Knowledge management and knowledge transfer in a dynamic project environment

a case study



Doctoral candidate RMIT University,
Melbourne, Australia and Project Manager with Bell Canada


RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia


The project management literature has traditionally focused on technical skills of project managers, however more recently there has been increasing interest in project managers gaining ”soft” people management skills (Crawford, Morris, Thomas, & Winter, 2006). Amongst these is an expanding focus on how skills relating to how knowledge is transferred within project teams between team members (Koskinen, Pihlanto, & Vanharanta, 2003; Koskinen & Pihlanto, 2006), how situated learning is encouraged in project teams (Sense, 2008), and how social capital and learning may be developed and even measured (Manu & Walker, 2006). Thus, the link between projects, project management, and knowledge transfer within teams is relevant and topical.

The purpose of this paper is to explore and better understand the effectiveness of knowledge transfer that occurred relating to a particular process and product innovation within a highly dynamic and intensively active skunk works team and between members of that team and key implementers of the processes developed in the studied organization. The development and rollout of the process was considered as a change management project, as so is relevant to expanding insights in the project management literature. The project can be described as a vanguard one with a great deal of “bottom-up” learning taking place that is planned to be broadly diffused (Brady & Davies, 2004). These types of projects have been identified by Artto, Martinsuo, Dietrich, and Kujala (2008) as skunk works-type projects with high levels of project autonomy and relatively low levels of stakeholder complexity. They identify benefits of providing role models for the organization to adopt and to radically change its future.

Two key concepts will be considered relating to the studied organization: the nature of knowledge and knowledge transfer and the role of knowledge management (KM) and organizational learning (OL). The context of the situation and the organization's characteristics will also be explained as well as the research approach rationale.

The context of the case study organization will first be presented so that readers understand the research setting. This is followed by the rationale for the adopted research approach. Definitions of terms used and explanations of the theoretical framework will then be presented. We then summarize findings and discuss these conclusions by presenting some implications for project management practice.

Context and Case Description of the Study Organization

The organization being research is a large North America telecommunication firm that currently provides numerous communication services such as local and long distance phone services, wireless communication, internet access, and satellite and IP (Internet Protocol) television. For the purposes of this paper, the firm will be called XYZ Telcom.

Rapid volatile change and expansion of this market place characterized by continuous evolution of new products led to an interest in how managing the firm's knowledge resources might form a useful element of the firm's strategic plan. The president and chief executive offer of XYZ Telcom spoke in its 2004 Annual Report directly of planning to “change the culture” and ensure that XYZ Telcom does not “tie up good ideas” (XYZ Telcom Annual Report1). Tremendous turbulence and flux in the marketplace are common features of today's world of telecommunications as more and more competitors move into this market space. Established telecommunication firms (Telcoms) are currently under relentless siege from an almost limitless and inexhaustible numbers of new competitors.

Firms such as XYZ Telcom used to rely on the sheer size of their resources, the high cost of providing telecommunication infrastructure and government or pseudo-monopolistic conditions as its competitive advantage, all of which have been undermined by government regulation changes, anti-trust laws and new technology that allows small telcoms to compete directly with the large incumbent Telcoms. Therefore, XYZ Telcom needed a new and different competitive advantage to compete successfully to continue to maximize share prices. Necessary competitive advantage can be provided by better knowledge leveraging and developing the agility to quickly develop its products and rapidly get these to market. Companies such as XYZ Telcom possess superior knowledge of its people within the organization. Nevertheless, as Zack (1999) states, firms must be able to coordinate and combine their traditional resources as well as capabilities in new and distinctive ways that will provide “more” value to the end customer.

Competition for incumbent firms such as XYZ Telcom comes from numerous sources, ranging from large local cable companies to small start-up firms that can become a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone supplier. Threats to incumbents, as noted by Porter (1985), within the telecommunications market become more acute as barriers to entry decrease and suppliers' and customers' bargaining power increases. These new players compete directly with traditional telecommunication companies such as XYZ Telcom and erode the traditional companies' well-established revenue streams. Incumbent phone companies are suddenly forced to face their competitors head-on by formulating innovative solutions to maintain and grow their current customer base. Those that choose not to evolve face massive losses of their customer base and the associated decline in revenue2 (Yocom, 2007). It is fundamental that companies such as the XYZ Telcom embrace these new technologies and exploit their position in the marketplace to continue to grow, prosper, evolve and ultimately survive.

XYZ Telcom was given a unique opportunity to develop a new product line, called the IP XXX, for their business customers. XYZ Telcom engaged a number of research and development (R&D) skilled employees (hereafter referred to as ‘resources’) as well as operational staff and removed them from the mainstream organization, placing them in a controlled and contained maturation environment—a skunk works.

The term skunk works was adopted to describe a group of highly innovative and non-conforming individuals who have been put in an isolated work environment to develop radically new ideas. Two examples were the case at Cisco (Tulley, 1998) and at engineering enterprise such as Lockheed in the 1930s (Gwynne, 1997). These feral units present extreme and often unique examples of innovative organizations and so can only be studied as single case studies. XYZ Telcom went further and created a community of practice (CoP) that was contained on the top floor of a North American major city office building. A CoP can be described 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, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 4). This team started as an informal group, yet very quickly came together to work the many problems at hand.

