Project knowledge management

status quo, organizational design, and success factors

Strascheg Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship,
European Business School, Oestrich-Winkel, Germany

Introduction

Economic development in recent years is characterized by a continuous de-materialization of the value chain (Pawlowski, 1994). This particularly applies to business locations in mature economies. While labor intensive steps of the value chain are shifted to low-cost countries, in countries such as Germany the production factor knowledge is of growing importance. This leads to a growing knowledge-intensity of work and an increased role of knowledgeintensive services, all of which is best described as a knowledge-driven economy (Drucker, 1998). As a consequence, the production factor knowledge plays an important role as intangible resource and asset of a company (Nahapiet & Goshal, 1998; Porter, 1985, 1991; Teece, 1998; Winter, 1987). The resource-based view of a company regards knowledge as one of the determining factors of competition (Barney, 1991; Wernerfelt, 1984), while the knowledge-based view even goes further and considers knowledge and the ability to integrate individual knowledge in the context of a common task fulfillment to be essential for competitive advantages (Grant 1996a, 1996b; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Spender, 1996). Increasing knowledge-orientation is affected and intensified by four trends:

  • Increasing complexity
  • Increasing dynamic
  • Dispersed and specialized sources of knowledge
  • Increasing significance of expert knowledge and specialization

increasing complexity

Increasing complexity in nearly all fields of knowledge can be observed. This refers to both knowledge creation and knowledge distribution (Picot, Reichwald, & Wigand, 1998). The technological opportunities to store and transfer data, information, and knowledge at low costs and with high speed lead to an increasingly dense network of knowledge inventory and knowledge carriers. The work contents of companies in nearly all markets and functional areas (innovation, operations, marketing, and sales) are becoming increasingly complex as higher technological standards and demands of internal and external customers challenge companies and their products and services. Consequently, competitive advantage can only be achieved by the creation of innovation as a result of the combination and integration of different disciplines and knowledge backgrounds.

increasing Dynamic

Closely linked with the growing knowledge-intensity is the increasing dynamic of the knowledgebase development. The half-life period of knowledge continuously decreases. Shortening product life cycles and innovation cycles put enormous pressure on companies to constantly innovate (Boutellier, Gassmann, & von Zedwitz, 2000; Bullinger, 2006). Thus, the continuous enhancement of the knowledgebase is demanded. This dynamic is additionally intensified by higher mobility and flexibility of people and information and thus variableness of human resources (e.g., fluctuation of employees, specialists, and knowledge workers).

Dispersed and specialized sources of Knowledge

Global and deregulated markets lead to intensified competition but also to greater distributed and scattered knowledge-intensive processes. This applies also to the storage of knowledge in companies and across networks of companies. Different market-specific requirements in quality, safety, health, and environmental practices significantly affect the quality of products and services as well as the conditions under which organizations deliver goods and services. Knowledge about these respective requirements and pitfalls of international activities play a vital role for project work as well.

increasing significance of Expert Knowledge and specialization

Companies facing such general conditions must demonstrate a great deal of flexibility and speed in the way they respond (Cohen & Levinthal, 1990; Flecker & Schienstock, 1991). It is a great challenge to integrate change-ability, responsiveness and flexibility with respect to qualitative aspects (e.g., variance in customer requirements) and quantitative aspects (e.g., variance in demands) in the organizational structures and processes (Zahn, Nowak, & Berger, 2004). The ability to change can be enhanced through the development of capabilities to cope with change (dynamic capabilities). Among those capabilities are management approaches such as process management, competence management, and knowledge management. But there are technical solutions such as flexible production systems, partly autonomous working-groups, modularization of products, and variant management. Another basic option of enhancing flexibility and responsiveness of the own organization is to establish co-operations and partnerships (on demand). In this manner, networks, joint-ventures, regional clusters, and other forms of inter-organizational cooperation are realized. In all kinds of network activities, the integration and concentration of knowledge and competencies plays an important role; although this knowledge is hardly conservable due to the temporary nature of many networks. A further alternative to achieve flexible reactions to new demands and requirements is the integration of experts (e.g., consultants, engineers, and freelancers) on demand (Bleicher, 1996; Bullinger, Warnecke, & Westkämper, 2003; Savage, 1997; Sydow, 2006). Companies play, to an increasing extent, the role of integrator and coordinator of internal and external (special) expertise and of the knowledge needed to fulfill those tasks that will—in many cases—have a high degree of novelty (Ericsson, Charnesse, & Feltovich, 2006).

