Knowledge management success equals project management success

Project Management Consultant and Educator

Overview

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon stated: “Knowledge is power.” As project professionals, we must use knowledge to the greatest advantage in our work on portfolios, programs, and projects. It is necessary to ensure that by using knowledge, and therefore knowledge management, we can best achieve success in our project endeavors. As noted by Forbes Insights [in conjunction with SAP] (2010), “Organizations clearly believe that information is the strategic asset that will set them apart from their competitors and drive their success. It's not just the opinion of the IT department either, as line-of-business executives see information as integral to achieving their business goals” (p. 3).

This paper describes the importance of knowledge management to project management, and by extension, also to portfolio and program management and organizational project management maturity. It explains why knowledge management is of importance in the global environment in which much of our work is done and also shows the importance of people in this process, not just the use of tools and techniques. The paper concludes with some guidelines for consideration to implement a culture in which the use of knowledge management results in excellence in project management.

Key Definitions

Project Management

The Project Management Institute's (PMI, 2008a) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) - Fourth Edition, notes the following definitions:

  • Project—“A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (p. 434).
  • Program—“A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Program may include elements of related work outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program” (p. 434).
  • Portfolio—“A collection of projects or programs or other work that are grouped together to facilitate effective management of that work to meet strategic business objectives” (p. 433).
  • Project management—“The application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements” (p. 435).
  • Program management—“The centralized coordinated management of a program to achieve the program's strategic objectives and benefits” (p. 434).

In reviewing these definitions, the application of knowledge is especially relevant at the project level. However, standard definitions for key knowledge management terms are not readily available. A number of possible definitions exist, and the lack of standard terminology makes it difficult to communicate the importance of knowledge management throughout an organization.

Knowledge Management

A detailed review of the available definitions shows there are many possible ways to define knowledge management (KM). Qunitas, Lefrere, and Jones (1997) defined KM as managing the processes to create and apply knowledge.

They also note KM must consider organization, human, and technological aspects to ensure there is successful enterprise support. Maier and Lehner (2000) described it as the creation and maintenance of a knowledge base for the organization. Paulzen and Perc (2002) stated KM is the management of knowledge processes to support business processes and involves mapping knowledge processes to support the organization's knowledge base. The Dictionary of Accounting Terms (2005) describes KM as “The process of connecting people to people and people to information to create a competitive advantage.” This definition, because of its emphasis on people, will be used throughout this paper.

It is also important to distinguish between knowledge and information. As Deming (1994) stated information is not knowledge. He explained in a way there is too much information, and people can even be drowning in it, but people are too slow in acquiring knowledge. However, he pointed out there is no substitute for knowledge. His comments note the importance of then transforming this information by extension into knowledge assets.

There is not a universal definition in place for knowledge assets, but they are considered to be codified human expertise, stored in a digital format, and used to create organizational value. The emphasis is to use knowledge assets to promote understanding, provide guidance for decision-making, and record facts about critical decisions. Knowledge assets, if available in an accessible and reliable format, can allow work on projects to be done with less supervision and be set up so they can be accessed by people at any time (LearnerFirst, Inc., 1999). The process to create knowledge assets involves determining the important work and objectives of the organization, assessing areas in which the organization may be vulnerable, determining how any loss of expertise occurs, and evaluating barriers and obstacles in the organization. Because much of the available knowledge assets is not documented, or is tacit, it can easily be lost especially when people leave the organization for whatever reason. To obtain knowledge assets, often focused interviews or on-the-job observations must be conducted by someone who is experienced in the process and is well regarded in the organization. Documents, such as policies, procedures, and guidelines also are knowledge assets that can be easily collected and made available.

The Baldridge Excellence Glossary states the term “knowledge assets” refers to the accumulated intellectual resources of the organization. It is the knowledge possessed by the organization and its workforce in the form of information, ideas, learning, understanding, memory, insights, cognitive and technical skills, and capabilities. This means that the organization's workforce, databases, documents, guides, policies and procedures, software, and patents are repositories the organization's knowledge assets. They are held not only by an organization but also reside with customers, suppliers, and partners. Therefore, knowledge assets are the “know how” that each organization has available to use, to invest, and to grow. Building and managing knowledge assets are key components for an organization to create value for customers to help sustain overall organizational performance success.

Additionally, another key definition is metadata or data about data. It describes the contents of the knowledge assets for ease of use in retrieving them by project professionals; however, its creation takes time to ensure everyone has a common understanding of the meaning of the various metadata to be used in order that it is informative on the program or project.