An irregularity of the team was that this group of resources would create extremely novel processes needed to address the many new IP products being introduced within the market streams for XYZ Telcom. Also, there was an expectation that the team would be leveraged to help change the cultural bias of existing employees within the larger firm, moving them closer to operating as a knowledge-valuing firm. This could be achieved by enhancing knowledge transfer processes initially within the R&D team and subsequently diffusing these out into the entire organization.

As the R&D team continued to refine the new processes in early 2005, actual job performers, being the resources (people) who would actually be doing the provisioning work, were introduced into the environment to test the practical application of these new processes. A team of trainers were established in conjunction with these activities to ensure the successful transfer of knowledge from the R&D team to the job performers. The training team was chosen from a number of resources within the firm from across the corporation. The training team was burdened by the fact that the new process had not been familiar to them, and there were time zone differences and language constraints because the organization operated in two provinces and in French and English.

The overall program was required to address high-level strategic and operational planning, mapping of the newly defined operational process, staff and sales training, system upgrades, and the introduction of a number of partnerships with third party service providers. Furthermore, for the program to be successful, employees would need to embrace new ways of thinking. The program attempted to create the processes and environment to facilitate an atmosphere that would, among other things, include extensive up-front training and encourage knowledge transfer. This team was not only very substantially trained for the onset, there was also a strong emphasis on continuous learning. The telecommunication firm's senior management were also offering employees both the motivation, support, and the tools to continue to train themselves on the latest techniques in both technology and management.

A question that arises from this case study is why is it so difficult to extract tacit knowledge from skilled employee resources and what are the barriers hindering the productive exchange of tacit knowledge? This paper will discuss a number of barriers to the exchange of tacit knowledge using a small random sample group of seven trainers and subject matter experts (SME) from a base of 20 trainers that form a training team within XYZ Telcom. This dedicated and highly skilled training group, The National Internet Protocol Virtual Private Networks (IP XXX3) training team, is accountable for understanding, coding and training job performers for the various tasks of processing IP XXX orders for enterprise and small/medium business (SMB) customers across North America. The many processes created to accomplish this task come from the Research and Development (R&D) team that is co-located within the same building and floor as the job performers, trainers, and support staff.

Research Approach and its Rationale

Yin (1994, p. 39) maintains that single case studies are of value when investigating a particular setting that is unique or is representative of an extreme phenomenon under scrutiny. The group that is focused upon in this case study organization represent an example of knowledge transfer within an extremely turbulent and volatile work environment, with a focus on making ground breaking advances in re-engineering processes to develop new information communication technology (ICT) products and services. The group is part of the organization's skunk works unit that was established to change the organization's culture, and this group was expected to adopt new (extreme) methods and approaches to radically change the way that a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) product and service would be provisioned and distributed in practice. The current focus on speed of delivery of goods and services to market for highly innovative classes of product such as VoIP makes this type of case extreme in nature. While there have been a lot of studies on knowledge transfer in normal project management situations, there have been few conducted with a focus on knowledge transfer in a skunk works.

The study is exploratory in nature as its aim was to investigate whether it would be of value to undertake a detailed study of the effectiveness of knowledge transfer on achieving improvements in delivering new products and services and the processes needed to improve speed-to-market. Thus, a case study approach is used, with data being gathered from a small number of representative people who were able and willing to participate, but more importantly, were intensely immersed in the project and could therefore provide rich insights and data relating to knowledge-transfer effectiveness. Further study that will subsequently take place will revolve around gaining additional deep insights using soft systems methodology (SSM) (Checkland, 1999) to more fully understand the disjointed situation facing knowledge transfer in this context and to prioritize improvement actions and use action participative learning (Coghlan, 2001; Zuber-Skerritt, 2002; Coghlan & Brannick, 2005; Lennie, 2006) to study improvement initiatives and then use grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998; Locke, 2001) to better understand how the actions that will be scrutinized led to observed and measured outcomes from those initiatives.

The exploratory study reported upon in this paper involved gaining data through direct observation by one of the authors who was an active participant in the case study work, so this represented using a participative action-learning approach of observation, note taking and analysis, reflection, feedback and iterating through several trial and error cycles of trying to perfect the actions (knowledge transfer) under investigation. The use of participative action learning is a well-established research methodology (Coghlan, 2001; Coghlan & Brannick, 2005). Data was also gathered using a focus group of representative trainers from the organization who were charged with facilitating training and knowledge exchange in diffusing the innovation processes throughout the parent organization.

Theoretical Framework

The strength of an organization's knowledge assets, its effective management of knowledge, and its ability to quickly learn is a key strategic competency (Teece, Pisano & Shuen, 1997). Moreover, an organization's capacity to be innovative and beat rivals to market with innovative products and services is recognized as being a dominant thread in the debate about business strategy (Stalk & Hout, 1990; Eisenhardt & Brown, 1998). Thus, we argue that forward-looking organizations manage knowledge and learning to gain a competitive edge from their rivals. It is in this manner that they respond to market challengers, by anticipated demand patterns and positioning products and services that require effective coordination of knowledge and learning.

