How do organisations learn from projects?
This paper discusses the preliminary findings of a study—performed under a Project Management Institute (PMI) research contract—on how (and indeed, whether) organisations learn lessons from projects.
The problem of how to learn from projects has long been an issue with project-based organisations. Almost forty years ago, Middleton (1967) identified this as a problem with project-based organisations, as opposed to functionally oriented ones: “Lessons learned on one project may not be communicated to other projects. One executive who was transferring from a project being phased out to a new project found the same mistakes being made that he had encountered on his former assignment three years earlier. He felt that the problem resulted from splitting normal functional responsibilities among project organizations and from not having enough qualified, experienced employees to spread among all organizations” (p. 81). And although our views of projects might be different today, Packendorff (1995), a leader in the Scandinavian school looking at projects as organisations rather than tools and seeking to go beyond normative statements, said that “theories on learning in projects…are almost non-existent today” (p. 330).
The need for learning lessons is well-known (Collison & Parcell, 2001; Kerzner, 2000). But research has shown that in practice, projects are often not reviewed at all; there are a variety of reasons to explain this failure (Williams et al., 2001). One is that the lessons learned need to be incorporated into the processes and policies of the organisation; lessons learned need to be implemented and then reflected upon to produce double-loop learning. A further concept prompting this study was the opinion that collecting project data isn’t usually the problem; it is, rather, the failure to gain an understanding about what went wrong (or right) and why (MacMaster, 2000). Analysis needs to provide not only the lessons easily learned but also the lessons deriving from more complex, possibly non-intuitive, behaviours affecting project teams, such as Cooper’s (1994) $2000 hour.
Our proposal to PMI for a research grant focused on completing a study in this area, a study that consists of four steps:
- Reviewing the literature covering relevant project management issues—particularly, project postmortems—as well as commonly discussed topics in the wider literature on management.
- Implementing a survey involving project managers so as to identify the lessons learned approach that the project management community currently practices.
- Conducting individual interviews with the surveyed project managers so as to more broadly and deeply understand the information obtained from the surveys.
- Analysing one or more actual project post-mortems so as to test a number of the ideas developed during the first three steps.
This paper was being prepared after completing the first three steps but before implementing the fourth. The majority of this paper focuses on the second step outlined above—the survey of practising managers; it summarises the first and the third steps so as to provide an idea of this study’s final output. This paper is, therefore, not the definitive output from this research. Since preparing this paper, a final report has been submitted to PMI, which at the time of this conference is expected to be in PMI publishing for final editing
The literature survey was wide-ranging, looking beyond the views commonly discussed in the project-management literature. We used relevant key words to search databases (including Google Scholar). From these databases, we selected papers; we also performed forward chaining (i.e., searching citation indices for papers that had referred to these papers). we reviewed relevant journals from the past ten years as well as proceedings from recent project-management conferences. From this we created a Procite™ database comprising 279 records.
This research topic could be regarded as very narrow or very broad. We thought it important to obtain the theoretical underpinnings of the how-to-learn lessons, and doing so meant that we needed to go beyond reports of efforts to implement project learning. The scope of our study, however, limited our review of the entire organisational learning and knowledge management literatures; we surveyed only those articles relevant to project learning or those reviewing the field’s latest innovations. Thus, in performing our literature survey, we looked at several factors:
- Motivation: Why look at learning from projects?
- Basic concepts: What is knowledge? What is learning? (In doing so, we drew on the more fundamental literature.)
- Current situation: What does project management and other standards say about lessons learned? And how prevalent are such techniques in practice?
- Knowledge creation: Understanding the techniques, the use of narratives, ways of dealing with systemicity, and the factors that facilitate or hinder the process of learning from projects.
- Knowledge transfer: Establishing organisational learning and knowledge management practices when managing projects as well as practices for distributing lessons learned; understanding the factors that facilitate or hinder distributing lessons learned from projects, particularly in relation to the idea of Communities of Practice.
- Case studies: Discussing case studies outlining processes for capturing lessons learned.
From this review, we observed several general issues:
- Project reviews—or post-mortems—play an integral role in maturing the learning organisation. Project management standards suggest that project managers should perform these reviews (during the project as well as at the end), but the standards give little guidance as to how to implement them.
- The literature is unclear in describing the frequency of performing project reviews.