The developments presented above clearly illustrate that the relevance of resource knowledge will further increase. At the same time, the degree of temporary forms of co-operation and working constellations—such as projects—will significantly grow. The management of knowledge in and of temporary organizations will therefore become a more important and even decisive competitive factor.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge

Davis and Botkin (1994) define knowledge as “the application and productive use of information”. Probst, Raub, & Romhardt (2003) see a close link between knowledge and capabilities: “Knowledge is the total of cognition and skills that individuals apply to solve problems.” Several authors tried to establish a typology of different types of knowledge: Knowledge can be differentiated between explicit and implicit knowledge, individual and collective knowledge, declarative, procedural, and experience-based knowledge.

Polanyi (1962) differentiates two dimensions of knowledge: Explicit and implicit (or tacit) knowledge. Explicit knowledge refers to knowledge about things and facts while implicit knowledge is linked to experience and cognition. This differentiation helps to develop and apply special mechanisms for managing knowledge. It also supports learning because different knowledge types demand different knowledge management approaches. Cyert and March (2001) developed the concept of organizational routines that delivers explanation how implicit and individual knowledge can be transformed into organizational knowledge. Examples of these routines include rules and culture. Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) introduced a model of knowledge management that explains the processes that transform implicit into explicit knowledge. They assume—as Polanyi does—that knowledge is created by an individual. Individual knowledge can thus be transformed into explicit and transferable knowledge by a process of externalization and socialization.

Knowledge Management

Several ideas and concepts of knowledge management (KM) have been developed over recent years. Most approaches rest on the ideas of the resource-and knowledge-based view (Davenport, De Long & Beers, 1998; Nonaka, 1991; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Picot et al. 1998; Probst et al. 2003; Spender, 1996). To Davenport et al. (1998), knowledge consists of frame experiences, values, contextual information, and expert insights which provide a basis for the evaluation and incorporation of new experiences and information. Probst et al. (2003) understand knowledge management as a process of systematically and actively identifying, activating, replicating, storing, and transferring knowledge. They have developed a model of KM consisting of seven blocks: knowledge aims, identification, acquisition, development, distribution, use, and preservation. Nonaka and Takeuchi base their model of KM on the separation of implicit and explicit knowledge and identify processes of transformation between these two types of knowledge. In a process of socialization, tacit knowledge is transformed into new tacit knowledge; in the process of externalization, this tacit knowledge is transformed into explicit knowledge. The interaction of different kinds of explicit knowledge is called combination. Explicit knowledge can then be transferred into implicit knowledge through the internalization process. With the help of this model, almost all knowledge management situations can be explained, though on a fairly abstract level.

Learning

Closely linked with the concept of knowledge management is the idea of (organizational) learning. Learning occurs on different levels: individual, team, organizational, and inter-organizational. Learning in general is the change of behavior patterns over time (Oberschulte, 1996). During the learning process, implicit and explicit knowledge are accumulated and integrated from the environment, but also de-integrated in the sense of de-learning. Of particular importance in the context of knowledge management is the idea of organizational learning (Garvin, 1993; Huber, 1991; Senge, 1990). „Organizational learning occurs when members of the organization act as learning agents for the organization, responding to changes in the internal and external environment of the organization by detecting and correcting errors in organizational theory-in-use, and embedding the results of their inquiry in private images and shared maps of organization” (Argyris & Schön. 1978, p. 18). Garvin defines a learning organization as “an organization skilled in creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge and modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights” (p. 80).