Knowledge management (KM) relates to the creation, transfer, storage and use of knowledge by individuals, groups and organizations (Nonaka, 1991; Davenport & Prusak, 2000). The dominantly held view is that knowledge is refined information that has meaning embedded into it (Davenport & Prusak, 2000); however, Tuomi (1999) argues that, through the process of refining data into information and then into knowledge, knowledge is, in fact, initially required to be able to make sense of data and then synthesize it into information. Whichever view one chooses to accept, there can be no doubt that knowledge is vital, and so capitalizing on its merits is pivotal to being competitive. Porter (1985) highlights three kinds of competitive advantage: a cost advantage, a focus advantage, and a differentiation advantage. All require sound knowledge management and organizational learning capacities. Effective knowledge transfer and use allows firms to be efficient and hence reduce costs; it also allows better focus on customers through knowing what they could want, and having this knowledge is a vital way for firms to differentiate themselves by offering goods and services in a way that is difficult to imitate.

In the context of this case study, XYZ Telcom needs knowledge to be competitive in three ways. First, in a fierce market, its knowledge can be leveraged to increase efficient and streamline processes and attain a cost competitive advantage. Second, for a customer-focused competitive advantage, it needs to know what its market actually needs are, for example, by working with customers on beta versions to empathetically design solutions (Leonard & Rayport, 1997). Finally, firms need to effectively use its knowledge to provide unique services or product adaptations to achieve a differentiated competitive advantage.

Organizations recognize and appreciate that knowledge-sharing and KM not only foster better communication, idea sharing, and solution resolution, but they can also give firms a competitive advantage within their existing market segments. The term knowledge has been categorized as being explicit or tacit. Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that can easily be drawn from humans, codified, documented, communicated, and placed into a database or groupware for withdrawal at a later time (Nonaka, 1991).

A practical example of explicit knowledge transfer would be giving an employee training and documentation to perform a process such as product configuration for a client that also links in delivery and installation instructions. The employee is given the tools and knowledge to complete the required tasks. Explicit knowledge is often easy to transfer via training, explanation, documentation, etc. Nevertheless, the more effective and beneficial value in learning how to perform the process comes from finessing it from the use of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, however, is not expressed directly and is much more difficult to generate, codify and communicate, making it arduous and demanding to transfer. Polanyi (1997) described tacit knowledge is being characterized as non-verbalizable, intuitive, and inarticulated knowledge, but tacit knowledge can be transferred in part through guided experience. Examples of this approach would be by physically stepping someone through a process and helping them overcome difficulties as they arise. Tacit knowledge is extremely difficult to transfer from one person to another without close and intimate support. However, von Hippel, Thomke, and Sonnack (1999) illustrate using an example from 3M that demonstrates how valuable explicit and tacit knowledge can be transferred from using lead users to idea developers.

A subset of tacit knowledge is relevant to our case study context—self-transcending knowledge. Scharmer (2001, p. 69) described this as knowledge that has yet to develop into tacit knowledge. An example of self-transcending knowledge is Michaelangelo when referring to his famous sculpture of David through sensing the emerging figure: “David was already in the stone. I just took away everything that was not David.” It is this ability to see David where others see just a rock. In similar ways, skilled case-study employees can use self-transcending knowledge to develop new products and faster administrative processes to deliver products and services to markets.

Knowledge transfer has been the subject of intense study for over ten years since Nonaka (1991) first published their SECI model about individuals sharing tacit knowledge through socialisation and as this tacit knowledge is explained it becomes externalised into explicit knowledge that through being combined with existing explicit knowledge becomes internalised by the individual and reframed as person-tacit knowledge. This way of looking at knowledge generation and use sees both data and knowledge as being both inert and being actively refined. These ideas were extended to the way that groups and organizations use knowledge as stocks and flows of knowledge (Bontis, Crossan, & Hulland, 2002) in feed-forward and feedback loops as described by Crossan, Lane, and White (1999) who offer a model described as the ”4 Is” (intuiting, interpreting, integrating, and institutionalizing). This can be seen as being similar to the SECI model. Intuition is tacit knowledge, this is made explicit through interpreting it relative to its context, the knowledge becomes combined and integrated with the pool of knowledge and this becomes internalized by the organization as a whole. Lawrence, Mauws, Dyck, and Kleysen (2005) add to this model's notions by considering the role of power in the process to better explain how the dynamics of the process operates. They argue that individuals influence groups and groups force organizations to internalize knowledge, and once that happens, knowledge becomes institutionalized through culture and governance, and this disciplines groups and individuals. This part of the discussion helps us understand what knowledge is and how it is created and transformed between people, but it does not explain why knowledge exchange is so difficult. The concept of ”sticky knowledge” as developed by Szulanski (1996; 2003) forms a valuable and useful support and testing mechanism for the two research projects that will be described in more detail in a following section of this paper.