- Project reviews are difficult, particularly because of the temporary organisation aspect of projects and the complexity of projects and project organisations as well as the fact that—among other reasons—projects often don’t follow a clear plan but instead follow sense-making processes.
- There is a wealth of literature about knowledge (particularly tacit knowledge) and about organisational learning; the field should take advantage of this knowledge when developing project management methodologies. There are two aspects that significantly affect how an organization learns: organisational culture and organisational structure.
- There is also much literature about knowledge management: Information technology (IT) solutions are considered more appropriate for managing explicit knowledge; socialization is a more appropriate method for disseminating tacit knowledge.
- The literature identifies several techniques that support efforts to capture and disseminate knowledge. The two most common techniques are conducting facilitator-led meetings and developing a lessons-learned database. There are also two other—particular and related—methods:
■ Using narratives to capture knowledge, as opposed to relying on simple lessons learned.
■ Establishing Communities-of-Practice to disseminate knowledge, particularly knowledge that is complex or tacit.
- The complex systemicity (ie systemic inter-relationships) within projects, particularly cause-effect relationships, causes problems when performing project reviews, problems such as identifying the root-causes of problems; the field needs to recognise these as it seeks to obtain knowledge from projects.
- The literature identifies a broad range of facilitating (and hindering) factors, including availability of time and various social and cultural aspects as well as the temporary nature of project organisations; we discuss these in the final report to PMI.
The paper primarily examines the results of a questionnaire survey involving practising project managers. The questionnaire was designed to encourage survey participants to answer specific questions about the methods they use to learn lessons from projects and about whether they feel these methods are effective. The questionnaire was piloted with a small group of experienced project managers from the United Kingdom (UK), United States (US), and China; we modified it using their comments. we then distributed it to a larger group via the Zoomerang™ Web site (www.zoomerang.com). we received 522 usable responses.
The questionnaire consisted of five sections:
- How organisations actually use lessons-learned
- How respondents felt about the methods their organisation uses to learn from previous projects
- What respondents believed was the best practice for capturing lessons learned
- What respondents felt hindered people in their organisations from putting more effort into the lessons-learned process
- Where the respondents and their organisations were located (demographic information).
We approached PMI as well as the International Project Management Association (IPMA) for the purpose of circulating to their members invitations to participate in the survey. Although PMI cooperated by including the survey link in its e-mailed circulars, many of IPMA’s organisations either did not reply, refused to circulate the details as this was against their policy, or did not get organised enough to actually circulate it to their members within the couple of months before the survey was closed. (IPMA’s Spanish and Dutch societies were helpful in circulating the invitation.) Because of IPMA’s disappointing response, the survey responses are skewed towards PMI members: Of the 522 usable responses, 96% stated that they were members of PMI; 2% were APM members, 3% IPMA members, and 1% Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) members. The results also showed that 13% were members of other professional bodies (there was, of course, the possibility of multiple memberships) and that 54% possessed project management qualifications—83% of this group were qualified PMPs. The predominance of PMI members most likely swayed the results towards those concepts promoted in PMI’s PMBOK® Guide. The median number of years of professional project management experience was between five and ten.
It is also clear that the survey is skewed towards those with an interest in lessons learned. One of PMI’s broadcast e-mails, for example, contained 15 links involving this subject. To access our questionnaire, potential respondents had to click on a link entitled “Do organizations learn lessons from projects? Research survey seeks participants.” Clearly, only readers of the e-mail with an interest in lessons learned would have clicked on this link.
While this paper contains much statistical analysis of survey data, there is considerably more in our main report to PMI. We wish to point out that factor analysis did not generate any interesting results because of the co-linearity of the data.
The industry with the highest survey-invitation response rate was IT (26.1%), followed by manufacturing (12.6%), finance (10.9%), and consulting / business management (10.0%); the remaining 14.7% were unspecified. This information is important to remember, although there were not many correlations between question responses and a particular industry. The respondents organisations varied in size—from less than 100 to more than 100,000 employees (77.2% fell between those two extremes).
