How to facilitate the knowledge transfer
In the paper, the importance and challenges of the knowledge transfer between key players involved in managing projects in the company are discussed.
Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to identify the main routes of knowledge transfer and present an overall solution for effective knowledge transfer from its source to the destination.
At first, the knowledge transfer concept and its role in project management is discussed. Based on that, three knowledge levels are identified and the potential routes of knowledge transfer are presented. The key elements of data repository, incentives, and reporting systems are highlighted. Moreover, the project management role in the overall concept is given.
In the conclusion, the project management office (PMO), as the central station of project traffic, is underlined. The overall idea of PMO acting as knowledge transfer between different levels is summarised.
Keywords: Knowledge, project, project management, PMO, transfer, solution, application, data repository.
Knowledge management is of special interest to academics and practitioners world-wide. This affects all the areas of activities of companies. In addition, in the field of project management, it is of the highest importance. The processes related to knowledge identification, capturing, developing, sharing, and using it (Davenport, 1994) in projects are of the highest significance, especially in multi-project environments. Furthermore, companies are managing an increasing number of projects simultaneously. As project management has been applied on a wide scale in different industries for more than three decades now, acquiring the lessons learned from past projects is a must. However, the issue of wise practical re-usage of the knowledge gathered from finished projects is of a complicated nature. There are several models of knowledge transfer. However, they mostly focus on the theoretical aspects of the process. Involving the project management office (PMO) in the process should make it more applicable in practice. Therefore, in this paper, I discuss the concept of PMO as a facilitator of the knowledge transfer among projects where knowledge transfer is understood to be the full set of activities related to knowledge identification, capturing, and applying it using different routes within the organisation, as shown in Exhibit 1.
Exhibit 1 – Simplified steps in project knowledge transfer.
Project Knowledge Management
Knowledge management is widely recognised by academics and practitioners as the key element associated with companies' operations (Adler, Heckscher, & Prusak, 2011 ; Cegarra-Navarro, 2011; Sanchez-Vidal, & Cegarra-Leiva, 2011; Friesl, Sackmann, & Kremser, 2011 ; Lindner & Wald, 2011; Mueller, 2012; Nold, 2011; Spalek, 2013). Knowledge-related issues are also of high importance to authors of articles related to project management from recent years (Basu, 2014; Do et al., 2012; Haug, 2013; Holzmann, 2013; Piraquive, Garcia, & Aguilar, 2013; Spalek, 2012). They describe many concepts and models dedicated to project knowledge management. However, for the purpose of this paper, we can assume that the knowledge in managing projects can be associated with (Gasik, 2011):
- Individual level.
- Project level.
- Organisational level.
At this level, knowledge is needed in most cases to perform a single task by any person involved in project work. From that perspective, knowledge can be required by this person or this person can possess knowledge which could be utilised in doing another task. In both cases, knowledge needs to be transferred to or from that person from or to a so-called knowledge repository and is dedicated to the individual project worker, e.g. programmer, driver, constructor.
The knowledge associated at this level is more about utilising it in order to fulfil the goals of a single project. In this situation, we can also have bi-directional knowledge transfer from and to the project repository. However, in this case it involves other groups of people, like project managers or project leaders.
At the organisational level, it is more about managing programmes or groups of projects. Therefore, knowledge is needed in and from the portfolio management area. The person interested in gaining or sharing the knowledge should be programme managers, portfolio managers, or programme directors.
Project Management Office
The project management office (PMO) can serve different roles in companies (Artto, Kulvik, Poskela, & Turkulainen, 2011; Aubry, Müller, Hobbs, & Blomquist, 2010; M. Aubry, Richer, Lavoie-Tremblay, & Cyr, 2011; Zhang & Bi, 2010). However, Pemsel and Wiewiora (2013) underline its increasing role as a knowledge facilitator in projects. This is in line with my empirical study, which revealed that the major expectations of PMOs are the issues dedicated to managing knowledge in projects (Spalek, 2012). Based on the results of this study, we can conclude that different elements of knowledge management issues are expected to be in one out of three operational PMO's functions. One of these functions is most decidedly knowledge transfer.
PMO as Knowledge Supporter in Practice
In my recent studies on project management maturity, which covered more than 400 companies world-wide, 272 of them reported having PMOs. The major goal of the entire research was to assess the project management maturity level of chosen companies. Their maturity was assessed using the author's model (Spalek, 2014) in the areas of methods and tools, human resources, project environment, and knowledge management. The assessment was conducted in each area separately, on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest level of maturity. Moreover, the different aspects influencing project management processes related to each area were analysed. The companies were of three types from the following industries: machinery, information technology, and construction. The data was collected via a web-based questionnaire. The companies participating in the study were international ones, with the number of employees being 50 or more.