Gabriel Szulanski (1995; 1996; 2003) undertook a PhD on the stickiness of knowledge and identified seven sources of knowledge stickiness:

Source lacks motivation (unwillingness to share knowledge);

  1. Source lacks credibility (the source lacks authority, expertise or is perceived as unreliable or untrustworthy);
  2. Recipient lacks motivation (doesn't care);
  3. Recipient lacks absorptive capacity (has not the background to perceive cause and effect links, lacks underpinning knowledge or experience in experimentation to know how to use the knowledge);
  4. Recipient lacks retentive capacity (forgets vital details);
  5. Barren organizational context (the culture or governance structure inhibits knowledge sharing); and
  6. Arduous relationship between source and recipient (lack of empathy, trust, or commitment to collaborate in the task of sharing knowledge).

Szulanski concluded from testing his model (canonical correlation analysis of a data set consisting of 271 observations of 122 best-practice transfers in 8 companies) that contrary to conventional wisdom that blames primarily motivational factors, his findings show major barriers to internal knowledge transfer are:

  • knowledge-related factors such as the recipient's lack of absorptive capacity (source 4);
  • causal ambiguity (source 4); and
  • an arduous relationship between the source and the recipient (source 6) (Szulanski, 1996).

Koskinen and Pihlanto (2006, p. 3) share interesting insights into the way that barriers to knowledge and competence transfer relies on the quality of the interpersonal relationships between sources and targets with their conceptual tool, the ”Holistic Concept of Man.” This defines the human individual as consisting of three deeply intertwined modes of existence (consciousness, situationality, and corporeality), to briefly summarize their propositions. Because communicability and motivation are often identified, as shown above, factors that facilitate or hinder competence transfer, the quality of the interaction environment is critical. They state that ”newcomers” rely mainly on explicit knowledge, while ‘old timers’ rely on tacit knowledge. Also, to effectively work together in transferring tacit knowledge it is vital that source and target share (at least a fair approximation of) the same world view; the view being that cultural understanding is pivotal. They also point out that in the corporeality mode of existence, physical factors play a large role, including the comfort of the situation (physical or psychological). Further, the physical health or comfort at the time of transfer is also important–distractions (of a variety of forms) can and do have a strong impact.

Having understood what knowledge is and why it can be sticky, we should look at the ways that organizations can transfer knowledge. Prencipe and Tell (2001) provide a useful typology of learning processes that are analyzed at the individual, group and organizational level. The processes are experience accumulation, knowledge articulation and knowledge codification. They categorize organizational approaches to codifying knowledge as being predominantly explorers, navigators or exploiters. Explorers focus on experience accumulation processes across individuals, groups/projects, and organizations. They articulate and codify knowledge mainly at an individual level (Prencipe and Tell, 2001: p. 1383). Navigators focus on knowledge articulation processes with individual learning processes with an emphasis and some lesser emphasis on group/project knowledge codification processes (Prencipe & Tell, 2001, p. 1385). Exploiters focus on individual experience accumulation, knowledge articulation and knowledge codification learning processes. They additionally focus on knowledge articulation at both the individual and group/project level. They also focus on knowledge codification at all three levels (Prencipe & Tell, 2001, p. 1388).

This theoretical framework informed a set of questions that were posed to a seven-representative trainer focus group that had been intimately involved in day-to-day support of transferring both explicit and tacit knowledge relating to the new processes surrounding the process developers and the job performers testing these within the skunk works as well as in regional centers. The seven participants were chosen as being a representative sample group of the larger training team. Each of the process groups were represented as well as each geographic location. The environment that was created for the IP XXX solution was named the IP Team4 for the actual job performer and the IP Process Team5 for the R&D team. One year had elapsed from the start date of the IP Team and the timing of the focus group session. This gave the members of the focus group a long enough period to truly understand what was and was not working well with respect to knowledge transfer within their environment. This strengthens the validity of findings.

The focus group was conducted live using a conference bridge simultaneously to a number of locations. The highend R&D skilled employees (resources) whose task was to disseminate and transfer their knowledge to others in the field were given a short seven-question survey with ample space for comments. In an attempt to reduce bias, the participants were instructed to print the survey ahead of time but to not read the questions prior to the focus group. The survey would in fact be conducted during the focus session. After the survey was completed, the session was facilitated and the participants were solicited with five specific open-ended questions. The questions were asked to each participant individually, with the other participants being able to agree, disagree, or augment what they had heard. The participants were directed to ensure that there answers were from “their” perspective and experience only.

The objective of the focus session was to understand the barriers and enablers of both tacit and explicit knowledge within a real-world environment and to identify constrains and contributory events and situations in the environment and what could be done to augment this knowledge transfer. The results of the focus session dated February 23, 2006 follow.

Focus Group Data Responses

The written survey consisted of seven questions posed to summarize discussions after a short introduction to the focus group and explanation of a number of terms that would be used in both the survey and subsequent open discussion. Participants were asked to rate their response on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being “Strongly disagree/very low” and 5 being “Strongly agree/very high”), and were also given space to add their direct comments. Table 1 illustrates the results

Table 1 – Survey Responses (Numbers of people responding to each question ranked 1-5)

Question – Response Rating > (1 to 5) 1 2 3 4 5
1 What was the quality of training you have received within the IP Team 2 3 2
2 Did you find that you were able to retain new knowledge that you received. 2 2 3
3 How important is it to a community of practice (CoP) being networked together as a team to within the same office? 1 1 5
4 How important is it to a community of practice (CoP) being networked together as a team to virtual? 3 4
5 Did you feel you had the opportunity to integrate your ideas into the training session? (Note: there was one “did not respond” on this question) 2 2 2
6 Did you get enough hands-on, or cases studies to augment the training? 4 2 1
7 Do you feel that there should be a mechanism to “test” knowledge retention? 2 1 3 1

