Managing project management knowledge
“Knowledge is power.” Knowledge management (KM) in project management requires a programmatic approach that combines people, processes, tools, and, of course, information, to satisfy project managers’ needs for knowledge. We will explore how just-in-time access to knowledge in the normal course of work, knowledge sharing in a community of practice, and a formal learning curriculum tied to career path and competency requirements are essential to success in any organization.
Steve Ballmer said at the 2007 Microsoft Project Conference, “At Microsoft, we recognize that knowledge and skills are at the heart of a person's ability to realize their full potential.”
Project managers, working on complex, critical, and costly projects require relevant knowledge to do their jobs. KM ensures the availability of such knowledge.
Current state knowledge reflects the status and progress of active projects and processes. Process knowledge reflects the way a process is performed. KM addresses both current state and process knowledge. This paper will focus on process knowledge.
Knowledge is information that enables a person to achieve a goal---for example, knowing a technique. Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge; it is the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; it is insight, good sense, and judgment. Clearly the goal is to cultivate wisdom.
Definition: Knowledge Management (KM)
There is no consensus definition of KM.
“Knowledge management is…a concept in which an enterprise consciously and comprehensively gathers, organizes, shares, and analyzes its knowledge in terms of resources, documents, and people skills.” (Search Domino, 2006, ¶1). KM enables organizations to capture and distribute knowledge.
“A practical definition of KM at the operational level is:
Knowledge management is the strategic management of people and knowledge representations along with associated content and information in an organization, using technology and processes so as to optimize knowledge sharing and utilization, by transferring knowledge directly between people or indirectly through systems, to derive overall benefits to all aspects of the functioning of the organization.” (Suresh & Mahesh, 2006, p. 14)
Knowledge representations are the metadata about the knowledge used to access the content.
Justification for KM
The business objective of managing project management knowledge is to enable organizations to consistently perform projects successfully. Knowledge management ensures that the right resources will be available with the right proficiencies and knowledge.
What is the value of the knowledge management? Is it compelling enough to get funding and executive support?
How many defects or errors, late or over-budget projects, and hours of unnecessary effort can be avoided by making information easily available in the course of work and motivating people to use it? How many hours of effort and instances of poor quality can be avoided by retaining the knowledge of experts who may change roles or leave the organization? How much would that be worth?
“If knowledge management is done well, it will lead to reduced costs, increased revenues, increased profitability, and the achievement of your other business objectives.” (Rusanow, 2003)
KM and Project Management
KM is needed for every process. Project management is a complex knowledge-based process. It is embedded in a performance process (e.g., developing software, constructing a building) and often within processes like engagement management, product development, construction, and so on.
Some project management knowledge is generic and some is specific to the project domain (e.g., IT, construction, nuclear engineering). For example, estimating data, project life cycle models, and project archives are relevant in a specific domain and for a specific type of project and may be useless or misleading outside of those areas. Context and interest-based access is critical. Paradoxically, adapting best practices from specific situations to others requires the ability to cut across domains by subject or technique, among other attributes.
Project management requires responsible creative thinking. Every project is unique and the more complex it is, the more unique. The effective project manager must be able to adapt responsively and make skillful use of best practice tools, techniques, and principles. At the same time, the realities of organizations require that policies, procedures, and standards be documented and followed. The project management knowledge system must be able to support this formal need and open opportunities for continuous improvement through knowledge sharing.
Although our focus is on project management knowledge, it is important to recognize intersecting knowledge domains and move towards enterprise-wide KM while choosing to address project management knowledge explicitly, depending on project management and KM maturity levels.
Project Management KM Concepts
PM knowledge management involves blending people, process, and tools into a self-sustaining system. Archiving, document management, the development and ongoing maintenance of methodologies, standards and procedures, training and competency development, knowledge taxonomies, search approaches, collaboration tools, communities of practice, and social computing are all part of KM.
Explicit and Tacit Knowledge
Tacit knowledge comes from observation and direct experience. It is not articulated. Tacit knowledge is enabled through working with and observing others with varying levels of capability and proficiency, from various intersecting disciplines. It is further enabled when the “masters” take the time to answer questions and direct the novices, journeymen, and their peers.
“Understanding the nature, role, importance and value of tacit knowledge…is key to formulating KM strategy, deciding on cultural change, picking appropriate tools and finding a suitable measurement system. Without awareness of tacit knowledge any KM program is unlikely to maintain perspective and balance.” (Knowledge-at-Work, 2005, ¶1)
Explicit knowledge is articulated tacit knowledge. It is found in process documentation and individual memories.
Content Based and Collaborative Solutions
There are two broad categories of solutions for managing knowledge: content and collaborative-based (Suresh & Mahesh, 2006, p. 78). An effective KM system will make use of the right combination of solutions to address the needs of the project management community. Find the right balance for the organization at its current maturity level and plan to have the system adapt as the organization changes.
