Models of learning and knowledge sharing in project-based organisations
Director, IT Management Development Program, University of Technology, Sydney
A knowledge management dimension to, and perspective upon, project management has become increasingly prevalent in the project management literature in recent years. Increasingly, it has been recognised that projects, comprising “…teams of individuals from diverse organisations with different specialist knowledge … [working] together under time and budget constraints to produce a new product, process or service” (Reich, 2007), involve significant knowledge processing and are “rich with significant personal learning opportunities” (Sense, 2003). Sense (2003) presents a conception of project teams as “learning generators” where the members of different communities of practice interact to achieve a common objective. It is reasoned that team members, individually and collectively, must learn new knowledge, create new shared understandings, and transfer their knowledge to others “at the right times and for the right cost” (Reich, 2007). It follows that learning and knowledge management concepts are highly relevant to project, and therefore organisational, success and this line of reasoning is supported by much empirical research (see for example, cited in Reich, 2007, Faraj & Sproull, 2000 – 69 software development projects; Yoo & Kanawattanachai, 2001 – 38 virtual project teams; and Tiwana, Bharadwaj & Sambamurthy, 2003 – 133 projects).
However, we see two significant issues with this literature. First, it can be highly conceptual and abstract, which may make it difficult for project management professionals, who are generally very practice-oriented and non-theoretical, to access and benefit from. The importance and value of concepts such as “epistemology,” “socially constructed reality,” “negotiated meaning,” and the like may be difficult to grasp for those tasked with planning, monitoring, and controlling the creation of deliverables using schedules, budgets and risk logs. This is reflected in a recent study where “[i]nterviews with project managers identified a lack of common understanding about the meaning of knowledge management within a project context” (Reich, 2007, p. 8). Second, this literature focuses predominantly upon the role of project management professionals and neglects the role of organisational leaders. Consequently, it does not provide guidance to leaders about how they can facilitate knowledge management in project-based organisations, nor does it guide project management professionals in how they need to influence organisational leaders.
We will endeavour to address these issues by surveying some of the important knowledge management concepts relevant to project-based organisations, explaining them in a deliberately practice-oriented manner with reference to examples from project-based organisations. In particular, this discussion includes:
- A review of key ideas such as positivist and constructivist epistemologies, explicit and tacit knowledge, cognitive and situated approaches to learning, communities of practice, and social capital
- An exploration of applied problems including barriers to learning within projects, sharing knowledge between projects, the relationship between project and organisational learning, and the locus of responsibility for managing learning and knowledge in project-based organisations.
Key Knowledge Management Concepts in Project Management
Positivist and Constructivist Epistemologies
What is Epistemology?
Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is concerned about issues having to do with the nature, creation, dissemination, and limits of knowledge. Epistemological assumptions and beliefs (worldviews) strongly influence approaches to personal and organisational learning and knowledge management. Of particular interest in this respect are positivist and constructivist epistemologies.
Positivism assumes that knowledge exists in the real world just like everyday objects such as houses and cars; knowledge is “out there,” residing in books, independent of thinking beings. This knowledge is a reflection of a correspondence to reality. Knowledge represents a real world that is thought of as existing, separate and independent from acts of knowing and “knowers,” and knowledge should be considered as true only if it correctly reflects the independent world. Jackson and Klobas (2007) assert that such epistemological assumptions pervade the project management profession and particularly information systems development.
Over the last century, however, philosophers, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and knowledge management researchers have influenced our thinking to appreciate that knowledge is not absolute, but relative to cultures and contexts (Jackson & Klobas, 2007). A constructivist epistemology (or world view) sees knowledge as something that is constructed by people rather than as something that has some objective reality; knowledge and reality do not have an objective or absolute value or, at the least, we have no way of knowing this reality, as the only tools available to a “knower” are the senses. It is only through seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting that individuals build (or construct) a picture of the world. Words therefore are not containers whose meanings are intrinsic; rather they are based on the constructions of individuals; and rather than thinking of truth in terms of having a “correspondence to reality” constructivism focuses upon viability—concepts, models, and theories are viable if they prove adequate in the contexts in which they were created. Belline and Conico (2007, p. 2) state that “the social-construction approach moves from the idea that knowledge is an object that can be managed and transferred since …[it] is not the representation of an objective reality, but …an interpretation (therefore a construction) of it.” Meaning in an organisational context is said to be constructed “through joint endeavour,” and thus the “creation, diffusion and application of knowledge is situated and thus heavily influenced by the context of practice.”
