Knowledge management meets project management

Introduction

Projects are collective, purposeful activities based upon the development of common understandings. They generate the personal and group knowledge that contribute to their own success. Organizations around the world are focusing on improving the success rate of projects to sustain competitive advantage. At the same time, they are facing several challenges like baby-boomer retirement, distributed/global workforce, increased complexity, and volatility. Organizations are looking for ways to effectively retain and apply knowledge to succeed. Understanding the diverse and disparate nature of human knowledge is key in order to effectively utilize human knowledge to support organizations in achieving objectives. For many organizations, its knowledge is the most important asset and its continued survival depends on the organization’s ability to effectively utilize existing knowledge and create and effectively employ new knowledge (Pascoe & More, 2005). Private sector organizations have been using knowledge management programs to good effect since the late 90s. There has been increased interest toward knowledge management from public sector organizations as well. It requires a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes. The organizations are turning to knowledge management to provide the required support to backend (Sprague, 2008). This paper provides a brief overview of knowledge management and discusses the challenges faced by projects. It highlights the use of a few popular knowledge management tools.

Knowledge Management—Introduction

Overview

Knowledge management is defined as doing what is needed to get the most out of knowledge resources (Becerra-Fernandez, I., Gonzalez, A, & Saverwa, R. 2004). An enterprise’s most vital resource is the collective knowledge of employees, customers, and vendors. Organizations are valued for intellectual capital. Knowledge management is a holistic approach to using expertise effectively for competitive advantage (Boeing Frontiers, 2007).

Knowledge is information that changes something or somebody—either by becoming grounds for actions, or by making an individual (or an institution) capable of different or more effective action (Drucker, 2003).

What Is Knowledge?

Many consider data or information as knowledge. As the topic is around human knowledge, it’s better to provide clarification. Knowledge is quite distinct from data and information although the three terms (data, information, and knowledge) are used interchangeably.

  • Data is bits of information without any specific context
  • Information is organized data that can be communicated; Information consists of data
  • Knowledge is information that can be processed by a knowledge worker to make appropriate decisions.
  • A collection of data is not information and a collection of information is not knowledge

Let me illustrate it with an example from the stock market. Financial websites pull data pertaining to any given company on demand. For example, Last Trade, Change from previous day, Day’s Range, 52wk range, volume, etc. Without the context, it is just data. However, if you apply the context of stock trades, it becomes information. If someone can understand the information presented, examine the details, and determine the reason for stock’s movement in either direction, it demonstrates the exhibition of knowledge.

Types of Knowledge

Different types of knowledge must be managed differently.

Declarative knowledge—know what—focuses on the beliefs about relationships among variables. Procedural knowledge—know how—focuses on the beliefs relating sequences of steps or actions to desired outcomes (Becerra, 2004).

Let me give an example of know how and know what from my voluntary position with PMI’s specific interest group. I represent a not-for-profit project management special interest group or component. The parent organization maintains membership profiles and the components are provided access to the directory. The volunteer leader responsible for membership development needs to know what information is maintained and where. I would consider this know what.

In order to get the details, the volunteer needs to login to parent organization site, navigate to membership directory, download the required data, convert to appropriate format, and send newsletter. I consider the series of instructions as know how. The challenge with volunteer supported organizations is that know-how will mostly be tacit. As part of succession planning, we document the steps to enable easier transfer of duties.

Now, let us look at two important types of knowledge.

Tacit knowledge—

This is the most difficult to express and share. This is the knowledge that resides inside the human being and constitutes the “how and why” of something, rather than the “what.” It comprises of personal and individual experiences. Tacit knowledge represents the most valuable and significant amount of knowledge in any organization. It’s hard to manage. This knowledge is the key focus of any knowledge management initiative.

Explicit knowledge—
Expressed into words and numbers and can be shared with others easily. Knowledge that is documented in some manner, either formally or informally, and that can be accessed external to the individual who generated or possesses it.

Other types of knowledge

  • General knowledge—Possessed by many and can be easily transferred across individuals
  • Specific knowledge—Possessed by a very limited number of individuals and expensive to transfer
  • Simple knowledge—Focus on a basic area
  • Complex knowledge—Multiple areas of expertise

Knowledge Management Drivers

Government and private sector organizations are required to be responsive to the needs of the citizens and customers. These organizations rely on successful completion of projects. Becerra, Gonzalez, and Sabherwal (2004) identified the following key drivers to knowledge management.