Not surprisingly, survey respondents worked in project-oriented organisations. Just over half of the respondents said that their organisations primarily operate with a project orientation; three-quarters said that half or more of their work involved a project orientation. Only a few answered that in their organisation “projects arise, but only infrequently”. Respondents were asked for the average size of projects in their organisation, and the mode answer was “$100k - one-million US$”.. The participants reported that their organization’s level of project management maturity varied: ad hoc (8.4%), encouraged informally (26.1%), integrated into the organisation’s processes (41.4%), and integrated and continuously improving, or mature (24.1%).
What are Organisations Doing?
The first section of the questionnaire looked at five aspects of what organisations were currently doing.
Are there formal procedures for learning lessons from projects? Of the respondents, 62.4% said that their organisation had formal procedures; of these, however, only 11.7% said that such procedures were closely adhered to. (As noted above, this level of use in practice is unlikely to be representative of the project management community as a whole). There was a strong correlation between this variable and an organization’s level of project management maturity (which is not surprising, as such maturity is defined as using processes to implement activities such as lessons learned).
The survey also showed that 32% of respondents’ organisations had a specific department responsible for supporting employee learning from projects. The main roles of these departments were to capture learning from projects, to ensure compliance to standards, to transfer learning to future departments, and (less frequently) to audit the lessons-learned process.
The third aspect looked at which projects were subjected to a lessons-learned process. The frequency with which organisations implement lessons learned activities was much greater for organisations in which project management is more mature. (Again, this is to some extent a truism, although a few organisations in which project management was mature said they did not perform lessons learned activities.) Of these surveyed organizations considered mature, 62.0% captured lessons learned after all or most projects. Among those organizations with an integrated project management, only 40.6% captured lessons learned; among those considered an encouraged or ad hoc practice, only 13.8% captured lessons learned. Most commonly, organisations carried out lessons learned only after completing the project. More mature organisations— those in which project management was encouraged, or ad hoc—carried out lessons learned on completion of major milestones or at regular intervals.
The fourth aspect concerned the project team. People most commonly involved in the lessons-learned activities were project management staff (94.8%) and technical staff (69.9%). In most organisations (80.6%), the project team worked alongside other staff. It is interesting to note that outside personnel were involved in lessons learned more often than might be expected from the literature: More than a quarter of respondents (28.4%) reported customer involvement, and another 15.5% reported subcontractor involvement. On the other hand, there were fewer internal staff members—apart from the project team, senior management, and technical experts—than the best practice suggests. Surprisingly, only about one in ten respondents reported that financial staff members were involved in lessons learned; they reported a similar percentage for contract/legal staff. Only a few (1.7%) reported that human resources staff were also involved in capturing lessons learned.
The fifth aspect looked at what processes organisations were using. The questionnaire presented the respondents with lists of processes aimed at capturing lessons and at transferring these outside the project team. This information was drawn from the literature, my experience, and the pilot questionnaires.
- To capture lessons, the processes used most often were meetings (77.8% of organisations), followed by interviews and project audits. These processes and learning diaries were used significantly more in organisations in which project management is mature. For example, mature organisations were nearly three times as likely to use project audits than organisations in which project management is ad hoc or encouraged.
- To transfer lessons, the processes most often used were written documentation, moving people around the organisation, such as ad hoc transfers and presentations. Organisations in which project management is mature were more likely to use all the processes listed, with the exception of the ad hoc processes (which they were less likely to use) and moving people around (where there is no relationship). The differences were particularly significant in regards to the use of techniques such as resources centres, new procedures, IT-mediated methods, communities of practice, narratives, mentoring, micro articles, and training. Mature organisations report that they are more than three times as likely to use each of these techniques than will organisations in which project management is ad hoc or encouraged.
- There were also a few significant differences in the processes used by the different industries. The two most distinct industries were construction and government. Construction relies more heavily on presentations and project audits, and less on mentoring, than do other industries. Government made less use of IT, presentations, and project audits.
- Respondents were also given the opportunity to identify methods other than the methods listed in the questionnaire; a third gave useful answers, the majority of which consisted of three sets:
■ A database-oriented electronic file which could be searched.
■ Personal interviews with those who were involved in the project.
■ An answer effectively describing documentation which had to be looked up.
This being an open question, there were also several other interesting comments made, which we have reported in the full PMI report.
How Successful Are These Processes?
The questionnaire’s second section looked at how successful the respondents believed their organisations were in capturing lessons learned. Three sets of success criteria were presented to the respondents:
- Quality of processes: This involved reviewing nine success statements such as “lessons are generalisable to other projects,” “outputs are truthful,” “we identify clear issues,” “we get to the root causes of project outcomes,” among others.