Project Knowledge Management

Conceptual Clarifications

Project knowledge management (PKM) is knowledge management practiced in project situations. It creates the link between the ideas and principles of knowledge management and project management. PKM involves two basic perspectives: the inter-project and intra-project perspective. Depending on the size and structure of a project, subprojects—or inter-project constellations—could exist within a project. Because of this, a clear differentiation between the two perspectives is not always possible. Love, Fong, and Irani (2005) made a valuable contribution by setting the base for understanding knowledge management in project environments. In their work regarding the role and processes of knowledge management in project environments, they set a particular focus on knowledge management in the context of cross-functional and international project teams as well as on the role of (organizational) learning in projects. These findings are regarded as state of the art in research and literature.

Schematic diagram of types of knowledge-flows in project context

Figure 1: Schematic diagram of types of knowledge-flows in project context

In the context of different research activities, Schindler (2002) builds a framework of PKM and identifies three major types of knowledge in project environments: knowledge about projects, knowledge within projects, and knowledge from/between projects (see Figure 1). Knowledge within projects is closely linked to the project management methodology and the communication practices in projects. Both are strongly dependent on the project manager and the individual project management style. Knowledge about projects denotes an overview of the project landscape (the projects being conducted or having been conducted) in a company or a division of a company. The knowledge transfer from and between projects can be referred to as expert knowledge, methodological knowledge, procedural knowledge, and experience knowledge. Knowledge from and between projects contribute to the organizational knowledge base. Figure 2 shows the knowledge elements within the different categories of project knowledge. The examples show that knowledge in, knowledge about, and knowledge from projects can belong to different types of knowledge: explicit and implicit, special, procedural, relational, and methodological.

Options of securing knowledge along the project phases

Figure 2: Options of securing knowledge along the project phases

It can be assumed that relevant types of knowledge differ along the project life-cycle. Experience from subsequent projects, information about the buying team, and knowledge about technology and markets are examples of knowledge pieces that are of particular importance for the acquisition and early phases of the project. Knowledge about existing technical solutions, experience from scheduling, and the application of tools might be more interesting at the stage of project conduction.

Challenges of Knowledge Management in Project Environments

The particular challenges of PKM are caused by the inherent project characteristics (Brookes et al. 2006; Love et al., 2005; Prencipe & Tell, 2001; Schindler & Eppler, 2003):

  • Projects are temporary.
  • Projects are unique and singular.
  • Projects are linked with a changing work force, a new constellation of people working together.
  • Project are in many cases short-term oriented.
  • Projects are a platform for the integration of internal and external experts.
  • People in projects have to adapt quickly to new general conditions and contents of work.
  • Projects lack an organizational memory, routines, and other mechanisms of organizational learning.

Below are detailed four of the most important characteristics of—and implications for—managing project knowledge.

Temporary nature of projects

One of KM's biggest obstacles in project environments is the temporary nature of projects and the corresponding diffusion of project teams after the project is completed. Brusoni, Prencipe, and Salter (1998) consider temporality as an major obstacle for organizational learning and state that the unique and the temporary nature of projects are the main issues which impair organisation-wide learning in project-based firms. Meyerson, Weik, and Kramer (1996) agree on this idea and point out the problem, that learning between projects is hindered or complicate due to the temporary nature of projects. They note that the temporary and customized nature of projects constitute difficulties for learning and building up knowledge capabilities from one project to another

Discontinuous personal constellations and work contents

After completing a project (according to the project organization), the team members return to their former line functions, enter new line functions, or start on new projects. “With regard to the temporary nature of projects, projects can be characterized by the temporary constellation of people they entail (Prencipe &Tell, 2001). They take parts of the knowledge generated in the project with them. Depending on the similarity of the new project and work tasks, they might be able to apply this knowledge again. However, this is in many cases more a coincidence than an intended event. The project knowledge as a whole, that is the sum and synergy of the individual knowledge the project members own and carry, is not re-constructable and therefore lost. Often, people have to get familiar with new tasks and fields of knowledge so that the acquired knowledge falls into oblivion. The discontinuous personal constellations in many cases lead to a situation where (different form line organization) both the constellation persons-and-tasks and the constellation of people working in co-operations are not maintained. Hence, no routines and sustainable experience can be established.

