Blueprints of knowledge
BY MATT ALDERTON
PORTRAIT BY PEDRO GUIMARÃES
Reinventing the wheel is a waste of resources. But when project teams lack the blueprints to replicate success—and avoid repeating mistakes—they have no choice but to start from scratch.
Going back to the drawing board is more than just inefficient. It also reduces a project's chance of success. Organizations that have formal knowledge transfer processes in place also are more likely to deliver projects on schedule (59 percent versus 41 percent) and on budget (62 percent versus 48 percent), according to PMI's 2015 Pulse of the Profession®: Capturing the Value of Project Management.
Despite these benefits, the Pulse report found that only half of global organizations have a formal knowledge transfer process in place. This shortfall can cost an organization “time, money and credibility,” says Tracy Vilkauskas, PMP, senior project manager, Cable One Inc., Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
“If a senior-level project manager leaves and has not been required to transition their knowledge in a structured fashion to another project manager, there is a breakdown in the effectiveness of the organization,” she says. “When you have a person performing a role who does not have the necessary knowledge, it takes them longer to execute and there is a serious risk of mistakes being made that may affect team morale and overall project delivery.”
A formal knowledge transfer process can prevent this scenario—and drive results. The Pulse report found that 75 percent of high-performing organizations have a formal knowledge transfer process in place, compared to just 35 percent of low-performing organizations. High performers successfully complete 90 percent of their projects, while low performers successfully complete only 36 percent.
“When you have a person performing a role who does not have the necessary knowledge, it takes them longer to execute and there is a serious risk of mistakes being made that may affect team morale and overall project delivery.”
—Tracy Vilkauskas, PMP, Cable One Inc., Phoenix, Arizona, USA
This risk is exacerbated if major team changes happen in the middle of a long-term project, says Girish Mahajan, PMP, senior project manager, Care Management International, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“People who worked previously on the project have gained a lot of knowledge, and it could take months or even years for newer team members to get caught up,” he says. “Having formal knowledge transfer policies and practices makes it possible to onboard a person into a new industry or a new project in a very short span of time, and provides relevant historical data and information to support decision-making.”
The need for formal knowledge transfer processes is exacerbated by the global talent crisis. In 2014, 36 percent of employers indicated they had trouble filling jobs—the highest percentage since 2007, according to human resources consultancy ManpowerGroup.
The ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey 2014 says the crunch is being felt in both established and emerging markets. In Japan, for instance, where the median population age is 46, 81 percent of employers say filling jobs is difficult. In India, where the median population age is 27, 64 percent of employers say the same.
In established markets, the challenge reflects an accelerating loss of mature talent to retirement; in emerging markets, the difficulty stems from a surge of young talent lacking practical training and experience. And as root causes vary, so do the obstacles project managers need to overcome.
In Portugal, for instance, executive sponsors often are hesitant to create a formal knowledge transfer program because they believe employee knowledge already belongs to the organization, says Sónia Peleja, PMP, project manager, Altran Portugal, Lisbon, Portugal.
“We have been brought up understanding training almost as part of our wages,” she explains. “It is usual to have ‘learning contracts’ where you're forced to pay the training costs to the company if you leave before a given time. What companies haven't understood is that the knowledge goes with you. There's no money in the world that can pay them back that investment.”
In other environments, practitioners put up roadblocks. In especially competitive economies, senior employees avoid participating in knowledge transfer programs for fear of being diminished or replaced by new colleagues and technologies.
“Sometimes knowledge is jumbled with power, and that creates risk for companies,” says Alessandra Rodrigues Almeida, PMP, head of project and process management office, Serasa Experian, São Paulo, Brazil. “So, it is important to understand the web of power and break it, if necessary, to avoid impacting the future of the business.”
But breaking the web of power is easier said than done. A good first step is creating a culture that values experience, says Tracy Vilkauskas, PMP, senior project manager, Cable One Inc., Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
“I would like to see a shift in consciousness where organizations recognize how much value these senior-level employees offer and capitalize on that by giving them opportunities to help the organization as a whole by sharing the knowledge they have,” she says.
In addition to fueling a collaborative culture, organizations also must create intergenerational teams to maximize the value of knowledge transfer programs. But getting team members of all ages to work together isn't just about encouraging them to swap insider expertise and software shortcuts. It's about closing strategic skill gaps—and filling the talent pipeline.
“For me, the key is being deliberate,” Ms. Vilkauskas says. “You see a gap that exists, or is about to exist, and you take specific action to ensure that the relevant knowledge base is transitioned successfully from one individual or group to another.”
“Sometimes knowledge is jumbled with power, and that creates risk for companies.”
—Alessandra Rodrigues Almeida, PMP, Serasa Experian, São Paulo, Brazil
But implementing these processes can be a battle against inertia. A shortage of time, resources and executive sponsorship will stall the best-planned program. To successfully build a knowledge transfer framework, an organization first must develop a culture of collaboration, says Sónia Peleja, PMP, project manager, Altran Portugal, Lisbon, Portugal.
“Knowledge transfer presupposes there is a sharing of competencies, which may have been acquired in formal ways, such as in-class training, or as a result of daily experiences, by interacting with other people, cultures or environments,” Ms. Peleja says.