- Results of lessons learned: This explored areas such as “my competency as a project manager has increased,” “project competency within the organisation has increased,” and “projects are more successful.”
- Transfer of lessons learned: This looked at whether lessons learned move from the individual to the project team, to other project teams, or from the project team to the organisation; it also examined whether learning is achieved across cultures.
The greatest perceived problems relating to lessons learned involved getting to the root causes of project outcomes and creating knowledge rather than simply collecting data. Areas of least concern were finding lessons which are generalisable to other projects, achieving truthful outputs, and identifying clear issues. Measuring success in terms of increased competency, the benefits of doing lessons learned were perceived to accrue significantly more to the individual project managers than to the organisation as a whole or to achieving more “successful” projects; in other words, many more respondents replied “my competency as a project manager has increased,” rather than “project competency within the organisation has increased,” or “projects are more successful.”.
The inter-organizational transfer of lessons learned was one of the major difficulties of learning from projects: Less than half of respondents (47.8%) believed that the lessons learned were transferred from the individual to the project team; a much smaller percentage (35.6%) believed that lessons learned were transferred to other project teams. Only 22.2% agreed that lessons learned were transferred elsewhere in the organisation. However, in 65.5% of organisations, lessons learned from projects were either sometimes or routinely implemented into the organisation’s processes; many organisations (56.9%) changed their strategy because of their lessons learned process. This data shows that some individuals are learning lessons within their organisations, despite the somewhat gloomy assessment by respondents.
Only a minority of organisations used benchmarking or other ways to measure their processes for effectiveness; and of the 42 responses saying that processes were measured, there was little indication as to how this was done.
We identified a number of points while analyzing the relationship between respondents’ views about how successful their organisations’ processes were and the other data collected. The first clear relationship was that in organisations in which project management is more mature, and in those which both have and adhere to formal procedures, respondents were more likely to agree with all of the statements about process success, with the exception of “my competency as a project manager has increased” (which would be expected, as this is an indication of the effect on the individual, not the organisation). Figure 1 illustrates two striking differences as an illustration: The perception that “we get to the root causes of project outcomes” and the perception that “learning is achieved across cultures” clearly differs according to project management maturity.
Figure 1. Companies in which project management is mature are much more likely to agree with the above statements
Organisations in which project management is less mature gained no significant benefit from possessing and adhering to formal procedures, whereas there was a significant benefit when project management is integrated.
The frequency of lessons-learned activities also had an effect on perceived success. Organisations which did lessons-learned activities on a regular basis (on completion of major milestones or deliverables, or at regular intervals) were more likely to agree with almost all of the success statements—although, interestingly, not “we avoid issues of blame,” “we learn complex lessons,” “lessons are generalisable,” “learning is achieved across cultures,” or the individual statement, “my own competency has increased.” This was true for many of the statements, even after allowing for the maturity of the organisation. Perhaps not surprisingly, organisations which had a specific department for lessons learned were significantly more likely to agree on all statements relating to the transfer of lessons, and many of the statements relating to the quality of the process, such as “we get to the root causes of project outcomes” and “we create knowledge rather than collect data.”
There appeared to be no relationship between the average size of projects and the success of lessons learned. But there did seem to be a relationship between size of organisation and success of lessons learned, which appeared to be U-shaped for several of the measures, with higher scores for the smallest organisations (under 100 employees) and lower for the middle category, that is, those with between 1000 and 10000 employees; this was particularly so for statements assessing the transfer of lessons learned.
Finally, we examined the data to determine which processes corresponded to increased perceptions of success. we compared the success criteria obtained from those organisations that did and did not use the processes listed in the questionnaire.
- To capture lessons, the use of project audits and meetings correlated well; “asking the customer” and “using an external facilitator” did not. However, the relationships between meetings and successful processes all but disappear when controlling for project management maturity. The relationships between project audits disappear with the exception of one category: Organisations where project management is integrated; in these organisations, the relationship was significant for many of the success criteria.
- To transfer lessons, the use of almost any process appeared to correlate with getting to the root causes of a problem and all aspects of transfer within the same culture. Many of these relationships disappear when controlling for project management maturity, although again where project management is integrated, about half of the correlations persist. For organisations where project management is ad hoc or encouraged, there is a correlation between using presentations and transferring lessons to later projects.