The response as noted in table 1 to all of the questions shows a weak clustering (other than for question 3 and 4 related to the CoP). There was a strong tendency that people were either neutral or agreed that they had enough hands-on experiential learning in their training program (question 6). All participants felt that it was important that the team members were a part of the community of practice, even if it was only at the onset of the project. It was felt that being in the same office or in different locations, with the tools available today such as e-mail, net meeting, and internal instant messaging, was of little consequence to maintaining the sense of a community. Comments on the survey with respect to the CoP noted that the CoP assisted with communication and team spirit.

Concerning the transfer of tacit knowledge, it was noted in the questionnaire comment field that unless you have face-to-face interaction it “makes tone harder to read and defensive reactions harder to (perceive) and mitigate.” Similarly, a virtual CoP was felt to be also very effective as long as the communication tools are available and utilized to mimic face-to-face (F2F) interaction. One barrier to effective knowledge exchange and transfer within the CoP was the ability to overcome language differences. One location was predominantly French-speaking and another, for the most part, English speaking. The resources that did not, in fact, speak both languages felt at a disadvantage when the conference calls or net meetings were conducted in a language other than their mother tongue.

The focus group session next moved to an open question and answer segment that provided opportunities for yielding deep tacit knowledge from this team of high-end resources. Each member was asked the same question and was given time to bring his or her personal experience or thoughts to the topic. They also were asked if they agreed or disagreed with other people's comments, and to add or build onto them. The facilitator exclusively presented the questions and at times asked the resources to elaborate on their answers as required, in an effort to reduce any bias that the facilitator may introduce.

The first question generally sought the participants' high-level thoughts and was also used to broadly stimulate ideas among the team. The question posed was with respect to the IP Team environment and training, and transfer of knowledge: “What works well? Why?”

Six of the seven participants agreed that “hands-on” activities were by far the most efficiently way to transfer both explicit and tacit knowledge. It was felt that “doing” or working on actual “live” orders augmented tacit knowledge as the participants found real-life problems in the orders that they had to resolve. F2F training was also gauged as a superior forum for the transfer of tacit knowledge, versus a conference call with net meeting software. (Note: net meeting software gives the participants the ability to all view the same computer screen. This screen is generally controlled by the trainer.) The participants found it too easy to be distracted by people around them or phone calls when participating via a conference call. There were also a number of destructive distractions such as the lure of reading and responding to e-mail or engaging in a side conversation via instant messaging during the knowledge exchange. Documented job-aids were also not conducive to tacit knowledge transfer as they generally cover a best-case scenario and did not delve into the rich tacit body of knowledge. It was agreed that job-aids and other forms of documented knowledge are limited to being only effective for explicit knowledge transfer.

The second question, relating to the IP Team's environment was “What barriers are there to retaining knowledge in this environment? Why?” The respondents identified a number of constraints obstructing both tacit and explicit knowledge retention. They found the following issue frustrating: Five of the Seven felt that the environment was replete with constant interruptions—job performers were simultaneously working on live production orders while coping with a constant influx of e-mails and daily conference calls. The most destructive distraction was a production order that was in ”escalation.” An escalation can be defined as an order that is in jeopardy of missing the customer due-date and is given preferential treatment. In most cases, the job performers are expected to drop whatever they are doing at the moment and attend to the escalation through to fruition. Four of the seven participants also felt that the IP Team is by and large understaffed, leaving even less time for quality training and knowledge transfer.

Another destructive distraction issue from a tools perspective was that all employees had access to an internal instant messaging (IM) system. This gives job performers the ability to IM each other to instantly ask questions or engage in general “chatting.” The receiver receives an instantaneously “pop-up” message that appears on their computer screen with the questions the sender is inquiring on. It was noted that this is a wonderful tool for senders, as they can get an answer to a question very quickly. However, for receivers this is very distracting as they are pulled away from their current work tasks.

Finally, four of the seven stated that because the IP XXX services orders they were refining were so new, with many ongoing changes to the process, they spend considerable time working and adjusting broken and dysfunctional processes. This was grossly time-consuming to an already-strenuous schedule. Finally a general comment was expressed that it is important to have timely training. If training is conducted two months in advance of the new knowledge being needed, it is put into “cold storage.” When it is time to utilize that skill, too much time has pasted and the job performer then needed to go back and find a job aid to relearn that skill.

The next question was to delve into systems and tools that the job performers have access to. The question was given “With respect to tools, what worked well – what do you need – what's on your wish list? There are a number of internal web sites that house a prominent amount of documented information that job performers access if there is a need for knowledge or general updates to the process. The participants felt that if the web site is designed so that they could not access the documentation that they needed in two or three clicks of their mouse, then this would discourage them to continue to use that feature. They felt that they did not have the luxury of “surfing about a web page,” looking for information in their rapid and turbulent environment. An interesting point arising was that one of the participants noted that they (the team), in fact, are “tools” in the gathering and disseminating of information and knowledge. They felt that the only way to actually transfer tacit knowledge was via people-to-people contact, and that there really were no other tools or systems as effective as human interaction. Finally, “online” or virtual courses would have the advantages of letting them “see” how an application works. They noted that it would have to be self-paced so they could interlace it into their daily workload, so that if an escalation occurred they could readily and easily continue on the course at a later time. Again, they did feel that F2F training was by far the best solution for the transfer of explicit knowledge, but particularly so for tacit knowledge.