To illustrate this, a systems development project can be seen as a process of social construction by the project team: “the knowledge embodied in information systems emerges as we proceed in the analysis and design of a business system … It is the emergence and articulation of multiple, indeterminate, sometimes unconscious, sometimes ineffable realities and the negotiated achievement of a consensus of a new, agreed reality in an explicit form, such as a new business or data model, which is amenable to computerisation” (Jackson & Klobas, 2007). However, most contemporary design methodologies use the language of engineering, a discipline that “builds lasting structures of steel and concrete from pre-existing elements,” which may explain the high rate of failure in such projects.
Cognitive and Situated Learning Approaches
Cognitive Learning Approaches
The predominant approach to learning, underpinned by a positivist epistemology, focuses upon the cognitive dimensions of learning—i.e., the internal processes of the mind. This focus “includes those fabled items of mental models (Senge, 1990), single and double-loop learning and Model I and Model 2 type people (Argyris & Schon, 1978), and experiential-learning cycles (Kolb, 1984; Lewin, 1951)” (Sense, 2003). The emphasis of this approach is upon the psychological dimension of learning and it assumes that knowledge can be transferred between people independently of any particular social context, experience or practice. Learners are encouraged to view objects, events and phenomena with an “objective” mind. The meaning that is produced through thought processes is external and determined by the structure of the real world.
Situated Learning Approaches
On the other hand, informed by a constructivist epistemology, a focus on “the situated aspects of learning is concerned with the practical and social aspects of learning, assuming that most learning occurs on the job in culturally embedded ways within a community of practice … Situated learning evolves from the participation of people and the negotiated construction of their identities and common meanings within this community of practice” (Sense, 2003, p. 6). Learners are encouraged to make sense of what is taught by trying to fit it with their previous experience.
Belline and Conico (2007, p. 2) state that the “creation, diffusion and application of knowledge is situated and thus heavily influenced by the context of practice … the concept of doing is not only the element that characterises knowledge, but it becomes the way through which knowledge is manifested, converted and transferred.” Similarly, Jackson and Klobas (2007) state that “knowledge (i.e., the process of learning) is not the discovery and inscription of predetermined facts, but is a process of continual sense-making, in which people build, communicate, verify and commit to mutually agreed views of the world. This process is essentially social not cognitive.”
Jackson and Klobas (2007) review some of the important processes that have been discussed in relation to situated learning, including:
- Internalisation—The absorption of knowledge by a recipient
- Personal knowledge creation—Including habituation (the development of knowledge into useful routines through repetition of tasks) or transformation (radically changing subjective reality and creating new ideas)
- Externalisation—The expression of knowledge in symbolic form such as speech, artefacts or gestures into the physical world such that others can perceive and internalise it
- Objectivation—The creation of shared social constructs that represent the group's rather than the individual's understanding of the world, stored in physical symbols such as language, behaviour, or artifacts
- Legitimation—The process whereby knowledge is authorised and meanings are validated and accepted as “correct” or “standard”
- Reification—The process in which concepts harden in the minds of the group and attain an existence, apparently independent of human beings
Communities of Practice
What is a Community of Practice?
Communities of practice have been defined as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger et al., 2002, pp. 4-5). Three interacting elements define a community of practice—a domain of knowledge, a community of people who care about this domain and the shared practice that they develop over time to be effective in their domain (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 27). A domain sets the common ground and creates a sense of common identity for all community of practice participants. A community consists of a group of people who interact, build relationships, learn together, and in the process develop competence, a sense of belonging and mutual commitment and accountability. A practice embodies the history of the community and the knowledge it has developed over time, including historical or social resources and frameworks, ideas, tools, information, styles, language, stories, routines, and documents that the community develops, shares and maintains. Thus, a community of practice represents a shared knowledge and a shared discourse that reflects a particular perspective on the world (Sense, 2003).