What is Best Practice?
The third section of the questionnaire looked at respondents’ views on best practice.
The questionnaire first presented the respondent with a set of practices about the lesson-capture process; it then asked the respondent one they thought that their organisation should be doing. A majority of respondents considered most of the practices important, but there was a large discrepancy between the importance which project managers assigned to the various practices for learning lessons and their use in practice, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The disparity between processes which project managers think their organisations should be doing to capture lessons and those which are actually done
Respondents were also asked whether there were any other practices they felt their organisation should be doing to obtain learn lessons from projects. Of the 522 respondents, 30% gave useful answers, some running up to 170 words long. Many looked for a searchable database tool and the theme of communication was a frequent response; a few wanted assistance in gathering lessons learned from external contractors. A few others wanted staff incentives. A number of additional techniques were highlighted. we discuss this in my PMI report.
Similarly, the questionnaire presented respondents with a set of practices for transferring lessons and asked which they thought their organisation should implement to transfer lessons learned to future projects. A majority of respondents thought that nearly all were important; but again, there were similar big disparities between the importance which project managers assign to the various practices for transferring lessons and their use in practice, as occurring across all techniques, as illustrated in Figure 3.
Figure 3. The disparity between processes which project managers think their organisations should be doing to transfer lessons and those which are actually done (CoP’s signifies Communities of Practice)
Respondents were again asked whether there were any ways in which access to lessons learned from previous projects could be made easier, and a quarter of the respondents gave useful answers. Half of the answers either stated that a database or similar system was needed, or assumed that it was needed. (Some emphasized categorisation capabilities.) Quite a few discussed more sophisticated practices for document management, content management, or other Web-based systems. A number of answers were specifically geared towards socialisation ideas, generating transfer through interpersonal relationships within the community. And quite a few answers were aimed towards embedding lessons learned within company procedures and processes. A few answers gave innovative ideas such as audio narratives; other suggestions included town-hall-style meetings and micro-articles.
A third aspect of this questionnaire section asked respondents what hindered people in their organisations from putting more effort into the lessons-learned process, in both capturing and transferring knowledge. Only 8.4% of people agreed that they already put in enough effort. Out of a list of 11 reasons given by the questionnaire, the main reasons cited for not doing more were lack of employee time (67% respondents) and lack of management support (62.5%), closely followed by lack of incentive, lack of resources, and lack of clear guidelines (all over 50%). Other results included: “Lack of support from others in the organisation” (32.2%), “our processes don’t capture useful lessons” (21.9%), and “the data repository is too hard to search” (20.9%). When respondents were asked if there were any other reasons, only 12% gave replies with the culture (e.g., a blame culture) as well as the lack of a database and the lack of incentive.
Finally, because of the interest in narratives found in the Literature Survey, respondents were asked if more stories or case studies would be of significant value, to which 83% responded yes.
A number of interviews were also carried out with managers on the use of lessons learned within their organisations. Six senior and project management personnel were interviewed, using semi-structured interviews in order to both establish processes, seek views about these practices, and investigate any anecdotes that might indicate success or failure of the practices. I conducted six interviews: five with UK managers, one with a North American manager; all but one were by telephone, as dictated by the financial constraints of the project.
The three main case studies involved companies that were successfully carrying out lessons-learned activities. However, since each of these companies was of a different types, each develop very different solutions.
The first organisation was the UK-based branch of a US technology company, one whose annual sales total in the (US)multi-billion range. This was an example of a company carrying out generally smallish projects, fairly self-contained efforts implemented by a small unit. It had a well-enforced but fairly informal lessons-learned process. Lessons are gathered by discussion and then presented at a meeting. The output tended to be elements such as lessons, tips, or process improvements. These improvements were “pushed” out, then available on a Web site for proactive retrieval. Respondents from the company clearly felt that this process was successful. This type of process appeared to be appropriate for this type and size of project and organisation. Perhaps not surprisingly, narratives were not felt to be helpful.