Content-based solutions involve explicit or well defined and accepted knowledge. They enable asynchronous and synchronous interactions to get knowledge from a source to someone who needs it. The use of the knowledge is repeated.
Collaborative-based solutions are focused on, but not limited to, tacit knowledge. They involve a two-way communication flow. It is the kind of knowledge sharing that takes place in a planning session where highly experienced and proficient project managers work with team members with various levels of capability and experience, exchange ideas, address questions and issues, and merge learning with current work effort. Collaborative solutions can include social computing, simulations in workshops, as well as learning in actual work situations.
Implementing and Sustaining a Project Management KM System
There are two levels of process. One is the process for implementing and sustaining a project management KM process and the other addresses the KM process itself.
A knowledge management system (KMS) combines tools and processes to provide the following:
- Just-in-time access to a comprehensive knowledge base and to experts in the context of role, process step, or situation
- Active learning with formal training and coaching plus other means to integrate the knowledge
- Knowledge sharing using social computing blogs, wikis, forums, and so on.
- Learning embedded into the work itself (e.g., reviews, planning workshops)
From a project management perspective, KM is a process within enterprise project management (EPM), which includes program and portfolio management. To implement KM effectively and refine it over time, as the organization and the tools and methods mature, requires a program within the overall EPM improvement program. The system evolves.
“Knowledge exchange in…organizations is characterized by varying degrees of volunteerism, participation, and self organization. Knowledge sharing in any such organization can be described as happening in two ways: through formal KM initiatives, systems, and processes, as well as through informal contacts, relationships, and networking and casual interactions that are part of the culture of the organization.” (Suresh & Mahesh, 2006, p. 15)
The KM program should address both formal and informal knowledge sharing. To address formal knowledge sharing, there are specific projects to create and implement tools, methods, and processes. Taxonomy, tool suite, content management, ongoing operational support, organizational dynamics, and individual motivation must all be blended into a dynamic, self-sustaining system.
Informal knowledge sharing, while it can be left to an organic development, can be aided and directed as a part of the KM program; for example, performing projects to implement social computing tools and methods that enhance and enable sharing through the use of blogs and Wikis. Providing time for social knowledge sharing is part of the motivation for the KM investment.
An organization's culture changes as it confronts new situations and absorbs new technology, new knowledge, and new people. The change can be accelerated and directed by a managed program within the overall EPM and organizational performance improvement initiative.
A programmatic approach implies a planned effort to
- Acknowledge the need for and value of KM
- Articulate a vision of how PM knowledge will be managed in the context of the overall PM process (“what will it be like?” and “strategically, how will we get there?”)
- Assess the current state of project management KM
- Identify the gap between the vision and the current state
- Select, plan, and execute the projects and processes needed to address the gaps in an evolutionary process
- Take an incremental approach that is integrated into the overall project management improvement program
- Coordinate project management KM with organization-wide KM and other related improvement initiatives (e.g., engagement management).
- Select and implement the process’ tools and techniques
- Adopt a project management competency model and use it as a base for project management curriculum development
- Implement operational supporting functions
- Manage the organizational and cultural change
- Continuously monitor and improve the project management KM process and the knowledge content itself.
Knowledge Management Process and Content
Knowledge management processes enable and motivate people to contribute their ideas, knowledge, and experience, to edit and control the quality of the information, to organize it to make it accessible, and to use it when needed.
People make the processes work. Attitudes, motivation, gradations of intelligence, capability, familiarity with technology, different communication skill sets, learning styles, and the availability of the time required to manage and engage in the knowledge transfer must be addressed in a continuous improvement process.
The knowledge-creating process shown in Exhibit 1 demonstrates how socialization creates new tacit knowledge through shared experiences. This is articulated and turned into conceptual explicit knowledge, which is combined with other knowledge to create systemic explicit knowledge. Systemic knowledge is stored in databases for use by practitioners, who may then internalize it and turn it into operational tacit knowledge. This operational tacit knowledge, in turn, when used in social settings, continues the cycle.
Top-Down Control and Allowing New Patterns to Emerge
The cycle takes place within a system that may be more or less structured and controlled. There is a shift from structured or systemic information to the fragmented and highly granular unstructured material that arises out of social approaches. There is a balance.
There is the need to enable knowledge workers to get at the explicit information regarding the process and “the opportunity to connect to communities, experts and other services that can provide them with the answers they need…. leading enterprises will commit to learning how to cede some central control and allow for the spontaneous creation of the right assembly of people and information “at the edge” of the organization to solve business problems.” (Zaman & Reynolds, 2008)
“Faced with an intractable problem, do you go and draw down best practice from your company's knowledge management system, or do you go and find eight or nine people you know and trust with relevant experience and listen to their stories?” (Zaman & Reynolds, 2008). Dave Snowden, in KM World, reports that most people want experts.