The lifecycle of a community of practice reflects a collectively negotiated process because it is based on joint learning, and members of a community of practice are a living repository for the knowledge of the community. The project management community is a good example of this. The domain is the field of project management, the community consists of project management practitioners, researchers and others, and the practice is represented by the project management body of knowledge. This community is mature, publishing practice standards and guides, establishing accreditation and formal education, conducting conferences, and establishing local chapters and special interest groups.
Project Teams and Communities of Practice
The PMBOK® Guide defines a project as “[a] temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product or service.” Projects are non-routine processes and are ad hoc in nature. This combination of temporality, uniqueness (or specificity around predefined tasks and objectives) and non-routine processes contrasts a project team with a community of practice, where the emphasis is upon an ongoing domain and a shared practice. Additionally, the identities of project team members are forged externally to the project team. Garrety et al. (2004, p. 352) note that “projects are more clearly instrumental than communities of practice.”
On the other hand, although a project team is a very different creature to a community of practice, it is usually the case that project teams develop a common perspective on the world and negotiate shared meanings over time. It also follows that some of the social processes that lead to new knowledge in communities of practice are bound to exist in project teams, but will rarely if ever have the time dimension required to develop into a practice. This has lead Sense (2003) to posit that project teams should be considered as a type of “embryonic community of practice.”
Social and Morale Capital
The processes of learning and knowing depend heavily upon the availability of intangible forms of capital that are generated and leveraged “in community”—in particular, social and morale capital (Dovey & Fenech, 2007). Social capital is a form of capital that is collectively owned by members of a “network” characterized by strong relationship bonds and multiplex connections to other “networks,” and involves resources such as trust and voluntary cooperation between all those who hold a stake in the mission of the organization (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998). Morale capital refers to resources such as passionate identification with, and commitment to, the purpose of the organization (Dovey & Singhota, 2005). These forms of capital consist of social resources that are constructed and leveraged through network relationships and without which the network would not be able to function at an optimal level. Learning and knowing requires the existence of such social capital resources because they are developed and leveraged through specific kinds of relationships (Leonard-Barton, 1995; Choo, 1998; Wenger, 1999; Lave & Wenger, 1991). The unique aspect of these forms of capital is that they are not depleted but re-generated through their exploitation (Dovey & Fenech, 2007).
The most critical of these social capital resources is trust, as it underpins the capacity to leverage many of the other resources potentially available to a network either through its members or through its partner networks (connections) (Dovey & Fenech, 2007). Once trust—and the social norms of reciprocity and voluntary cooperation that go with it—is established, network members have access to vital human or social capital (knowledge and other resources that are embodied in individual members) and morale capital (resources such as passion, commitment, motivation, courage and resilience that are rooted in, what Nahapiet and Ghoshal  call, “identity resources”). Trust underpins stakeholder collaboration—an activity that is singled out in the literature as the most important means of learning and knowledge construction in organizations (Wenger, 1999; Dougherty, 1999; Choo, 1998; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Lave and Wenger, 1991). It is vital to the processes of converting creative ideas into new innovative products, services and business practices. Without trust, irrespective of the availability of other important resources, little of collective value is likely to be achieved.
However, while trust is such an important resource in a knowledge economy, it is for many reasons rarely available in abundance in organizations (Putnam, 1993; 1995).
Applied Knowledge Management Problems in Project Management
Barriers to Learning within Projects
As observed earlier projects have been described as learning generators and are widely seen as the powerhouse of learning within organisations. However, the very characteristics that underpin this learning potential also create barriers to harnessing it. As Garrety et al. (2004, p. 353) state: “The problem for project managers is to overcome barriers to communication created by the existence of groups with quite different skills, languages, expectations and assumptions,” and they are under time and budget constraints to do so.
One of the key processes by which project teams integrate their divergent knowledge is through a process of “brokering.” Garrety (2004, pp. 353-357) describes the process of “brokering” as “the use of multi-membership to transfer some element of one practice to another … it involves processes of translation, coordination, and alignment between perspectives. It requires enough legitimacy to influence the development of a practice, mobilise attention and address conflicting interests.” Such integration of knowledge between different communities requires a great deal of work in creating and maintaining social relationships. Projects need persons to act as brokers, transferring and translating knowledge and aligning and productively organising different interests and perspectives as projects move through phases of differentiation and integration.