The fourth question given was, What about leadership (culture)? What could the leadership do to assist in knowledge transfer? Participants reiterated that there is a lack of resources in general and they felt that the accountability of senior management to ensure that there are adequate resources to cover both the production of IP XXX orders and to cope with any overflow activities and/or the time taken to partake in concentrated, uninterrupted quality training. It was also noted that as the IP Team continues to grow, and satellite offices are established, that the links back to the CoP are disrupted as well the linkages to management. Team members felt that they needed the support of management but having positive interactions between job performers, and management via virtual communications such as conference calls, net meetings, etc., was difficult. Team members are aware of the concerns with respect to the costs of travel; however, it was felt that there needs to be a strong staff and management connection to maintain open and honest feedback communication. They also observed that senior management spent significant time and effort micromanaging day-to-day issues, for example, being involved with individual IP XXX orders that were under escalation. Team members felt that they were quite competent to manage any escalations and did not need added senior manager pressure being exerted through intimidation. They felt that if the management would focus on supporting the resources by ensuring a sound process, this would ultimately benefit everyone—team members, customers, and, in the end, shareholders. They noted that senior management behavior in the past was counter to the firm's business code of conduct and the behavior attributes that all employees are expect to adhere to regardless of their level within the firm. The most disturbing perception held by some was that this behavior of some senior management was not dealt with. It was also important that the IP Team, being the production segment of the IP XXX, did not have the ability to disapprove of the IP process changes. The majority of participants passionately felt that it was the responsibility of the management to stand up and reject R&D products (being new processes) until the process could be released with a sense of confidence and quality. This assurance of the integrity of the products would help team members, rather than slow them down, because otherwise they have to cope with poor quality information processes, causing inefficiencies and leading to order escalations.

The final question to the participants was “What about people structure (motivation, reward system)? What could enable knowledge transfer?” The focus group discussed at length motivation of people within the IP Team. Participants noted that motivation within the IP Team should be exercised with the recognition of the “organic whole,” versus just a small-scale individual reward program that can create hostility and petty jealousy. One of the participants stated “I can only be the hero if everybody else does their part right.” An example of what they felt would be appropriate individual recognition would see a co-worker or manager stating that “thanks, you did a great job,” or “good work clearing up that escalation so quickly.” This reinforces the impression that time was a constraint and a suggestion offered was to block out uninterrupted time for training and learning that would better motivate people to share knowledge in a training context. It was also noted that team members felt that they were struggling with an overall genuine team attitude. One of the guiding principles of the program was to instill common best practices that would simplify and streamline the processes regardless where in the country an IP XXX order was implemented. As the IP Team began to grow and parts of the process were rolled out of the single R&D office to various satellite offices, the processes began to become location-specific with the local groups “adjusting” and “modifying” the process to meet local needs. This places a burden on the body of knowledge and documentation, as there were now many unique alterations to the process. It was felt that it was up to the management to enforce the “one process for all” imperative. It was felt important to have first worked in the main office and made F2F relationships before moving out into a satellite office.

Discussion and Analysis

This discussion is informed by three sources of data: responses from the focus group meetings; the follow-up survey; and direct observation of the participating researcher. Focus-group participants were both enthusiastic and very open in discussing the questions in an environment of open and honest dialogue.

The data from the situation within XYZ Telcom regarding the IP Team suggests that ensuring transfer of both explicit and knowledge tacit is best performed within a CoP within a single location. Also, training and the transfer of knowledge is best implemented with hands-on experience with “live” process orders in an F2F session with an experienced trainer.

Job aids are without doubt needed for the job performers for explicit knowledge transfer but are ineffective for tacit knowledge transfer. Job aids merely give the job performer the ability to rote-learn skills or memorize routines through repetition. However, the IP XXX process demands highly skill job team members with initiative and ability to be problem-solvers as and when required. They need to clearly understand the larger end-to-end process. It was felt that understanding what lay upstream and downstream from their input gave them insight and tacit knowledge that influences their decisions.

A strong deterrent to the successful transfer of knowledge was constant interruption from destructive distractions that the job performers endured, as well being starved of time to both do their day-job and be engaged in knowledge transfer. Respondents expressed concerns that managers and leaders of groups from satellite offices were interfering and micromanaging them. This reduced their motivation and capacity to effectively transfer knowledge in general to job performers.

It became evident from responses and observation that it might not be necessary to rebuild every process from scratch but to draw on existing processes within the company that have a proven track record. Sveiby (2001, p. 349) developed a knowledge transfer model that illustrated nine knowledge transfer sources occurring within and between what he calls the “external structure, the internal structure and individual competencies.” Organizations also have legacy systems and cultures that block this potential leverage. From an individual viewpoint, knowledge shared may be opportunity lost if the effect of the sharing is lost career opportunities, extra work, and no recognition.

Language was always an issue if training was not implemented in the mother tongue of the trainee. This was not uncommon and left the resources feeling they were not grasping the knowledge as well as they could if the training and documentation was in their mother tongue. Knowledge transfer was more easily undertaken where practical and functional ”real life” examples were used in training and coaching.

One of the participants remarked that the members of the IP Team were in fact “highly motivated” and very “dedicated” individuals, and there was a concern that if incomplete processes are pushed into the general population, there would be a reduction in productivity. Again, there was also concern with the reliability of the current processes. The type of motivation referred to was intrinsic motivation that drives affective commitment. Maslow (1943) identified intrinsic motivation as part of a desire for ego needs, and self-actualization as higher-order motivation. Meyer and Allen (1991) identified affective commitment as being the highest order of commitment under which people do something out of their intrinsic motivation to do so. Barbuto (2005) described motivation as a five-part psychological feature that arouses a person to action toward a desired goal. The first of these sources of motivation is an intrinsic process; second, instrumental; third, self-concept external; fourth, self-concept internal; and finally, goal internalization. This motivation was evident in tapping into the case study job performers' need for meaning and for purpose. Barbuto (2005) linked this kind of motivation to a transformational leadership style and behavior, as it is the role of senior management to give purpose and direction for employees in order to motivate employees.

In trying to understand what has happened in this case study and trying to make sense of it, we need to now frame the evidence gathered from the data and map it against theoretical frameworks. The frameworks discussed in this paper that we choose to use are the learning typology and processes offered by Prencipe and Tell (2001) and the concept of sticky knowledge (von Hippel, 1990; Szulanski, 1996).

Table 2 – Learning Process Analysis

Context Experience Accumulation Learning Process Comments and case study sticky knowledge and observation notes on Knowledge Articulation (K-A) and Knowledge Codification (K-C) through identifying knowledge transfer enablers (K-en) and knowledge transfer barriers (K-bar)
Individual On-job training K-A: undertaken through structured training sessions and mentoring. K-C: undertaken through developing training materials. Feedback was also sought and given such as the focus group based on informal discussions between lead users, and resources to develop, improve and refine training curriculum.
K-en: personal motivation, the skunk works trainer concept, the firm's leadership and implementation strategy to support the skunk works projects, and the willingness to experiment and improve training and mentoring methods.
K-bar: initial causal ambiguity stemming from job performers not understanding end-to-end processes and the implications of their role in this; continual interruptions in satellite office where managers who could have made these interruptions avoidable did not and in fact micromanaged these resources; and some indications of arduous relationships and a barren organizational context in satellite offices.
Individual Learning by doing, using, reflecting, and confronting K-A was undertaken by reflecting, thinking, discussing, and confronting real-life examples, thinking ahead of how best to successfully replicate and adapt processes to meet the needs of local demands and situations (context).
K-C was undertaken by learning and writing these processes down (for explicit knowledge) as job aids and transferring tacit knowledge through adapting these, and building a repertoire of routines using groupware technologies to record solutions to questions posed by colleagues.
K-en: lead-user job performer groups having a leadership culture within the firm to encourage them to incorporate real life examples in training exercises so that they rehearsed these routines prior to fully implementing the processes. These examples were design to confront and challenge job performers to learn.
K-bar: revolved around the same issue as noted above for training.
Group Imitation and routines K-A: verbal F2F interactions with resources and trainers; brainstorming sessions in the head office or conference calls: various ad-hoc and scheduled feedback meetings.
K-C: developing written (paper notes and electronic notes as e-mails, instant messages, etc.) routines and protocols that followed broadly repeatable formula with deepening histories of context and work-around strategies
K-en: lead user job performers become the initiators of evolving best practices as illustrated in the Crossan et al. (1999) and Lawrence et al (2005) feed forward/back knowledge transfer and influencing theories. Leadership commitment to changing the culture of satellite offices to adopt the best of the culture of the skunk works unit. Some evidence of post mortems and gathering lessons learned.
K-bar: under-resourcing and frustrations relating to uninterrupted time to fully codify knowledge or explicate current tacit contextual implications of practical application.
Group CoP and culture K-A: members using a CoP within the head office location to meet and exchange ideas and suggested improvements. Mainly verbal and demonstrated examples of knowledge to be transferred with use of technology such as groupware applications.
K-C: Notes and messages, individual's memory and developing CoP electronic knowledge bases.
K-en: Full leadership support within the skunk works. Member's keen motivation and passion, sense of excitement about being industry pioneers, fear of losing out to competitors as highlighted by Schein (1993) in his theory of these two types of anxiety influencing change behavior and motivation to take certain actions.
K-bar: Satellite office bureaucratic history and their managers' lack of willingness and ability to be open to challenges by job performers as acknowledged by the CEO in the XYZ Telcom 2004 annual report. This inertia undermined rolling out the CoPs from the head office skunk works location. Dual-language discussions for some participants.