However, experts are rare. There is the need for a right balance of structured material (e.g., organized training and best practices); materials arising from free flow of tagged information (e.g., blogs and open forums), and easy access to others.
Project management process knowledge includes process definitions, guidelines, best practices, estimating data, templates, examples, and discussions regarding their application. These answer the what, why, when, how to, where, and who questions. They may take the form of white papers, blog posts, archives, tutorials, website, and book reviews, frequently asked questions and e-learning modules.
Organization and Classification
The content must be catalogued and indexed to enable context-based access by its users.
Knowledge representation serves as “the set of knowledge attributes necessary for efficiently finding relevant and applicable matches for the context of a knowledge need” (Suresh & Mahesh, 2006, p. 14). The knowledge attributes may be key words, specific characteristics of a piece of knowledge.
Collaborative solutions rely on users to tag documents using keywords and bookmarking or including search results in shared folders for use by an individual or work group. These approaches reduce search time and enable knowledge sharing.
The project management body of knowledge is complex. The (PMBOK® Guide) taxonomy given in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)---Third edition (Project Management Institute, 2004) is based on areas of knowledge, steps, and process groups. Other taxonomies include the steps in a specific organization's process, project domain, size, and type of project, industry, project management tool, situation, competency, activity (e.g., negotiating an estimate), among others.
Effective KM enables users to find, for example, knowledge regarding an estimate for a small software enhancement project using a particular language on a particular platform for a particular client.
Knowledge Base Management
KM implies a knowledge data base. Managing it involves:
- Acquiring the data
- Disseminating—distribution and access
- Measuring usage and benefits
- Improving the process and content
“Gathering is the bringing in of information and data into the system. Organizing is the process of associating items to subjects, giving them context, making them easier to find. Refining is the process of adding value by discovering relationships, abstracting, synthesis, and sharing. Disseminating is getting knowledge to the people who can use it.” (Angus & Patel, 1998). Automated tools support the process.
Depending on the level of maturity of the organization, the processes will more likely be consciously designed, defined, and managed. Suresh and Mahesh (Suresh & Mahesh, 2006, p. 41) define KM maturity levels ranging from unmanaged to self managing. The self-managing KM process operates with little external effort; the process is automated and integrated completely with the work itself.
Competency management is closely related to KM. Competency management makes sure that the organization has a sustainable supply of capable people for required roles.
The competency model describes one dimension of the knowledge taxonomy. It is also the basis for the design of the organization's learning and development program.
Refining consists of editing and otherwise making the information quality high. Quality information is:
Content reviewers edit content for correctness and relevance. Editors make contributions consistently readable. Issues of editorial authority, collaborative efforts, and conflicts regarding what content should and should not be included must be resolved. Refining the content is effort-intensive and requires resources that are often in short supply. Key subject matter experts must be motivated to take an active role.
To support writing at the grassroots level, provide guidelines, templates, and examples. Empower a respected content review board to pass on contributions, particularly those that will perpetuate as best practices, standards, and so on.
Clearly stated criteria are needed to minimize subjectivity and enable rotation of members of the review board without continuously changing the look and feel of content.
Correctness and reliability are of course critical. Peer-level sharing makes it more likely to pass erroneous information to large numbers of people. People with strong opinions and the ability to write well are not necessarily “right.” Some oversight is needed to ensure the quality of information in these forums. This oversight can be as light as reviewing usage statistics and user surveys to monitor after the fact or as heavy as reviewing every entry. Somewhere between these extremes---with a preference for greater peer control and responsibility than control by an external review board---lies the right degree of content control.
Picking the review and editorial team is no simple matter. Volunteers may or may not have the capability to be both experts and diplomats. Diplomatic, yet candid, reviewers and editors with content knowledge are hard to find.
Performance improvement is the bottom line for KM. Marginal changes in KM based on investments in tools and new methods cannot easily be pinned directly to performance improvements. However, the relationship is clear. Knowledge management ensures that PM capabilities are maintained, decisions are supported, and the PM process is healthy.
A complete discussion of measuring the benefits of KM is outside of the scope of this paper. The measures are summarized in the KM system success model, shown in Exhibit 2 by Jennes and Zakharova (2004) which is based on earlier models.
- System quality---How well does the knowledge management system perform? How much of the knowledge is included?
- Knowledge/information quality---How available is the right knowledge with sufficient context for the right users at the right time?
- Service quality---How effective is IT and end-user support?
- Use/user satisfaction---Is the KMS used and are users satisfied?
- Perceived benefit---How do users perceive KMS benefits and impacts?
- Net Benefits---Does the KMS impact individual competencies and organizational performance?