Knowledge Sharing between Projects and from Project to Organisation
Ayas and Zeniuk (2007, p. 61) ask the question: “Can projects enable or facilitate the creation and diffusion of knowledge and innovative practices beyond individuals, specific teams or projects?” Schindler and Eppler (2003, p. 219) have recently reported that while “projects are especially suited to learning … our research with various project teams (in product development, controlling, consulting, and financial services) over the course of three years shows that knowledge and experiences gathered in different projects are not being systematically integrated into the organisational knowledge base.” Similarly, Scarborough et al. (2004, p. 492) state that “despite increasingly systematic efforts to capture learning from projects and make it available to other parts of the organisation, the evidence to date suggests limited success for such initiatives (Chaston, 1998; Sahlin-Andersson, 2002) suggesting a sharp contrast between the abundant generation of learning within projects and the more limited prospects for the diffusion of such learning across the wider organisational context (Ayas & Zeniuk, 2001).”
Challenges stem from the relatively self contained, idiosyncratic and finite nature of project tasks—inevitable discontinuities occur in the flow of resources (especially personnel and information) from one project to the next (Bresnen et al., 2003). Kasvri et al. (2003) observe that “… projects are temporally limited, and the people involved and the lessons learned are dispersed when the project ends. Often people change even during a project.”
Bresnen et al. (2003) argue that in addition to the problem of the fragmentation of knowledge, the ability to develop shared meaning and understandings is also undermined in a project setting. Groups are temporally, spatially, and culturally differentiated in ways that militate against the diffusion of knowledge via the development of well-established communities of practice. The immediacy of project objectives and the finite lifespan of project activity may act as a focus for innovative activity, but they also militate against the emergence of networks of actors who are able to construct a community based upon shared understandings. Attempts to develop informal networks for the spread of knowledge and learning inevitably cut across strong institutional, professional, and contractual boundaries and demarcations.
Scarborough et al. (2002, p. 492) describe how the “absorptive capacity” of an organisation—i.e., the ability to recognise the value of new information, assimilate it and then apply it to commercial ends—is determined in large measure by the prior distribution of knowledge and the extent to which there is a shared common stock of knowledge, both technical and organisational.
A particularly interesting idea in this context is the concept that in a multi-project environment, which characterises most organisations where change and innovation are imperative (Fenech & Dovey, 2005), a community may develop around the “practice” of serial and ongoing participation in tightly knit project teams. The domain in this case is the “multi-project environment,” in which “most of the work of businesses is organized as projects, formalised project management is the predominant business process for managing change, and multiple projects are executed simultaneously” (Fenech & Dovey, 2005). The community comprises those people who work and thrive in this dynamic business context, regardless of their disciplinary background, including project managers, business analysts, solutions architects, test managers, deployment managers, and so on. The shared practice involves that combination of skills and knowledge required to collaboratively solve problems and autonomously make decisions framed by agreed objectives by diverse participants, under time and budgetary constraints. On this last point, Gee et al. (1996, p. 58) state that “in the new capitalism it is not really important what individuals know on their own, but rather what they can do with others in a collaborative way to effectively add ‘value’ to the enterprise.”
There is some support for such a conception in the literature. For example, Sense (2003, p. 8) states that “a project-based or matrix organisation may have people constantly moving between and interacting frequently on different projects, and a focus on learning across all those projects may constitute a type of mobile COP” (2003, p. 8). Through this Sense posits the “development of a mobile practice that can constitute learning between projects” (2003, p. 9). Similarly, Ayes and Zeniuk (2007, p. 71-72) note that:
It is not only the nature of single projects that supports learning but also the web of relationships that are created in organisations that manage by projects … Project-based organisations may grow into constellations of interrelated communities of practice, offering a web of mutual support for cultivating reflective practices. When projects share members, they are bound together and become embedded in the same social network (Grantovetter, 1973). The recursive interaction among projects creates social networks of mutual assistance.