Increasing Domain Complexity

The domain complexity has increased tremendously. The business processes have become complex to cater to the needs of the people.

Accelerating Market Volatility

The pace of change, or volatility, within each market domain has increased rapidly. This is not only true for private organizations. Additionally, governmental organizations also have to react to global economic and political changes that may occur, such as a change of incumbents, or a change of policy due to political realities. The realities of governmental organizations make them more vulnerable to the volatility of the current political milieu than most businesses.

Intensified Speed of Responsiveness

The citizens are expecting governments to provide timely information. Improved technologies have resulted in increased expectations across the spectrum of modern life, and governmental organizations are not exempt. Constituents expect more information, more quickly, and more conveniently…and, of course, it should be accurate as well. As the governmental organization is frequently the only supplier of the needed service or information, and it is their mandate to serve the public, they find themselves in the position of having to satisfy ever-mounting demands with fewer funds, due to budgetary constraints.

Diminishing Individual Experience

High employee turnover rates have resulted in people with decision-making authority having less tenure within the organizations. People with less experience in the organization may not have the background or experience to make sound decisions. A lack of expertise may also be the unintended result of layoffs or downsizing. The massive wave of retirement of the Baby Boomers has also begun, taking their expertise with them.

Multiple Locations of Knowledge

There is another dimension that adds complexity; knowledge may reside in various different locations or reservoirs. These are sometimes referred to as “silos.” Silos include people, artifacts, organizational entities, etc. A considerable amount of knowledge is stored in individuals (Becerra-Fernandez, I. et al., 2004).

The data volumes are reaching epidemic levels. Knowledge workers need to be able to understand the information to make better decisions. Due to the sheer volume and inherent lack of quality, information is not able to provide the required support (Schwartz, 2008). This is the main reason that organizations are willing to invest money and resources to implement knowledge management programs.

The organizations are producing information in multiple media or content types such as word documents, spreadsheets, PDF files, audio podcasts, and presentations, among others. The storage of the variety of media is frequently not easily accommodated in a traditional hardcopy paper-based filing system.

Baby Boomer Retirement

Baby Boomers account for 45% of the workforce and they are nearing retirement (Kaye, 2002). They possess massive amount of critical knowledge, which may become inaccessible or effectively lost when they retire. Increased Baby Boomer retirement and a smaller number of the Gen-Y population are considered to be two key reasons for the talent crisis facing organizations (Athey R, 2007).

  • Every day, 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 55-years old.
  • One experienced hire will enter the workforce for every two that will leave.
  • Current graduates will experience between 11 and 13 jobs/positions during their lifetime.
  • Sixty percent of the new jobs in the 21st century require skills that are only possessed by 20% of the current workforce.

Economic conditions have also given flexibility to employees to change jobs. When an employee leaves, he or she also reduces the organization’s collective knowledge. In the current scenario, connecting people to people, people to purpose, and people to resources is very important. It is estimated that about 80% of what the company knows is in its employees (Boeing Frontiers, 2007).

Tacit Knowledge Challenge

Most of the human knowledge is tacit in nature. Although the creation and exploitation of tacit knowledge is desirable from a commercial viewpoint, it does have a major drawback in that it is difficult to transfer within an organization. There are many reasons for this. Mick Cope (2000) identified the following as the main reasons in his book, “The 7 C’s of Consulting.

  • Context dependent: The musician who is only able to shine with a certain group of other musicians.
  • Difficult to articulate: The chef unable to describe what makes the difference between a good and a great meal.
  • Hard to facilitate collaboration: Because tacit knowledge is often thought of in terms of personal metaphors and symbols, a metaphor shared between two people might have a totally different connotation to each.
  • Requires presence: Although it is possible for a skilled pilot in a control tower to talk down a novice in a plane, it is very difficult. Some skills and knowledge are not readily transferred without immediate and close visual contact.
  • Emotional barriers: Tacit knowledge has a deep personal meaning. For an expert to share knowledge they have spent years gathering means the recipient must be trusted not to abuse the learning.
  • Complex: Knowledge is not always readily identifiable in a distinct form. It is like a potpourri, a mix of different sets of knowledge, experiences, and feelings.