The earlier study focused on the success factors of PMOs. However, one of the research areas was to investigate the different areas of activities the PMO should cover, including knowledge management. The study was designed as a web-based questionnaire. The companies' operating regions were from a variety of areas, mostly in Europe (46%). The lowest number of companies operated in the Middle East and Africa (12%). Somewhere in between were the companies operating in North America, South and Latin America, and Asia and the Pacific. Detailed information on the operating regions of participating companies is shown in Exhibit 2.
Exhibit 2 – Operating regions of companies participating in study I.
PMO and its Influence on Knowledge Processes
As a result of the first study, out of the 272 PMOs from the investigated companies, only 8% do not support processes related to knowledge management in organisations they operate in. Forty six per cent support some of those processes, 41% most, and 4% all.
Moreover, in the second study, almost 38% of the 403 PMOs investigated addressed the need to create and maintain a data repository.
The above stated results indicate that the PMO plays or should play an important role in managing project knowledge in companies. However, Liebowitz (2012) noticed that there is a significant gap between the theory and practice in knowledge management sharing processes. It seems there is a common understanding that knowledge should be managed by companies. However, even if the organisation invests in the creation of a data repository, there are serious obstacles in transferring this knowledge to the place where it is needed. Furthermore, the transfer of knowledge to the data repository is also far from expectations. This issue is especially challenging if we want to identify and capture the knowledge which is in the possession of individuals and is the result of their experience. On the other hand, even if we fill the data repository with, for example, the outsourced standards, there are other types of difficulties connected with transferring this codified knowledge into the designated places.
Knowledge Transfer Routes in Project Management
There are different routes associated with knowledge transfer involved with various levels:
However, in this paper, we consider the concept of using the data repository as a key element in knowledge transfer, regardless of the level involved. It means that if the knowledge is transferred from individual to project level, or from organisational level to individual, then the data repository is always in the middle of the process, as shown in Exhibit 3.
Exhibit 3 – The central location of the data repository in the knowledge transfer process.
Knowledge Transfer to and from the Individual Level
The most difficult to manage in practice is the transfer of knowledge from a person involved in project work. As was indicated in other studies (El-Korany, 2007; Liebowitz, 2012; Lindner & Wald, 2011), knowledge is very often hindered by individuals. This situation is caused by typical profit and loss calculations, done sometimes on an almost intuitive basis. Ironically, this behaviour is very often endorsed by companies as a systematic way of knowledge management but, on this level, is not well organised, if at all. Therefore, instead of transferring the data in the way the company would like in order to have control and profit, individuals trade off the knowledge among each other. This is the so-called grapevine effect, which is beneficial for its participants. However, the people who are outside of this specific social network have no opportunity to gain from the knowledge of others. It is so, as the knowledge is treated as a limited, valuable asset. If the company wants to possess it, there must be an incentive system which should replace the person-to-person informal knowledge trade-off.
I argue, therefore, that the PMO should play the role of facilitator of knowledge transfer to and from the individual level. This can be achieved by the following:
- Implementing incentives for revealing knowledge by individuals.
- Building a well-structured data repository, including valuable external and internal data.
Building an efficient incentive-based system is a challenging task, as the individuals taking part in the projects can have different needs. Therefore, the first task of the PMO should be to identify the structure and typology of people involved in projects. Based on that, we can build the entire incentives' system. This process can somehow be similar to that of stakeholders management. Therefore, the incentives systems on this level can be different in different companies, influenced mostly by the project types and, furthermore, by the types of workers. However, some companies are trying to implement more universal strategies, like knowledge dollars (K$). In this concept, the individuals can earn K$ for feeding the data repository with the knowledge gained from their lessons learned. Then K$ can spend on the goods and services designated by the company. Despite having some limitations, this approach seems to be the most universal one.
Well-Structured Data Repository
The PMO should also be responsible for building and maintaining a well-structured data repository. It should be organised in such a way that individuals with a lack of knowledge should have easy access to it. This is not only limited to computer-aided search tools, but also knowledge should be presented using different means such as audio, video, or text. As in some cases, a short video is more desirable for individuals than reading a chapter of the manual. Moreover, individuals should be encouraged to provide some feedback on the quality of the data repository in four key areas: accessibility, information quality, covered areas, and interface ergonomics. In order to receive continuous feedback on the data repository, this should also constitute a part of the incentive system offered by the company.
