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Project Managers Who Leverage Knowledge Can Lead their Organizations Toward Innovation--Not Reinvention


by Eric Schoeniger


Consider the NASA's Cassini-Huygens Saturn mission, which in July began beaming a wealth of images and data from the ringed planet. Launched nearly seven years ago, the mission has traveled 2.2 billion miles—and integrated the expertise, efforts and requirements of scientists around the world.

Now picture the same mission, launched without the benefit of all that experience. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize how knowledge management significantly shortens development cycles and allows teams to avoid past mistakes. As leaders, project managers must ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

The benefits of capturing and routing those lessons can be significant—and measurable. At NASA, projects go through a series of reviews, a costly but necessary process. A senior project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center developed a streamlined review process and a young practitioner at NASA's Glenn Research Center learned about the process and got management approval to implement it. “After a number of months, they had saved about $500,000 through a more efficient and effective process,” says Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., director of NASA's Academy of Program and Project Leadership, which helps NASA project teams share knowledge.

Whether spacecraft, software or consumer products, projects rely on knowledge, and to be seen as leaders, project managers must position themselves as the gateway. “Much work is now done through projects,” says Carla O'Dell, Ph.D., president of the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), a Houston, Texas, USA-based business research organization focused on project and process improvement, and knowledge management. “And capturing, sharing and using knowledge is critical to the success of those projects.”

The most common complaints from project teams, according to Ms. O'Dell, are, “Why didn't we know someone had done this before? Why didn't we know the data had already been collected? Why didn't we know the same mistakes had already been made?”

Although learning from past mistakes is a critical element of successful project management, lessons learned often aren't captured because there are few incentives for being open about project failures. “One of the biggest challenges in knowledge management is the human tendency to hide things that go wrong,” points out Melinda-Carol Ballou, a senior analyst focused on project management at Meta Group Inc., Stamford, Conn., USA, an IT industry research firm.

However, project leaders must find a way to record hard-won lessons to improve a team's track record.

Learning Lessons

There are a growing number of tools and techniques for capturing, organizing and sharing knowledge: e-mail, electronic calendars, document-sharing systems, corporate databases, intranets, online “collaboration rooms.” What's needed is a formal process or governance framework to systematically take advantage of the available technologies.

“Organizations that are new to knowledge management often focus on implementing the latest technology or the fastest network,” says Karl-Erik Sveiby, author of The New Organizational Wealth and professor in knowledge management at Hanken Business School, Helsinki, Finland. “But if you haven't created a collaborative climate, you simply end up with an expensive trashcan.”

Complex projects integrate the knowledge of a broad range of experts. “You need a way to capture knowledge to continually expand your project management capability, says Ron Kempf, PMP, director of project management competency and certification for HP Services, the services arm of Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., USA. At HP Services, for example, most project managers handle customer engagements, and each project involves new situations and experiences—all of which have to be recorded.

Mr. Kempf recommends starting small to achieve quick wins. “Knowledge management is an ongoing investment,” he says. “We started with limited areas that were very practical and that we could apply quickly.” As you build a database of lessons learned, he advises, “make sure the information you capture will be useful to project managers, and make sure it's kept up-to-date.”

Also keep in mind that knowledge must be made available in a variety of ways. “Some project managers might want to find information in a threaded discussion, others might want to read a report, others might want to contact a single person directly,” Mr. Kempf says.

Likewise, try to capture knowledge at the end of each project. “Every project should involve a post-mortem process of evaluating what was successful and what failed,” Ms. Ballou says. “For customer-focused projects, survey the customer base to see what worked and what didn't.”

At HP Services, project managers are required to complete a close-out report when each project concludes. “That becomes a key item for other project managers to look at,” Mr. Kempf says. But he emphasizes that such efforts shouldn't get in the way of existing processes. “We make sure knowledge management is part of the everyday activity of project management.”

If project managers run into a problem that will mean the difference between success and failure, will they go to a database or will they call someone they know who has expertise?

—Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., Director, Academy of Program and Project Leadership, NASA

In fact, HP Services has integrated knowledge management into processes across the enterprise. A knowledge management intranet offers resources for both technical and management communities. For project management in particular, it delivers methodologies, key contacts and communities-of-practice forums. A subsection captures lessons learned in a variety of categories, including best practices and risk management.


Beyond Data

But while knowledge databases and collaborative software are useful, experts emphasize that knowledge management is very much a people issue. “A fool with a tool is still a fool,” Ms. Ballou says. “You still need people-oriented processes for coordination and communication.”