Although these factors can make it difficult to transfer, tacit knowledge is the fountain of wisdom. A large element of knowledge innovation will originate from a tacit level and it grows in value as it is transferred from tacit to explicit level and from person to person.

Global Nature of Organizations

The world has become flat and the customer base is growing outside the boundaries of the parent organization. The Internet and Information Age has contributed immensely to this phenomenon. So, it has become very common that many organizations are competing on a global scale. The organizations work with suppliers and vendors around the globe to satisfy the global customer demands and expectations. This has resulted in knowledge that is dispersed.

Distributed Workforce

The workforce is distributed around the globe and has magnified the challenge of knowledge sharing to a greater extent. In distributed development, sub-teams work from several locations. Examples include outsourcing situations in which an external team builds part of your system and sub-teams within the same organization work together. In dispersed software development, however, a development team is uniformly located in several locations. Examples include individual developers working from home and individuals working in different physical areas within the same company, situated anywhere in the world (Ambler, S., 2002).

Multi-cultural Workforce

Working in a global team usually means understanding cross-cultural issues. The desire to share knowledge and motivation factors is different across cultures. Effectiveness of knowledge management is 80% due to human and organizational culture. The world, comprising several different cultures and knowledge sharing, varies greatly between different cultures. The cultural challenges faced by managers have been very well researched.

Knowledge Management Solutions

Irma Becerra-Fernandez (2004) provides a good description of the knowledge management solution in her book Knowledge Management: Challenges, solutions and technologies. Knowledge Management Solutions comprises of knowledge management processes supported by knowledge management systems utilizing knowledge management mechanisms and technologies using the underlying knowledge management infrastructures.

Knowledge management processes help in discovering, capturing, sharing, and applying knowledge. They are supported by seven sub-processes. Knowledge management systems support the knowledge management processes. Knowledge management mechanisms and technologies are used in knowledge management systems and rely on knowledge management infrastructure. The following table describes the various sub-processes. All the sub-processes are essential and the organization has to be careful in selecting the appropriate processes.

Knowledge Management Processes and Sub-Processes

Exhibit 1: Knowledge Management Processes and Sub-Processes

Knowledge Management—Some Popular Tools

The knowledge management community has been employing various tools and techniques. Some of the tools that would be of great value to project management professionals is listed next.

Community of Practice (CoP)

CoPs are groups of people who come together to share and to learn from one another both face to face and virtually. They are held together by a common purpose. They contribute to a body of knowledge and are driven by a desire and need to share problems, experiences, insights, templates, tools, and best practices. CoPs help members deepen their knowledge and understanding by interacting on an ongoing basis. In the case of the World Bank, it creates communities to respond faster to client needs, brings new services, and tests new ideas (Hubert, 2002).

The concept of CoP was developed by Lave and Wenger in 1991 (Hara, 2007). CoPs are informal networks that support professional practitioners in developing a shared meaning and engaging in knowledge building among the members. All of us collectively know more than any of us individually. When we combine our knowledge, we can definitely glean more information not apparent to any of us (Bates, 2005). A CoP can help organizations to get the most out of their employees for the collective benefit of all.

Storytelling

Storytelling has attracted many organizations and it serves as a catalyst for organizational change. The stories are sparking the interest of employees and can serve to bring about massive transformation. Throughout time, leaders have used stories to share knowledge, spark change, and enlighten the audience.

Steve Denning, the guru of storytelling, claims to have moved away from PowerPoint presentations to storytelling sessions (Girard & Lambert, 2007); he feels that knowledge sharing seems to be impeded by a series of colorful charts.

Girard and Lambert (2007) also narrates an account of storytelling success in a government setting. The leader of the Strategic Knowledge Management of Department of National Defense, Canada, wanted to convey the advantages and value proposition of knowledge management. It would be impractical to reach the wide audience face to face. He started creating a story. The story was set five years into the future. It intentionally blurred the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Peoples’ names were omitted and instead they were referred to by titles alone. The story was about a Canadian Forces operation on a small Caribbean island nation, which was dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster. The story was an overwhelming success. The experiment highlights clearly that stories can attract target audience as long as they are believable and realistic. A good story must end with a moral as well.