Regardless of the techniques used, successful knowledge transfer should be a top-down process, says Ms. Vilkauskas. She recommends project leaders and practitioners begin the building process by seeking executive sponsorship and support.
“A conversation is the starting point,” she says. “It's a sales job, primarily. Executives like documentation presented to them in a very clear, distinct way. If you can show them the risks that become issues when knowledge transfer does not take place—if you can document for them all the dominoes that will fall, highlighting time, cost and quality—that will ring executives’ bells.”
In a previous role, Ms. Vilkauskas introduced executives and other stakeholders to the benefits of knowledge transfer by organizing a knowledge transfer “road show.” “It was a presentation that essentially ran through—from front to back—what the knowledge transfer process was, and what the benefits were,” she explains. “We presented that road show to anybody and everybody in the organization who would listen, and I think that was a great part of our success.”
A targeted messaging campaign can build the support needed to assign PMO-level resources to a strategic knowledge transfer initiative. And having a dedicated team is the best way to implement a program that will work, says Mr. Mahajan.
“Organizations need to ensure there are people who are focused specifically on knowledge transfer,” he says. “These people are the change agents who will continuously enforce the standards that are set and the best practices that are adopted. They're the people who ultimately are accountable for making sure knowledge is transferred. In that way, knowledge transfer itself becomes a project in the organization. That's the ideal way to approach it, because it mitigates risk and creates accountability, ownership and alignment with the goals of the organization.”
“Knowledge transfer itself becomes a project in the organization. That's the ideal way to approach it.”
—Girish Mahajan, PMP, Care Management International, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
FORMALIZE THE APPROACH
With executive sponsorship secured and change agents in place, successful knowledge transfer relies on the development and execution of specific, structured processes and practices.
“In strategic terms, it is very important to identify which knowledge you need and want to capture,” says Ms. Peleja. “When that is done, the first thing to do is to establish what methods will be used and for which purpose. This will depend on industry, age, cultural factors and, many times, on personal preferences.”
Whether information is being downloaded from senior- to junior-level employees, from the project team to the operations team, or from external to internal team members, processes should aim to make the transfer personal, says Ms. Peleja.
“It is more than organizing, creating or distributing ‘knowledge.’ It is more than sharing technical, technological or soft skills. It is sharing the whole experience,” she says.
“Knowledge transfer presupposes there is a sharing of competencies, which may have been acquired in formal ways, such as in-class training, or as a result of daily experiences, by interacting with other people, cultures or environments.”
—Sónia Peleja, PMP
Peer presentations—conducted remotely or in person—are a common and effective knowledge-transfer tactic used by Vodafone Group Services in Düsseldorf, Germany, according to Mariano Blaya, PMI-SP, PMP, a service transition and quality manager.
At Vodafone, he recently developed a formalized peer presentation program to facilitate the flow of knowledge from external system integrators in India to an internal operations team in Egypt. So far, success has been a function of meeting frequency, advanced scheduling, clear communication and thoughtful documentation.
“The process of refinement and getting acceptable quality took us roughly two to three months, running two to three knowledge transfer sessions per week,” explains Mr. Blaya, who says persistence and consistency were key. “We had to keep pushing back and keep trying, but finally I think we have a fairly stable process that's working well.”
Scheduling formal sessions every week can be a drain on resources, but the payoff is worth the investment, says Ms. Vilkauskas.
“If you schedule your time, and you have a framework for what you want to accomplish, it can be very effective.”
“Peer presentations, conducted remotely or in person, are a common and effective knowledge-transfer tactic.”
—Mariano Blaya, PMI-SP, PMP, Vodafone Group Services, Düsseldorf, Germany
VALIDATE THE RESULTS
Without the rapid onboarding produced by successful knowledge transfer, organizations risk interrupting project continuity when project team changes are made. These interruptions can lead to additional turnover, informational attrition, low performance, inconsistent methodologies and operational gaps.
“The risk could be very strong for a company—especially in a competitive market—if its essential knowledge is concentrated in a small group of people,” says Alessandra Rodrigues Almeida, PMP, head of project and process management office, Serasa Experian, São Paulo, Brazil.
Once knowledge has left the organization, there's no getting it back. To reduce the effects of brain drain as quickly as possible, organizations must measure the effectiveness of their knowledge transfer programs—and be ready to make changes when gaps persist.
“Metrics are incredibly important,” Ms. Vilkauskas says. “You must develop criteria for measuring whether or not the knowledge has actually been transferred.”
Metrics might reflect the number of knowledge transfer sessions held, how valuable the participants found the knowledge transfer sessions or the project success rate of knowledge recipients. But whichever metrics are used, they always must be tracked against clear objectives to ensure that results are improving with time.
“I favor, whenever possible, the assessment of the approach to the problem that demonstrates there is an understanding of what is asked,” Ms. Peleja says. “It is mandatory to establish the exact goal we are aiming for to be able to then determine the success of the knowledge transfer—and that is as important as measuring the results afterwards.” PM
“In strategic terms, it is very important to identify which knowledge you need and want to capture.”
—Sónia Peleja, PMP
Explore more findings from PMI's 2015 Pulse of the Profession®: Capturing the Value of Project Management by downloading the full report at PMI.org/Pulse.
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JUNE 2015 PM NETWORK