Mr. Sveiby agrees, emphasizing the importance of trust in both project and knowledge management. “The most crucial aspect in the success or failure of a project is to what extent people trust each other,” he says. “Do I trust that the other team members won't stab me in the back? Do I worry that my head will get cut off if I report bad news?”


“Leadership is what separates successful projects from failures,” says Edward Hoffman, director of NASA's Academy of Program and Project Leadership. But what makes for good project leadership? In his forthcoming book, Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects (NASA History Series), Mr. Hoffman and co-authors Alex Laufer and Todd Post emphasize four key issues:

1 A Will to Win. Successful project leaders invest their missions with a passion, enthusiasm and commitment to succeed that is contagious and critical.
2 Focus on Results. Effective leaders make sure their teams understand the requirements and objectives that lead to project success.
3 Adapt to Change. Good leaders establish a climate in which team members can respond to uncertainty.
4 Create an Environment of Trust. Successful projects rely on collaboration, which requires all team members—including employees, vendors, consultants and partners—to trust one another.

Mr. Hoffman gets to the heart of why human networks are at least as important as computer networks. “If project managers run into a problem that will mean the difference between success and failure, will they go to a database or will they call someone they know who has expertise?”

Because so much knowledge in an organization is tacit, it can be difficult to capture in a database. At NASA, Mr. Hoffman helped develop the Academy of Program and Project Leadership in part to disseminate tacit knowledge among the agency's 12,000 project managers and engineers. The organization emphasizes hands-on experience, investing in apprenticeship and mentoring programs. It also provides classroom training, conferences and networking forums. “We encourage our project managers to teach a certain amount of time,” he says. “When you get in front of a group of your peers and talk about your area of expertise, not only do the others gain from it, but you also become more expert, because you have to think it through.”

HP Services has developed a similar program, called Project Management University. A key element of the university is a week-long networking event where senior-level project managers present their experiences in particular areas.

The company also has a project management office (PMO) that orchestrates activities for 3,000 project managers worldwide. The PMO focuses on three key areas. “One is the health of the portfolio, how well we're doing with current projects and what we're planning for the future,” Mr. Kempf says. “Two is the methods, policies and processes we use. And three is the development of project management capabilities.”

Such a PMO “can provide resources, tools, templates and training. It's a validated source of knowledge,” Ms. O'Dell says. In fact, APQC completed a study that revealed that successful organizations implement formalized training to ensure that project team members understand roles and responsibilities. Second, it takes a formalized approach to project management, often maintained and improved through a PMO.

Taking the Lead

Ultimately, effective knowledge management requires effective leadership. “Knowledge management first and foremost is about leadership development,” Mr. Hoffman says. “Only after that is it about knowledge organizing and sharing. During the past decade of running project development for NASA, I've seen project managers who are successful, and others who struggle. When you look at the differences between the two, it all comes back to leadership.”

At HP Services, leadership is a key criterion in the project management career path. Interestingly, that criterion also involves knowledge management. “We expect each increasing level of project manager to become more of a leader in terms of collaboration and knowledge sharing,” Mr. Kempf says. “Project leaders should not just be sharing but also creating knowledge and mentoring others.”

What's more, project leaders are beginning to emerge as corporate leaders. “A project manager might be running a $50 million project—that's equivalent to running a business,” Mr. Kempf says. “We need our project managers to have the same skills as a business manager. They're responsible not only for bringing in the project on time and meeting customer satisfaction, but also for delivering a reasonable profit.”

In particular, “the experience people gain as a project manager can help them develop two critical skills and perspectives that apply to senior management,” says Jay Lorsch, DBA, Louis Kirstein Professor of Human Relations at Harvard Business School and co-author of Aligning the Stars: How to Succeed When Professionals Drive Results (Harvard Business School Press). “The first is understanding how different parts of the organization have to work together to achieve success. And second is how to build consensus and resolve conflicts between different functions and parts of the organization.”


Ms. O'Dell agrees: “Managing highly successful projects is an excellent way for someone to become visible on the executive radar screen. The same is true for knowledge management. We have seen people in knowledge management roles deliver bottom-line results and be promoted as a consequence.”

A project manager might be running a $50 million project—that's equivalent to running a business. We need our project managers to have the same skills as a business manager.

—Ron Kempf, PMP, Director of Project Management Competency and Certification, HP Services

For project managers who can demonstrate project and knowledge management leadership, the corner office may be the next stop. PM




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