Table 2 illustrates some of the issues and experiences of both individuals and groups that influenced the way that this kind of knowledge was transferred. An additional driver and barrier to knowledge transfer that was not evidenced in that table was the paradox of the organization's history. As a traditional Telcom firm, it was still burdened by its previous monopolistic status that insulated it from radical change and market competition, and this was reinforced by its highly bureaucratic structure and organizational culture. Telcom firms, however, have well-established R&D divisions, and so also have a high capacity to capitalize on their strong absorptive capacity (Cohen & Levinthal, 1990)—they just need to diffuse this capacity beyond the R&D divisions that were accustomed to developing new products to the wider organization to embrace new service and process approaches that result in radical changes in speed-to-market and customer relationship performance.

A major barrier (found to be triangulated by observation of the researcher, focus-group discussions and the follow-up survey) was the disruptive nature of process escalations on job performers in their training and testing of novel processes, and micromanaging leaders in satellite offices where these new processes was being rolled out. This fits with what Szulanski (1996) referred to as an the sticky knowledge factor ”arduous relationship between source and recipient.”. It can be explained in the ”holistic concept of man” (Koskinen & Pihlanto, 2006, p. 6) notion of the interplay between consciousness, situationality, and corporeality . Consciousness may have been partially impaired due to job performers not fully understanding end-to-end process implications of their role and some of them occasionally finding language a barrier, and also some experiencing problems in dual-language discussion groups. Corporeality aspects intruded in the sense that they felt constrained to transfer their attention to escalating a production order when required to do so by micromanaging satellite office managers. The situation that they found themselves in was one where they felt overworked and under-resourced, and this affected their ability and motivation to share knowledge at times. Also, the issue of rewards and recognition was raised, which concurs with Szulanski's (1996) arduous relationship stickiness factor. Using the Prencipe and Tell (2001) approach to analyzing the learning landscape, the case study experience suggests that the skunk works exhibited characteristics of being a knowledge explorer, with a strong top-up approach to bringing R&D resources together with lead users to develop innovative new processes, and was also a knowledge exploiter in attempting to roll out knowledge and experience from the skunk works to the broader organization.

The skunk works approach that XYZ Telcom is pursuing is consistent with that argued by Artto et al. (2008) as being appropriate for a business transformation project; they suggest success can be measured by the way that this project contributes to developing new businesses, radically new products or services, and speed of extracting itself from decaying markets or product support.


This paper's aims were to report upon an investigation of a case study situation and better understand how knowledge was transferred relating during the process re-engineering rollout example that formed the focus of this exploratory study. We used a single case study and justified this as being appropriate to the case, as it is an extreme example of change being instigated through a separate skunk works organization segregated from a large bureaucratic ”legacy” organization. We confined our study to knowledge transfer between developers of an innovation (a new production ordering process) and those charged with carrying out that administrative task in the broader organization. We used the theoretical framework offered by a number of KM and OL theorists, and more specifically adapted ideas about learning processes (Prencipe and Tell, 2001) and sticky knowledge (von Hippel, 1990; Szulanski, 1996) to help us make sense of what we discovered to be the experience of those interviewed (and that of the participating researcher) associated with this vanguard project. We are now faced with a ‘so what’ question. What use is this understanding to the organization and readers of this paper?

For readers of this paper, we suggest that it provides a real-life story that has been distilled into a useful case study. It illustrates the knowledge transfer approaches adopted and reflections of those participating in this to unearth what appeared to work. Our analysis goes some way to explaining the ”why” issues—why the results observed may have happened in that way. Knowledge transfer appears to have been effective, but we have identified some real and serious barriers. If we use Szulanski's (1996) seven factors of stickiness, we can see that both source and recipients of knowledge transfer were highly motivated and credible, so these form enablers rather than barriers. The recipients did not lack absorptive capacity. The organization's leaders strongly supported training and development, and the R&D experience facilitated it to build absorptive capacity in its staff. The recipients generally did not lack retentive capacity except when overworked and attention-overloaded due to destructive distractions and frequent crises that they had to manage. In general, there was little evidence of an arduous relationship between source and target, and the organizational context was not barren. The main problems lay in the recipient as being a bottleneck in the rollout of the innovative.

As stated and observed, these people appeared to be overburdened with work to enable them to be adequately trained to perform at their potential level. Their suggestion is to increase the number of expert job performers so that those undergoing training and participating in knowledge exchange with those refining the new processes have sufficient undisturbed time to internalize tacit knowledge. This may be a common and obvious solution, but it should be heeded if XYZ Telcom is to effectively roll out the new process and new work culture. The difficult part of this becomes clear from our analysis is that the broad organizational culture change project is a mammoth task. However, lessons from this process innovation rollout indicates that many of the factors affecting stickiness of knowledge transfer (including knowledge about how to change the culture) are favorable, and that perhaps through careful training and development and using some of the approaches successfully used as illustrated in Table 2 above, the organizational context can become less barren and the relationship less harassed, strained, and pressured.


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1 The citation is not included as it would obviously reveal the identity of XYZ Telcom.

2 The best way to gain an appreciation of the pace of change in VoIP is to access some of the trade literature see URL accessed October 17th 2007

4 The name of this work group has been changed to protect their identity.

5 The name of this work group has been changed to protect their identity.

© 2008 Project Management Institute



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