Knowledge Transfer to and from Project and Organisational Levels
Knowledge transfer to and from the project and organisational levels is more crucial in the multi-project environment than in single-project based companies, while the individual level is of high importance in both. However, knowledge in the project and organisational levels is more dependent on the quality of data repository than the incentive system. It is so as the PMO, being responsible for collecting the data from the project and portfolio levels, acquires a lot of data anyway. What's more, there is no real need to additionally endorse project, programme, or portfolio managers to produce redundant reports. If anything, the incentive system should be focused on drawing some conclusions from the data analysis, which should result in project or portfolio management improvement. However, this could also be achieved through the existing bonus system of those managers, not necessarily building the K$ system in so doing.
The Key Steps toward Facilitating Knowledge Transfer
Based on the previous considerations, I can recommend the following steps in order to effectively facilitate project knowledge transfer in the company, as shown in Exhibit 4
Exhibit 4 – The major steps toward facilitating knowledge transfers in the company.
Firstly, it is advisable to establish the PMO within the companies' organisational structure. By doing that, we will have a kind of central station for different routes of knowledge transfers, connecting the individual, project and organisational levels. The following tasks should then be assigned to the PMO: building and maintaining the data repository, identifying individual level needs, and creating the sets of reports which should be completed at the project and organisational levels to ensure feedback from users of the data repository. Furthermore, the PMO should be responsible for enriching the data repository from external sources of knowledge, e.g. recognised standards and tools in the project management field. In practice, the PMO should facilitate two types of knowledge: internal and external. In order to make the system operationally effective, training sessions for different groups involved in projects should be scheduled on a regular basis.
The overall concept of facilitating project knowledge transfer routes is shown in Exhibit 5.
Exhibit 5 – Overall concept of facilitating knowledge transfer by PMO.
The proposed concept of facilitating knowledge transfer by the PMO is based on the idea of creating a systematic approach to knowledge identification, capturing, developing, sharing, and application processes. Notwithstanding, it also has some limitations. The knowledge transfer can be quite welcome in large organisations, having its subsidiaries spread out across the globe. In such companies, the participants from different projects may never meet or communicate with each other. Therefore, the creation of the incentive system for knowledge sharing can be beneficial for them in two ways. One is purely profiting out of exchanging K$ for goods or services, and the second, even more appreciated in the long term, is access to the knowledge gained from their colleagues from other branches of the organisation. There is, of course, one general condition which should make this system more workable. It is the quality of the data repository, not only in terms of data validation but with a greater focus on accessibility, which depends on the data structure (keywords, context search engines) and the ergonomics of the end user interface. If the database works slowly and the user receives irrelevant data for his or her case, then it will dissuade him or her from using the database again. This can cause a drop in motivation with regards to sharing knowledge in the future.
Moreover, in relatively small organisations (employing fewer than 50 people), the sense of creating a very formalised approach to transferring knowledge can generate more cons than pros. In any case, the idea of creating a PMO in those companies is sometimes irrational, unless the PMO is more of a coaching type and composed of project participants. In such a situation, the PMO can endorse the grapevine effect, as the direct transfer of knowledge among project participants is the most efficient one. However, that concept requires the facilitation of knowledge transfer through more frequent project meetings where some ideas and experiences are exchanged. Moreover, during such a meeting, it is advisable that there should one person designated to process and record the key knowledge elements, equipping the repository with crucial information related to ongoing and future projects. It is designed to avoid the situation whereby one day, the majority of staff quit and currently operational projects can be seriously jeopardised.
Effective knowledge management is a key success factor nowadays. This is of the utmost importance in multi- project environments.
In order to increase efficiency in managing projects, companies need to introduce a systematic approach to transferring knowledge, both from external and internal sources to the places where this knowledge should be applied. Acquiring knowledge from external sources represents a traditional kind of approach in which the company adopts some world-recognised project management standards (e.g. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)) and schedules external training sessions for the project's staff. This approach, although still valid, is not sufficient as the only approach. Therefore, companies need to focus on the knowledge which is created from the experience of doing projects. This knowledge can be identified on the individual, project, and organisational levels. In order to capture this knowledge, the following elements are needed: an incentive system and a data repository. The third element is a reporting system which creates a fully integrated knowledge transfer solution.
The PMO's role is to act as architect of the overall solution and facilitator of knowledge transfers within and between the different levels through the usage of the data repository, incentive, and reporting systems. The PMO should also gather feedback from system users and implement improvements thereof. Being the central location for projects' knowledge traffic, the PMO should be able to create added value for the company from both internal and external knowledge sources.
This work was supported by a grant from the National Science Center
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© 2014, Seweryn Spalek
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE