Overcoming Knowledge-Sharing Barriers



In the current competing and changing market environments, knowledge is a valuable resource for the competitive advantage of an organization more than ever before. Existing knowledge management practices show that many organizations fail to leverage the expertise gained in their past projects by applying it to the new ones. This document focuses on the most common barriers that constrain knowledge sharing and on what project managers can do to help overcome those barriers.

Keywords: knowledge sharing, knowledge management, inter- and intra-project barriers


How many times have we found ourselves “reinventing the wheel?” Did we make mistakes that others previously made? How much does this common practice impact a project in terms of cost, time, quality, or risk? How much does this impact results for organizations?

It seems obvious that organizations can benefit if the knowledge and experiences acquired in previous projects are used in the new ones, not only because they avoid doing redundant work or repeating mistakes, but also because they allow organizations to improve and to innovate.

An organization has, within itself, much of the knowledge it needs to solve its own project obstacles (PMI, 2015).

Knowledge is one of the organization's most important assets in strategic terms. It is what makes an organization different from its competitors. The ability of an organization to identify “critical” knowledge, to create new knowledge, and to transfer it from one part to another as necessary is a critical factor for any organization's success.

Despite all of that, existing knowledge-sharing practices at the inter- and intra-project levels are often not effective or do not even exist at all. The question is: Why?


Understanding the obstacles that make the sharing and transfer of knowledge difficult is the first step in identifying potential solutions.

Although barriers may appear in many versions and variations, in this document they are grouped into: external to the project (but internal to the organization) and internal to the project, although in the real world, they are closely related.

The external barriers would include all those obstacles that inhibit the transfer of knowledge across the organization (the inter-project level).

The internal barriers would focus on the obstacles that make knowledge sharing between members of the team difficult (intra-project level).


Project team members often face challenges and need to learn things that already exist in the “organizational memory.” Their effectiveness in doing so will impact their personal effectiveness, the performance of the project, and in the end, the company's results.

The structure, style, and culture of an organization does not only influence how its projects are performed, but also how its knowledge is created and shared.

In a classic, functional organization, staff members are grouped by specialties. Typically, their specific knowledge is located in each department. Project teams can access the knowledge and experience in a certain subject area just from the records of a department, or by contacting the people working in that department.

At the other end of the spectrum is the projectized organization (PBO). Because of their own configuration, PBOs tend to build separate project teams. This has a negative impact when it comes to sharing knowledge since there is a structural barrier that impedes a natural knowledge flow. Knowledge or expertise in one team often remains unknown for other teams since they don't perceive any benefit in sharing what they know—or what they have learned in their projects-, or they just don't know how to do it or who should do it.

The use of lessons learned is an attempt to minimize this problem, although there is limited evidence of the implementation of the lessons learned from one project into another one. Practice shows that team members are often recruited for a new project even before their current project has finished and there is almost no time to capture their best practices and lessons learned. Even when this information is gathered and documented, it is normally not indexed or organized in a manner that other teams could use it. As a consequence, many organizations are unable to learn from their past experiences and known mistakes are likely to be repeated.

An organization's culture is shaped by the common experiences and practices of its members over time. As stated in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013), common experiences include: shared values and beliefs; regulations, methods and procedures; motivation and reward systems; risk tolerance; leadership, hierarchy and authority relationships; code of conduct; and work ethic, and so forth.

The culture and style of an organization have a strong influence on its knowledge-sharing behaviors at the inter-project level.

According to the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI), the two dimensions of the organizational culture are: the degree of internal versus external focus, and the relative stability or flexibility of the organizational structure. These two dimensions create four quadrants that represent four culture types: (1) clan culture; (2) adhocracy culture; (3) hierarchy culture; and (4) market culture.

Organizations displaying clan culture characteristics facilitate frequent interaction, informality, and collaboration in their knowledge-sharing practices. People are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and they value those who make an effort to help team colleagues. These cultures demonstrate a preference for tacit knowledge sharing.

In market culture organizations, knowledge is perceived as a source of power and a way to promotion, and people rely on documents and databases rather than on colleagues. These organizations value explicit knowledge over tacit knowledge.

New tasks for leaders at all levels involve adopting leadership to support knowledge sharing and organizational learning, providing direction, creating a climate that leverages knowledge and acting as a model for sharing at all levels.

Organizational communications capabilities (email, texting, instant messaging, social media, video and web conferencing, and other forms of electronic media) may impose technological barriers when they obstruct work routines and communication flows because: they don't integrate with other systems or because they are not compatible; there is a lack of immediate technical support and maintenance; they don't respond to the expectations of the employees; or people don't know how, when, and why they should use each of them.

Finally, a shortage of formal and informal spaces to share, reflect, or generate new knowledge or a physical work environment and layout of work areas may constitute physical barriers to “know how” or tacit knowledge sharing.


There is no doubt that the structure and culture of an organization influences the knowledge-sharing approach of its staff, but in the end, knowledge sharing relies on each individual.

There are—and there will always be—barriers that prevent the flow of knowledge among colleagues and it is necessary to overcome those personal barriers for the project's success. Those barriers are much easier to identify and manage at the intra-project level, but they also impact knowledge sharing at the inter-project level.

Common, personal barriers may include, but are not limited to:

- Lack of time - related to time pressure and the temporal nature of projects

- Lack of incentives or rewards - Usually, people will seek some return (not necessarily economic) in what they do

- Job security - When knowledge is a synonym of power, people may fear that knowledge sharing can jeopardize their jobs

- Lack of trust in others - Fear of misusing knowledge or taking unfair credit for it

- Errors or mistakes - People tend to share only what went well

- Low awareness - Lack of understanding about the value of a certain knowledge to others

- Distance - The lack of interaction between knowledge sources and recipients

- Reliability of the sources of knowledge

- Language - When it is required to share in a language that is not their first language

- Cultural differences - Not being aware of the rules and protocols that define collaboration with other cultures

- Poor verbal or written communication or poor interpersonal skills

- Experience - When an employee has little experience or is an expert on a certain area

- Age, gender, or educational level differences


Most people need other people to do their jobs but, because of the barriers described, many find it difficult to share what they know. Knowledge sharing starts at the personal level, since it is each person who decides to share and what to share. Knowledge can only be volunteered; nobody can compel others to share what they know. There are two key drivers that move people to share: trust and motivation.

Trust among work colleagues has a strong impact on knowledge-sharing behaviors. There are two forms: trust on what is shared (expertise, skills) and trust on why it is shared (willingness to help). When people do not feel the need to protect themselves from others’ opportunistic behaviors, they will be more confident in seeking and applying the knowledge received from their peers, and knowledge sharing will occur.

Reward systems often include financial incentives (e.g., rewards, stock options) and non-financial incentives, closely related to recognition. Financial incentives usually motivate the persons to work, but it is the sense of self-efficacy that really motivates people to share knowledge. People who believe in their ability to help solve job-related problems are more likely to share what they know.


From a knowledge perspective, project managers can play a key role in knowledge sharing, acting as a bridge connecting the inter- and intra-project levels.

At the inter-project level, project managers can encourage their teams to store the project information (e.g., documents, reviews, graphics, videos, or lessons learned) in the corporate databases or to improve the available organizational process assets (e.g., metrics). This way, project managers support the transfer of the explicit knowledge gained in the project to the organization (or to the PMO, if it exists).

Project managers are a key to looking for other practices of value in the organization. Knowing what others know and facilitating cross-project communication and contact between project team members is a very valuable contribution.

But the critical role of project managers is at the intra-project level.

The organizational culture and the national culture influence behaviors between individuals. Project managers need to be aware of the culture of the organization and of what drives people's behaviors.

Their first and most important role is to develop an environment of trust where people feel free to create, share, and use information and knowledge, working together toward a common purpose.

Knowledge needs to be contextualized in the strategic framework. To be shared, knowledge must be clearly connected with solving a specific business problem. Project managers should clearly state and communicate this to the team, since people share better when there is a clear need to do so.

Project managers also need to be aware of how the different perspectives of their team members contribute to the common goal of the project and to the objectives of the organization, and to make the team understand how their work is worthy and what is in there for each one.

Finally, project managers can put in place a reward and recognition system and communicate how the time and effort people spend sharing knowledge will be recognized. Since each team and each person is different, project managers must tailor the system in a way that motivates their team the most.

“Knowledge is power. Transferring that knowledge is powerful.” (Mark A. Langley, President and CEO, Project Management Institute).


Managing its own knowledge is essential to innovation and the sustained competitiveness of an organization. Many organizations fail to do it and this results in a loss of efficiency and increased costs.

Knowledge is highly tied to each individual, and will only be transferred or shared with other people on a volunteer basis. There are many barriers that make the cross-project transfer of knowledge difficult, but in the end, it is a matter of creating adequate conditions of trust and motivation so that people want to contribute what they know to a colleague, to the community, to the project, or to the organization.

As people-oriented persons, project managers can play an important role by being aware of what drives the behaviors of the people on their teams and in creating adequate conditions to overcome barriers to knowledge flow within their teams and within their organizations.



Mercedes Martínez Sanz has a master's degree in physics, and is an experienced professional with an extensive background in management of large IT projects and PMOs for banking and government. In addition to her professional activities, she teaches project management at a business school and collaborates as a volunteer with PMI and ISO in the elaboration of standards and norms. She was a member of the Core Committee for A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition.


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Ajmal, M. M., & Koskinen, K. U. (2008). Knowledge transfer in project-based organizations: An organizational culture perspective. Project Management Journal, 39(1), 7–15.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2015). Pulse of the profession®: Capturing the value of project management through knowledge transfer. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Wiewiora, A., Murphy, G., Trigunarsyah, B., & Brown, K. (2014). Interactions between organizational culture, trustworthiness, and mechanisms for inter-project knowledge sharing. Project Management Journal, 45(2), 48-65.

© 2016, Mercedes Martínez Sanz
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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