project process, its history, and future. The studied project had until the peripety struggled with limited progress and growing frustration among the several hundred engineers involved. However, half way into the project, the pattern changed. Suddenly, the project work went through a fundamental qualitative change. The first phase of the project was characterized by unclear and differentiated language and terminology, frustration, distress and anxiety. After the peripety, the project was associated with time pressure, confidence and a defined and shared terminology and language. Engwall and Westling argued that the project did not follow the usual prescribed, sequential development pattern, where the work moves from one predictive phase to another. The participants experienced a situation where none of the available conceptualizations comprised a satisfactory relationship between the intended outcome and the knowledge and technology available. After the peripety, a shared definition about the project content and the process forward emerged, and consequently, a productive search for answers was made possible and issues that earlier lead to conflicts could be resolved through the acquisition of more information. The team members “began to share a view of the functionality and design of the product, into which their past and current efforts in the project could fit” (Engwall & Westling, 2004, p. 1569).

von Hippel (1994) introduced the idea of sticky information in problem-solving settings. He argued that information used in technical problem solving is costly to acquire, transfer, and use in a new location. The author found that when sticky information needed by problem solvers is held at one site only, problem solving will be carried out at that locus, and when more than one locus of sticky information is called upon by problem solvers, the locus of problem solving may iterate among these sites as the problem solving proceeds. When the costs of such iterations are high, then, he argued, problems that draw upon multiple sites of sticky information will sometimes be “task partitioned” (von Hippel, 1994) into sub-problems that each draw on only one such locus, and efforts and investments will be made to reduce the stickiness of information at some locations.

How are we to interpret these three problems and what explanations seem to be missing in the interpretations suggested by the authors? The main argument here is that the observed problems could be viewed as cases of failed knowledge integration and specifically problems with knowledge entrainment—that knowledge processes were out of sync and temporally misaligned. To begin with, the problem of glitches, the authors argued that the knowledge is available; however, this standpoint does not take into account the availability or the problem-solving cycle of the person that would need the particular piece of information or knowledge. In that respect, knowledge is treated fundamentally as a commodity that might be transferred to a processor with unlimited processing capacity. Similarly, although Engwall and Westling (2004) suggested a time-oriented analysis, the authors do not explicitly address the fact that the peripety might be a sign of initial problems with knowledge entrainment and that a specific macro pacer might operate, which would affect the entire knowledge integration process observed in the project. Once this issue or sub-problem in the project has been adjusted to the macro cycle and developed to a sufficient absorptive capacity, then the project can proceed and system-wide knowledge integration can be made possible. Without this knowledge, the project fails to integrate knowledge across functional and disciplinary domains. The well-known example of sticky information provided by von Hippel (1994) failed to take into account that the problem is not merely about locations as such but equally a matter of cycles and rhythms. The solution to partition tasks is merely a device to escape the implementation of a solution that would improve knowledge entrainment, and instead opt for a solution that would not require knowledge integration although strong reasons for such efforts seem to exist.

Knowledge Entrainment at Multiple Levels

Knowledge entrainment occurs at different levels that are mutually dependent. Therefore, we need to embrace the multilevel dimensions of knowledge entrainment. At the very general level, entrainment is associated with the speed of knowledge integration and the ultimate power of the overall macro cycle, such as the deadline for the set of activities and problem-solving cycles that are part of a complex project. The power of the macro cycle would be largely determined by the alternative costs of a failure to meet the set deadline. At our second level, we integrate the diverse parts involved in the knowledge integration process. In complex projects, this would involve the development teams and the various sub-projects. This is also the level where we find the prime part of project management with its focus on milestones, integration activities, error detection, integration plans, etc. What can be done at this level to respond to the macro pacer is primarily related to the synchronization of activities, the readjustment of deliveries, the lowering of functionality, etc. These adjustments are primarily to be kept within the boundaries set by the macro pacer. The task of project management through this perspective would then be to implement an overall macro cycle and create a second-order pacer (McGrath et al., 1984) or some other form of strategic time-reckoning system (Clark, 1985) for the project.