The second organisation was a UK-based engineering company whose annual sales range around US$10-billion. This was an example of a very large company performing very large and complex projects. Formal procedures are eschewed in favour of an approach closer to Communities of Practice. For the very complex projects, socialisation is perhaps a more appropriate approach than are databases and IT-mediated approaches. Because these projects are usually very long, gathering lessons learned only at the end of a project—or even at phase-gate—makes little sense. For this company, gathering lessons learned is a continuous process. Narratives might help here, but it was perceived as difficult to secure the time-investment required. Indeed, one of the problems in gathering lessons-learned system was getting people to contribute.
The third organisation was an example of a huge UK government organisation, the UK government favouring PRINCE 2–type approaches. So the system developed fit within the organisational stage-gate system and used a database approach, one with a central Centre of Excellence. However, their approach was more than a simple database approach; in particular, it included strong elements of narrative to bring the lessons alive. This was felt to have significantly added to the success of the system, along with some proactive dissemination channels.
In order to gain more insight, interviews with three other organisations were carried out, which, along with the above three, are reported on in the full PMI report. I have summarised these findings.
- One was a consultancy carrying out lessons-learned workshops for major companies. The lessons-capture techniques—centred round a workshop but capturing the background and stories as well as lessons—appeared to work well. But there were issues in disseminating the lessons; there was also a need to embed the capture system within a learning process.
- One was a very large company, not dissimilar to the second above, in which the culture was changing into one that is more project-management-oriented. The lessons-learned process here was focussed on bids, and because all bids were prepared in one geographical location, gathering previous lessons could be accomplished through socialisation. However, during projects, which could involve teams distributed worldwide, lessons learned is embedded within a formal risks-and-opportunities process. Again, there were possibly some issues of dissemination.
- The final interviewee had set up a carefully planned lessons-learned system, but then subsequently parted from a large organisation. This case study shows some of the interpersonal issues that one should consider when planning such a process. It also illustrates the relationship between the stories of a project and its documentation.
- Project reviews are difficult, due to, among other things, the “temporary organisation” aspect of projects, the complexity of projects and project organisations, and the idea that projects often don’t follow a clear plan but are, rather, sense-making processes.
- Most project managers think that they put insufficient effort into doing lessons learned; the main reasons for not doing more to learn lessons involve a lack of time, management support, incentive, resources, and clear guidelines. Another reason that respondents identified is a blame culture.
- Mature project-oriented organisations are much more likely to capture and disseminate lessons learned and to perform this practice at regular intervals throughout the project. They are much less likely to do it only in response to a problem or business need. Organisations in which project management is less mature gain little benefit from possessing and following formal procedures, but there is a significant benefit when project management is integrated.
- In practice, many organisations have a specific department responsible for lessons-learned. Outside personnel (customers, subcontractors) are often involved in the process; however, internal staff other than project teams, senior managers, and technical experts are rarely present.
- The least successful aspect of learning is the transfer of lessons learned, particularly from the project team to the organisation. There are also problems with getting to the root cause of project outcomes and creating knowledge rather than simply collecting data.
- Several factors correlated with more effective learning: project management maturity, using formal procedures, operating a specific department, capturing lessons learned throughout the project, and performing project audits. These factors are most notable in organisations that experience the greatest difficulty in creating and transferring knowledge as well as analyzing and understanding the root causes.
- The most important aspect of lessons learned is the increased competency of individual project managers. This does not depend on how the organisation carries out lessons learned.
- The use of narratives or stories—rather than simple lessons—can help organizations capture deeper knowledge; the majority of responding project managers would value the increased use of such ideas.
- Communities of Practice are valuable for disseminating complex or tacit knowledge.
- Organisational culture and organisational structure are important ways that organisations learn; These need to be considered when planning lessons-learned processes.
- IT solutions are considered more appropriate for managing explicit knowledge; socialization is a more appropriate method for disseminating tacit knowledge.
- The last two conclusions particularly imply that very different lessons-learned structures are appropriate for different types of projects and types of organisations and that the context shapes the way the lessons-learned process is carried out.
The next step in this research is to implement this project’s fourth step: Studying a real project post-mortem to see if these ideas are reflected in an individual study. But the next important step for this area of research as a whole is to see whether the conclusions can be used to help create learning organisations that learn from project to project, that increase both their project success and their success in practicing a project management philosophy.
The considerable help of Karen Gill in the first two steps of this research is gratefully acknowledged.
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©2006 Project Management Institute