After Action Review (AAR)

After Action Review is a technique created by the US Army. It was aimed at improving team performance by reflection on action. It is a method of providing feedback to units by involving the participants in the diagnostic process to increase and reinforce learning. It enables people to discover what happened, why it happened, and how to sustain strength and improve weaknesses.

AAR’s are typically used to capture explicit knowledge. The event is divided into discrete activities. The discussion follows four questions:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why were the differences?
  • What can we learn?

The process is proven and effective in that it results in:

  • Identification of valuable lessons
  • Enhanced openness and cooperation in the team
  • Achievement of “closure” at the end of the project.

Discussion Forums

Discussion forums are also effective in encouraging people to share information. The US Army has initiated a new initiative for sharing. Their challenge is to share information learned in a combat situation. In the past, lessons learned were sent to the Center for Army Lessons Learned, which, in turn, produced quarterly bulletins. However, this up-the-ladder and down-the-ladder model did not work very well and was not agile enough. The US Army has introduced a web-based secure discussion forum, under the auspices of West Point, Army Knowledge Online (AKO) (Bates, 2005).

Mentoring Programs

They are useful to the successor or junior employee as they provide means for transferring knowledge from an experienced employee to a junior employee. It’s also an excellent way for the departing employee to transfer implicit knowledge to the successor.

Expert Locator Systems

An Expert Locator System can point to individuals inside and outside the organizations. The concept of directories is feasible as organizations are already maintaining HR systems. Expertise Location systems can be built on top of existing systems.

Knowledge Management Value Proposition

Knowledge management facilitates connecting people to people, people to purpose, and people to resources. As jobs become more complex, people need one another and it is believed that 70% of the knowledge comes from informal interactions and workers are more likely to seek information from person rather than from databases (Athey R,, 2007). Knowledge management mechanisms foster connections within organizations.

Knowledge management increases the organizational efficiency. It facilitates the organization to store best practices and other artifacts. It reduces decision-making costs and decisions are made better and faster. The appropriate implementation of knowledge management helps amend the deficiencies in expertise that is the result of downsizing and the upcoming wholesale retirement of the Baby Boomer generation of workers.

Knowledge management enables organization to capture the reasoning of the experts.

Knowledge management impacts people and organization at several levels.

Employees learn from one another. Knowledge stays in the organization even after the employee leaves.

It impacts people by:

  • Enhancing employee learning
  • Increasing job satisfaction
  • Improving willingness to share information with others.

Knowledge management enables organizations to collaborate internally and externally in an efficient manner. It accelerates the delivery of services. Knowledge management is important to organizations due to:

  • Retention of expertise of employees
  • Shared expertise, best practices, and lessons learned across the enterprise
  • Accelerated and sustainable innovation.

Knowledge management can help organization’s staff leverage their resources and knowledge to increase and accelerate the company’s productivity and sustained innovation.

Conclusions

Despite the global economic crisis, hundreds of projects are initiated and completed around the world. All projects have one thing in common—knowledge. However, the knowledge must be readily accessible to people for successful completion of project objectives. Project managers must create an optimal environment for the creation and maintenance of shared knowledge. Project management is about competitive advantage. Effective knowledge sharing within project teams enhances the success of the projects and the management of knowledge is a prerequisite for success. Knowledge management is complimentary to many domains and disciplines including project management. The importance of effective knowledge management practices is never more important than during the current challenging economic climate. A project manager’s effectiveness is increased by learning and implementing suitable knowledge management practices. Knowledge management has become an invaluable tool and a fundamental necessity for the success of projects and sustainability and growth of organizations. Leaders must ensure that knowledge sharing is integrated with people’s work through knowledge sharing events and routine work processes. Technology is an enabler of knowledge management. Knowledge management uses a wide variety of tools and technologies to help capture and share useful information. Leaders must create effective processes and corporate culture that foster connections within organization. Leaders must encourage and support employees in seeking ways to improve connections to people, purpose, and resources. The appropriate techniques with depend on the composition and culture of the organization. Technology is a key enabler in ensuring that human knowledge is made available to the entire organization as and when needed. Projects can greatly benefit by the effective use of human knowledge.

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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 or any listed author.

© 2009, Sivasailam Sankarasubramanian
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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