The most critical and complex issues revolve around people---their motivations, organization, roles, and relationships. KM involves communities of practice and interest. The interpersonal and organizational issues include:
- Roles and responsibilities
- Creation of a self-sustaining knowledge community
- Motivating participation
- KM process ownership
Roles and Responsibilities
The principal KM roles are:
- Executive sponsorship
- Content users
- Content providers
- Editors and reviewers
- Competency managers
- KM process owners
- KM administration
- Training and learning development
- Technical support.
Knowledge communities consist of people with common professional discipline, project types, product, business units, and departments, among other interests. Communities include subcommunities; software development project managers, for example, is a project management subcommunity). Individuals belong to multiple communities (software developers may also be project managers or have a need to access project management knowledge). Each community has its needs and styles.
A self-sustaining knowledge community is one in which knowledge management is an integral part of the community's processes. Sharing and using information is acknowledged and rewarded.
Motivation and Accountability
KM often implies organizational change. For example, content providers, coaches, and end users must be motivated. Time and effort is required to submit best practices, read, post and comment in blogs and wikis, and to act as a coach or expert. It is easy to promote KM, but without motivation, people will tend to focus only on the moment-to-moment work. Practitioners miss the opportunity to apply best practices and past experience, because they don't look for the information that can help. Innovations are lost to the community because there was no time or motivation to post them. Ensure that job descriptions and schedules allow time for participation.
Reward and recognize people for taking an active KM role. Suresh and Mahesh (Suresh & Mahesh, 2006, p. 136) identify a number of motivational factors that include recognition, economic incentives for sharing knowledge, professional growth, pride in belonging to a community, and greater job effectiveness with less ambiguity.
Accountability is a great motivator. For example, senior executives in a large global financial institution asked KM support to provide a KM site usage report of their direct reports. Using the report, they queried those who were not accessing the site about why and about how they were getting their current state information. Just the questioning resulted in increased use of the site and some useful feedback regarding improvements.
KM Process Ownership
The project management KM process owner or custodian may be part of a project management office (PMO). Integrate project management KM with overall KM and, where effective, share tools, standards, policies, and procedures. The relationship between enterprise KM and project management KM ownership is analogous to the relationship between Enterprise PMO and divisional or line of business PMOs. Many variations on the degree of autonomy can be seen.
Tools and Systems
Tools support KM. “The Infosys KM solution has four primary elements:
- The KM portal: a central repository for content.
- People knowledge map: a directory service for locating experts.
- Knowledge exchange: a set of online discussion forums.
- K-mail: an auto-response generator and workflow engine for question answering.” (Suresh & Mahesh, 2006, p. 197)
The categories of tools in a KMS are:
- Document-based systems---to provide knowledge-base management and information-sharing capabilities, including document management systems
- Process management tools---work flow systems
- Learning management systems---to enable formal and informal training activities
- Social computing tools---blogs, wikis, and on-line interactive forums
- EPM tools---project management scheduling and portfolio management tools, primarily for state knowledge, but also for delivering or interfacing with KM tools for access to templates, procedures, estimating data, and so on
International Institute for Learning's UPMM™ (International Institute for Learning, 2002) is an example of a PM focused knowledge management tool. Knowledge is accessed through a graphic process flow among other interfaces. Process steps are linked to relevant knowledge elements (e.g., templates, tutorials, e-learning modules, articles, best practices, tools). There are content authoring and administration functions. Best practice examples are supported to allow each template to have multiple examples as well as instruction for their completion.
Multiple process flows for various types of projects and a user-determined project taxonomy based on criteria such as project domain, size, and complexity are enabled. Project archives can be linked into the tool and accessed based on flexible search criteria. A PM Mentor feature enables the submission and context-based distribution of questions and comments to SMEs. Access to social computing is enabled, as is the process for converting tacit and informal explicit knowledge into more structured knowledge. Direct access to current state information via links to project and portfolio management tools is available. Document management is supported by enabling document-naming conventions and the ability to store templates into external libraries. Project performance knowledge, including project archives, can be managed in the same tool.
Knowledge management enables performance improvement and cultivates the capability to be competitive. Project management is knowledge work, and it requires competent project managers who have the information they need where and when they need it.
The effective project management KM solution blends tools, processes, and people to satisfy the needs of the organization. The effective solution delivers useful information when and where it is needed. It addresses explicit and tacit knowledge.
Methods include knowledge base access, instructor-led and self-paced courses, workshops, coaching, peer-to-peer exchanges, job-related experiential learning, among others.
The creation or improvement of a KM solution is an evolutionary process, best handled as a formal program. It involves cultural and organizational change, effective tools, and an evolving process that address interpersonal, procedural, administrative, and technical issues.
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© 2008, George Pitagorsky. PMP
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings –Denver, Colorado, USA