Benefits Management

Benefits management equally is important. As described in The Standard for Program Management – Second Edition (PMI, 2008b), it is “those activities and techniques used in defining, creating, maximizing, and sustaining the benefits of the program” (p. 309). Because each project in the program delivers benefits, either incrementally or at the end of the program, it is necessary as well for knowledge management to contribute to the program's success especially given the complexity and duration of most programs that are pursued.

The Importance of Knowledge Management

Change is constant in our lives. PMI (2008b) notes that program managers must be ready to embrace and exploit changes. Soderlund (2010) stated that in large transformation projects, it is necessary to integrate a number of knowledge bases in these projects. For these projects, knowledge integration depends on the ability of the people involved to relate to each other, share and absorb findings and knowledge assets that have been developed in the project, and adjust them to the speed of other parts of the project. This approach complements the definition of KM as described in the Dictionary of Accounting Terms with its emphasis on the importance of participant involvement. Okhuysen and Eisenhart (2002) explained to foster knowledge integration, people need to know and integrate their individually held knowledge assets. No longer is a “knowledge is power” approach acceptable. Through KM, perspectives of the people working on projects or programs can be increased through different combinations and interpretations of the existing knowledge assets. Such an approach can occur at different levels: the individual project or program, the Enterprise Program Management Office (EPMO), various functional departments, and the entire enterprise. As noted by Grant (1996), the importance of common knowledge is that “it permits individuals to share and integrate aspects of knowledge which are not common between them” (p. 115).

Knowledge management, therefore, is a process and depends on how people can best integrate their individually held knowledge assets. Successful knowledge integration leads to successful programs and projects. The Forbes/SAP (2010) study notes that 49% of the organizations surveyed have some type of KM system in place at the enterprise level, and 31% of the respondents are in the process of developing one. However, this survey noted that 80% of the data captured is done in an unstructured way.

With virtual teams the norm as well as downsizing, mergers, and acquisitions, people must be committed to the benefits of KM as a way to combine their individual contributions to those of the objectives of each program or project as well as to the strategic objectives of the organization. For example, consider the number of mergers between companies that formerly were competitors, the strategic alliances that may be formed between competitors to pursue an opportunity, the aging workforce, the speed of changes in technology, the global environment in which we work, and the large number of diverse stakeholders who are involved, to list a few of the challenges we face. With downsizing, for example, as employees are forced to leave, their knowledge assets leave with them. Unless a KM process and system are in place to capture knowledge assets, then, when the organization begins to hire again, it must start to rebuild these knowledge assets making the learning curve for new employees even more difficult. This means an emphasis on incorporating KM into the program and project management life cycles is significant as well as the use of structured debriefings and post-project or program reviews with the team, the governance board, other key internal stakeholders, and customers.

As Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer (1996) stated, it is necessary to build swift common knowledge to manage projects. People must know how to share and how to ensure that the knowledge assets, which are shared, have value to others. Such an approach, though, is a culture change. KM must begin with the pre-program preparations phase in program management or the initiation phase in project management and continue through the closing phases. It is not a one-time endeavor but must be continuous for success. This means there are costs involved in setting up a reliable process and system and more importantly obtaining buy-in to it from the people working on programs and projects. It becomes an even greater challenge when the program or project involves work that has not been undertaken in any fashion before by the organization, one in which there is use of high technology, or one with major risks. Extensive communications, while a characteristic of all programs and projects, takes on even greater importance in implementing KM in an environment in which knowledge hoarding is the norm.

However, without an effective and reliable KM process and system in place, it becomes even more difficult to make quality decisions in a timely manner and to provide solutions to customers that promote innovation and transformation. A routine approach cannot be used. This is more than just a common language to use to communicate among participants on the project or common project management processes to follow as people must continually focus on sharing what they already know and what they are currently doing on the project. For overall effectiveness, people must understand what they are to do to foster this environment of sharing and when it is required. Further, as stated by Soderlund (2010) about knowledge integration, it is considered “as a dynamic process developed in social settings rather than a static form of integrating ‘repositories of knowledge’ that are just waiting to be used” (p. 137). The unknown factors in projects mean while clear interfaces among various project sub-teams, for example, are required, cross-team communications and inter-functional problem solving also is necessary across the entire team in many instances. KM is a dynamic approach as “knowledge depends on how, when, and from where it was acquired” (p. 138).

Managing the Organization by Programs and Projects

Gareis (1989) described the trend toward management by projects in which managing single projects, a network of projects, and managing the relationships between the company and single projects is emphasized. This trend now is the reality for most organizations. Each organization wants to use portfolio, program, and project management to deliver its products, services, and results with superior outcomes and benefits that are sustained by its customers and users. With programs and projects now considered strategic assets to organizations, the emphasis then shifts to how to best support them so they meet the organization's strategic goals and objectives and achieve the benefits as stated in initial business cases. As Dinsmore (1999) notes, projects permeate all aspects of organizations. This means for organizations to survive and prosper, new programs and projects are necessary so a pipeline of projects is available. This approach then leads to a “projectized” way of working.

However, although programs and projects are unique undertakings, certain aspects of them can benefit from the use of historical information on past work done in the organization, and all programs and projects can benefit from easy access to information developed during the course of the program or project. Reich and Wee (2006) performed an extensive review of the PMBOK® Guide - Third Edition and noted it contained 47 explicit knowledge objects, defined as an object containing knowledge in which the knowledge is articulated and codified (pp. 13-14). One of the conclusions of their research is that the PMBOK® Guide definitely emphasizes the use of knowledge from experts and recognizes the need to use lessons learned in subsequent processes. They suggest highlighting lessons learned further as a step toward greater project-based learning.

The Standard for Program Management (2008b) notes that lessons learned are an output common to many program management processes. This Standard states “lessons learned include causes of variances from the program management plan, corrective actions taken and their outcomes, risk mitigations, and other information of value to management and stakeholders of future programs” (p. 39). It describes the need to continually collect them throughout the program life cycle.

But, as noted by Ernst &Young (2007), many successful organizations fail to realize full value from their investments in projects by not learning lessons in the process. This further means that organizations then fail to continue those processes that were successful in the process and fail to discontinue those that resulted in errors and rework.

Tools and techniques, though, are not the only answer. It is essential that people at all levels buy into the concept of knowledge sharing and support it. The key issues and concerns of executives, program and project managers, and team members must be part of the system so the focus is not solely on being able to locate an artifact but instead to understand the underlying reason as to why it was included in the repository in the first place and to recognize its importance to the organization's goals. The emphasis is to ensure KM is not a “passing fad” and is taken seriously at all levels. As Weick (1995) stated: “the same event means different things to different people, and more information will not help them. What will help them is a setting in which they can argue, using rich data pulled from a variety of media, to construct fresh frameworks of action-outcome linkages that include their multiple interpretations” (p. 186).

It is essential that data quality is critical, and the data in the knowledge repository must comply with the organization's governance procedures especially in terms of how it is contributed and controlled and who has access rights to specific information. However, if the quality of the data is suspect, anyone who accesses the data will not have confidence in their value, and if the data are used in making decisions, these decisions may be ones that turn out to not be beneficial to the program, the project, or the organization.

Guidelines for KM Excellence in Project Management

Realizing that KM is important for organizations of any size, how can project professionals best work to implement it in their organizations? This section presents nine key guidelines for excellence in implementing KM into program and project management.

Define Knowledge Management So Everyone Can Understand It

A major problem is that a standard definition is not available for KM unlike that of project management, program management, and portfolio management from PMI. This means that until a KM standard is developed, each organization must review available definitions and select one that fits the organization's goals and objectives. It should emphasize people and governance not solely tools and techniques. KM also requires its own specific goals and objectives and metrics to show its progress in meeting them to be able to demonstrate its benefits and not just show its costs. While the definition used in this paper emphasizes the importance of people to the process, the attitudes of the people involved, from individual contributors and users to executives must be considered as well as the existing organizational culture toward it.

Make Knowledge Management a Work Package in the Work Breakdown Structure

To facilitate the necessity of promoting KM on a program or project, when the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is developed, a separate element should be set aside for KM in the same manner as that of program or project management. This element then can be decomposed into sub-elements, such as compose, review, publish, approve, use, and evaluate, so it can be assigned to specific individuals as program packages or work packages. On programs, for example, it may be appropriate to assign the KM element to the Program Management Office staff supporting the program. The inclusion of KM in the WBS will facilitate communication about it with the program or project stakeholders, will enable resources to be assigned to it, and will set up specific approaches to monitor and control its progress.

Establish a Point of Contact for KM on Each Program and Project Working with Someone in the Enterprise Program Management Office

Although many organizations have established a position as a Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) and may have Knowledge Management Offices, because of the importance of programs and projects to the organization's strategic goals and objectives and the management of many organizations through projects, KM fits within the purview of the EPMO. The CKO can reside in the EPMO with someone then from each program or project reporting in a matrix management fashion to the CKO. The EPMO can establish standardized policies and procedures to follow consistently across the organization, such as linking the KM life cycle with that of the program or project management life cycles and using the governance board at key stage gate reviews or periodic health checks to ask questions about the use of knowledge assets and their creation.

Use a Responsibility Assignment Matrix to Define Roles, Responsibilities, and Accountabilities for Knowledge Management

Building on the conclusions in the Forbes/SAP (2010) study, it is essential that a structured approach be followed to enable the knowledge assets in the repository to be easily available with the knowledge assets and managed by the EPMO. Roles and responsibilities must be defined, and a Resource Assignment Matrix (RAM) or Responsibility, Accountability, Consult, and Inform (RACI) chart is helpful. It should include the KM sponsor, or the person who is providing the resources for it in the organization; the CKO (if one exists); the person who is leading the project to design KM processes and a system for their use; team members working on the KM project; the person(s) who will be responsible for ensuring quality content is in the repository and that it is up to date; the people who will be responsible for monitoring the KM process and system; and the various contributors and subject matter experts (SMEs) to the KM repository. For the latter, it may be necessary for someone familiar with the KM process to work with the SME to make sure his or her knowledge assets are collected correctly.

In addition to using the RAM or RACI chart to show who is responsible for specifics of the KM project, a register, similar to that of a Stakeholder or Risk Register, but titled a Knowledge Management Register, can be used to list the various categories of people and their attitudes toward KM. This register then can be used by the KM project management team to determine any people who may be resisting use of the process or system and who may not support the concept of knowledge sharing. The team can meet with the resistors to determine why they do not feel KM is a useful endeavor for the organization and to understand their concerns. They can then determine what must be done to develop a strategy to turn these resisters into supporters. It may be that the resisters need training or guidance in the process or system or may need additional reinforcement that by sharing they will not lose their stature in the organization. The KM project management team hopefully can determine common solutions to any problems.

Further, using the knowledge asset contributions of each employee, someone must be responsible for combining those of similar interests so a centralized source of information is available for access without the need to consult numerous data systems in the organization so people can easily locate the documents they require. One approach to follow may be to pick a single area in which to begin, such as the Organizational Process Assets or the various policies, procedures, and guidelines to review at the beginning of a new project, and to structure them in a way that they are easily accessible.

Communicate the Importance of Knowledge Management Throughout the Organization So It Is Not An After Thought

Determine and communicate the strategic goals and objectives to be achieved through KM in terms of its impact on program and project management. Specific goals for KM must link to those of the organization and must be transparent. Everyone must recognize that commitment to KM represents a new way of working in the organization, and its success does not happen immediately. Time must be set aside to develop plans and policies, determine roles and responsibilities, prepare orientation and training sessions, ensure people at all levels recognize their roles and responsibilities and attend the sessions, and establish and maintain a system for ease of use. People cannot see the KM initiative as a passing fad or another thing they must do—commitment to it is required, and this commitment takes time to develop. Prepare a KM management communications management plan and a change management plan. The communications management plan describes the strategy to be used to communicate with stakeholders at all levels about KM and the information they will receive about the process and progress. The change management plan is used to gain acceptance by people in the organization to the concept of sharing, not hoarding, and to the belief that by sharing they will not be replaced in the organization but instead will have new opportunities to pursue. It also discusses how knowledge sharing and the use of the knowledge assets in the repository will be part of each employee's performance plan and the metrics to be used to measure success in achieving KM objectives.

As Communities of Practice (CoPs) become established, they can serve as a way to facilitate knowledge sharing and transfer. If the CoPs have facilitated events, such as webinars or discussion sessions, each of these events can focus on knowledge sharing among the CoP members. Within the CoP, members can develop best practices and directories of people with expertise in specific areas. For example, assume that a CoP is formed to focus primarily on methods to best monitor and control programs and projects, and one area of interest to the organization is implementation and use of earned value on each program and project. A CoP session could be held to describe why earned value is to be used, with a follow-up session as to how it will be implemented and the specific tools and techniques to be used. Then, a directory of people with expertise in it can be prepared noting people, for example, who have worked in it for some time or who have expertise in earned schedule in addition to the traditional earned value metrics and forecasting approaches.

At the end of each program or project, conduct a review not only of what was successful and opportunities for improvement from the program or project's perspective but also in terms of knowledge sharing. During such a session, review how KM helped contribute to overall success. Evaluate the metadata tags developed for each knowledge asset, the number of knowledge assets contributed, and more importantly whether people on the team consulted the repository, used the existing knowledge assets, and expanded on them for future programs or projects.

Knowledge Management Orientation and Training

Many people in the organization will need an orientation session as to why the organization has set up this KM process and system and also why the organization considers it to be important. They also need to know their own roles and responsibilities in the process. For example, people need to realize when they are to share knowledge assets—at the end of a project, at the end of a phase-gate review, or when they are created. They also need to know how to use the system and its functions as well as whom to contact with questions. Such an orientation should be one that is available through a Web Ex or other on line approach so new employees can view it when they join the organization.