Such a mechanism would need to be supported by appropriate organisational structures and power management practices. Project portfolio management offers some promise in this respect, providing the basis of an organisational configuration, and formal and informal practices, in which such project knowledge can become embedded. As well as that it provides a structure of legitimacy that promises to limit inappropriate management intrusions and power management practices by providing project teams with autonomy through formal project selection and the approval of charters and budgets. Consequently, this may assist to facilitate the development of social capital resources such as trust that are sensitive to power management practices.
Responsibility for Knowledge Management in Project-Based Organisations
Project Managers' Responsibilities
Reich (2007, p. 13) expresses the view that it is the responsibility of project managers “to establish a climate of trust, where it is safe to make mistakes (Grant, 2006), where sharing knowledge is the norm and helping others is promoted (Adenfelt & Lagerström, 2006). This nurturing and safe climate is essential for implementing even simple activities such as collecting accurate and meaningful lessons learned.” Project managers can implement five practices to build a climate for learning:
- Engage the team when building the risk register
- Communicate that mistakes are a natural part of the team's growth and understanding
- Reward behaviour that supports a learning climate
- Practice using desired team behaviours on minor issues
- Speak the truth.
Similarly, Jackon, and Klobas (2007) state that “if knowledge is socially constructed then managers of projects need to attend to the elements of an environment which influence the construction of the knowledge required to get things done in projects.”
Leaders' and Owners' Responsibilities
However, while there is no doubt that project managers have an important role to play, particularly with respect to learning within projects, there are obvious limits to their power. There is little that a project manager can do to address organisational factors that inhibit both project learning and organisational learning from projects. Cultural and political factors often lead to inappropriate power management practices that can destroy the nascent culture of trust established by a project manager within (or through) some project initiative, which makes it essential that organisational leaders not only support the efforts of project managers but drive the transformation and structural change necessary to ensure the success of learning and knowledge management initiatives (see Dovey & Fenech, 2007). Eskerod and Skriver (2007, p. 118) note that their findings from a detailed case study “suggests that to promote knowledge transfer, top management must focus on basic assumptions embedded in the organisational culture at hand and not solely on direct knowledge transfer between project managers.”
Dovey and Fenech (2007) argue for leaders to develop “a new form of enterprise logic—one characterized by emergent structures, shared ownership, and broadly distributed ‘non-authoritarian’ power bases—through which the creativity and learning capabilities of all staff can be built and leveraged.” The key implication of their findings is the need to broaden the concept of leadership in organisations to incorporate the role of “structural architect.” They go on to argue that:
With suitable frames of reference regarding the relationship between structure and mission accomplishment, leaders need to explore the range of organizational forms that are emerging as appropriate alternatives to the functional hierarchy. Such forms include cellular (Miles et al., 1997); federal (Handy, 1994); hypertext (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995); communities of practice (Wenger, 1999) and network (Lipnack et al., 1994) structures (Fenech & Dovey, 2007, p. 587).
This argument is supported by a case study at Fokker Aircraft described by Ayus and Zeniuk (2007, pp. 68-70) in which project learning was facilitated by the implementation of a project network structure—“an organic network of self managing teams … a dynamic approach to [organisational] design derived from the principles of organisational learning … constituted by teams within teams”—and changes to reward systems. Their findings support the need for organisational leaders to establish conditions of “psychological safety” and a “learning infrastructure.”
In this paper we have attempted to provide project managers with the benefit of practical access to concepts from knowledge management literature in order to assist their practice as project managers. For example, Garrety et al. (2004, p. 351) state that “[a] communities of practice perspective can help project managers to maximise the fruitfulness of the relationships that are crucial to knowledge exchange in complex projects … [drawing] attention to the social processes that produce differentiation, as well as the processes that facilitate productive integration … [and recognising that while] it is important to specify and pursue technical goals, complex projects are also social enterprises.” It is hoped that this assistance extends to helping project managers to influence organisational leaders more effectively. We have also sought to highlight some of the areas where organisational leaders need to drive transformation in order to support learning cultures within their organisations. It is not all up to project managers.
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©2008 Bryan J. Fenech, Ken Dovey
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress – 2008 Sydney, Australia