The role of such a pacer could fundamentally be viewed as a mechanism by which the local parts of the project (sub-project, project teams, partners, etc.) are to adapt their problem-solving cycles. We then operate with a distinction of different sets of cycles or pacers: macro pacer (overall, general, organizational), meso pacer (intermediate, middle, project), micro pacer (lower level, sub-project, team), and individual pacers (personal). Each pacer is to relate to a particular type of cycle (macro, meso, micro.) and that the role of the pacer is to determine the magnitude and frequency of each cycle. In our approach, we do not say that each cycle must have the exact same speed and magnitude as that of the other, but rather that the problem-solving cycles and knowledge processes must be synchronized and linked to each other and that they need to be aligned and that dangerous misfits should be avoided. This also suggests that the organization of project is fundamentally a way to implement a macro pacer that would guide the knowledge integration process and make local knowledge entrainment possible. As a consequence, temporal misfits in knowledge integration is more or less impossible to escape from in complex projects involving technological uncertainty, and a key task for project management is to handle these temporal misfits to allow for knowledge integration in the project.

Table 1 summarizes our approach with specific reference to pacers operating at multiple levels. We focus on three levels of knowledge entrainment and three types of pacers. We outline differentiation in two ways: structural and process, since these typically have implications on the knowledge integration problem, which tend to lead to particular obstacles for knowledge integration. In addition, the table summarizes a set of integration mechanisms that are fundamental to knowledge entrainment and the key pacers at the three discussed organizational levels.

Table 1. Knowledge Entrainment at Three Organizational Levels

Organizational level Examples Structural differentiation Process differentiation Knowledge integration obstacles Integration mechanisms Pacer
Macro Integrated projects, large-scale transformation projects Organizational differentiation, departmentalization, divisions, departments Diverse macro cycles, technology and market development Ashby's law: adapt to environment, perception of different environments Common deadline, guided vision, top management team, steering committees Final deadline
Meso Project process, development process Work breakdown structures, sub-projects Local problem, local priorities Problem-solving changes, unrelated team knowledge bases Project management, rules, routines, meetings, milestones Milestones/ Deadlines
Micro Team process, sub-projects Individual skills, knowledge heterogeneity Work process, problem-solving sequence Individual differences, lack of ‘common knowledge’ Milestones, meetings, co-location, war rooms, team leaders Milestones, checkpoints


In this paper, we developed an approach to the study of knowledge integration that took time conditions into account. This approach is particularly relevant for the study of projects and project management. We argued that previous research has paid limited attention to two important aspects of time conditions in the context of knowledge integration: (1) the role of time when it comes to deadlines and other time-related control mechanisms significant in the practice of many knowledge integration processes, such as projects, and (2) the role of time and timing during the process of the knowledge integration and the course of the project. Thereby we explicate two aspects that are critical for many knowledge integration situations, namely (1) that knowledge integration is affected by time conditions (Okhuysen & Eisenhardt (2002), and (2) that knowledge and absorptive capacity are a dynamic phenomena. The latter aspect was considered particularly central to be able to better our understanding of knowledge integration in the context of complex projects and other management situations where interdependencies and time conditions are critical.

This paper focused on a particular kind of knowledge integration problematic, namely that of complex projects. Knowledge entrainment in these situations resembles ‘heedful action’ (Weick & Roberts, 1993), i.e., action that considers the action of others, the system-wide coordination of other sub-projects and other project workers, and the efficient use of time, that is action which is knowledgeable, synchronized and temporally aligned. The knowledge entrainment approach elaborated here addresses the role of project management in integrating the various knowledge processes and problem-solving cycles, and thus the need for skillful combinations and entrainment of these processes and cycles. By highlighting these matters, we may conceive projects as an organizational form adopted for the facilitation of knowledge integration during time constraints, for stimulating reflection to improve problem-solving capacities, and trigger cooperative behavior among project participants.


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