Others with key roles in the KM process and system will need more detailed training as to how to best implement this culture change and ways in which they can serve as change agents in the organization. When the KM repository is set up, ensure that people understand why a single repository is being used even if they already have something in place for use on the specific project. Incorporate this need for the single repository as part of the orientation and training sessions that are held so people realize the benefits of a single format.

Establish a Knowledge Management Reward and Recognition System

Hopefully staff members will be motivated to participate from the beginning, but most organizations find that some type of reward and recognition system is required until knowledge sharing is the norm and not the exception. Providing rewards and recognition at the beginning can help promote a knowledge sharing culture; these rewards need to be ones that reflect different contributions; for example, a reward is needed for the SME who has developed content but also for a KM person who works with the SME to ensure this content can be easily retrieved and used by others through use of appropriate and specific metadata so it is easily located. Similar rewards are needed for people who ensure that the content that is created is accurate, reliable, and useful as well as for people who regularly assess metrics to determine if the knowledge asset is being used or should be archived.

KM must be established as a job of all project professionals; it is not something that is relegated to the information systems group, but instead everyone must be willing to share quality knowledge assets and have ownership of the assets they contribute. If each individual focuses on submittal of high quality knowledge assets from the beginning, with use of defined metadata tags, then the information systems staff can set up approaches to promote ease of access to it.

Track the Usefulness of the Knowledge Management Initiative Through Metrics that are Visible in the Organization

Periodic reviews of the usefulness of the knowledge assets in the repository are essential. Through discussions at governance meetings, or at meetings of a Portfolio Review Board or comparable group, the status of the quality of the knowledge assets can be discussed along with metrics that are collected to determine whether the knowledge assets contained in the repository meet business expectations. If the knowledge assets are ones that are not current, are ambiguous, or are incorrect, they then affect the ability to make useful and valuable decisions. Of course, perfect quality is never attainable; however, a focus on integrity and the usefulness of the knowledge assets can be determined. Further, metrics can be developed to determine the extent of quality issues. One approach is to show the consequences of not implementing a robust KM system such as inconsistent processes, duplication of effort, or views that only represent one part of the organization. Quantify the effect of a poor decision made from incomplete or unreliable information in the knowledge repository.

Focus on Continuous Improvement

The Forbes and SAP (2010) study show that 85% of the survey respondents stated their organizations considered information as a strategic asset; 95% stated information management, and by extension, KM, is essential to overall business success. The challenge is to determine the types of knowledge assets that can help each individual project professional improve his or her own personal processes and overall productivity. A repeatable process for acquiring knowledge assets, determining their quality, making them available for ease of access for others, assessing their usefulness in terms of overall improvements, and determining when they should be archived from the repository must be part of the existing program and project life cycles. Recognize that the emphasis is not one of just submitting knowledge assets to a repository and using them from time to time but instead is to use them and expand upon what exists to create new knowledge assets to benefit customers and contribute to the organization's strategic goals and objectives. It is necessary to also recognize that a key knowledge asset from program and project work may even lead to a change in the organization's strategic goals and initiatives or to the processes used to complete products, deliver services and results, and deliver benefits. The focus is to move away from “knowledge is power” to “knowledge sharing is power.”

Summary

Each organization wants to deliver its products, services, and with superior outcomes and benefits that can be sustained by its customers and users. We have witnessed tremendous growth in the advancement of the project management profession. Project management is no longer a “passing fad” and is the profession of choice for many throughout the world. Increasingly, organizations are becoming project-based, and management-by-projects is a defined strategy.

However, to continue to transform the organization, project management must be integrated with KM. The challenges of today and tomorrow dictate that for success information must be located quickly, and once it is located, people must have confidence in its accuracy to be able to use it to solve a specific problem, respond to a risk or issue, satisfy a stakeholder's concern, and advance the product development process or the provision of the required service. To learn from each project, we must share knowledge assets effectively and efficiency and transfer them deliberately and systematically. KM must become an integral part of each project professional's daily work.

References

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Meyerson, D., Weick, K.E., & Kramer, R. M. (1996). Swift trust and temporary groups. In Kramer, R.H., & Tyler, T.R. (Eds), Trust in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Qunitas, P., Lefrere, P., & Jones, G. (1997). Knowledge management: A strategic agenda. Long Range Planning, 30, pp. 385-391.

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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.

© 2010, Ginger Levin
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, D.C., USA

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