Missing organizational mechanisms of knowledge management

Prencipe and Tell (2001) describe the problem as follows: “While in a functionally-based firm, departments act as knowledge silos; the pure project-based firm lacks the organizational mechanisms for the knowledge acquired in one project to-be-transferred and -used by other projects” (p. 1374). Projects lack organizational memory and project knowledge cannot be transferred into organizational routines. Love et al. (2005) describe this circumstance as follows:

In project-based organizations, Knowledge Management is problematic, with new knowledge created on temporary projects and used on other projects. In the functional organization, new ideas are created in the function, successful ideas are chosen for reuse, and the knowledge is stored within the function where it can be reused. In project-based organizations, new ideas are created on temporary projects, but the project cannot select and retain new ideas. (p. x)

Conflicts of objectives between project and knowledge management

Project management is based on rather short-term considerations as projects are temporary. KM-related activities follow a rather long-term perspective as they are in most cases investments in time and money. (Humpl, 2004). These conflicting objectives can be blended with each other by integrating knowledge objectives into project objectives and by clarifying responsibilities and processes of KM between the primary and secondary organization.

Relevance of Project Knowledge Management from Literature

From the viewpoint of practice, there are still several unsolved questions in the context of PKM. In the literature, various fields are identified as knowledge gaps in the implementation and organization of PKM. These fields correspond with empirical research which will be elaborated below in detail.

Love et al. (2005)—in accordance with Davenport, De Long, and Beers (1998) and Fernie, Green, Weller, & Newcombe (2003)—identify challenges of PKM in mainly five areas:

  • Businesses need to learn how to manage more effectively the knowledge that they acquire and accumulate from their projects.
  • Using knowledge gained so as to learn from failures or successes that have occurred in projects is vital for the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of business.
  • The management of knowledge, whether explicit or tacit, is a necessary prerequisite for project success in today's dynamic and changing global environment.
  • Senior managers must create and govern the supportive project environment. Part of that environment is the management of knowledge.
  • The project-based organization needs to think about how it is going to select new knowledge, where it is going to store it, and what it needs to create a fourth step of knowledge management, distribution of knowledge to new projects.

State of the Art from Extant Research

Literature has identified the specific problems and challenges of knowledge management in project environments. In brief, the state-of-the-art in PKM can best be described as follows: “In spite of recent advances in our understanding of how to manage knowledge, its capture and transfer remain acute problems for project-based firms and organizations” (Hall & Sapsed, 2005, p. 57) (Koskinen, 2004).

At the same time, project knowledge management bears enormous but not yet activated potential and opportunities.

“The management of knowledge in project-based organizations is becoming prerequisite to sustain a competitive advantage” (Love et al., 2005, p XV).

“Firms that can successfully share knowledge across individuals and projects may find that ideas and experiences in one project can frequently solve the problems of another” (Boh, 2007, p.2).

“Without the reuse of existing knowledge or the ability to create new knowledge from existing solutions and experiences, project organizations have to create solutions to every problem, which is clearly inefficient” (Love et al., 2005, p. XV).

PKM gives answers to the question “How to prevent the reinvention of the wheel?” (Ruuska and Vartiainen, 2005, p. 374).

“Learning from previous projects can help prevent similar mistakes” (Ayas, 1997, p. 898).

PKM contributes to the reduction of project risks through awareness of mistakes and pitfalls of former projects (Schindler & Epple, 2003).

“Since projects characteristically involve the development of new products and new processes, there are obvious opportunities for novel ideas to emerge and for cross-functional learning to occur, thereby enhancing the organization's innovative capacity and potential” (Bresnen, Goussevskaia, & Swan, 2003, p. 158).

Besides these papers explicitly dealing with knowledge management in the project context, literature on knowledge management and project management has been screened to identify insights and results that might be transferable to the explanation and understanding of PKM.

Little or no representative empirical research in the field can be found. There are different approaches based on case studies. Most research approaches focus on a single project type (Fong, 2003) or industry (Bresnen et al., 2003; Bresnen et al., 2005). As these approaches mainly focus on single cases (Adenfeld & Lagerström, 2006; Sense, 2003; Huang & Newell, 2003), they do not provide general evidence or allow general statements. These also do not formulate, hypothecate, or validate any clear cause-and effect-chains showing the factors influencing PKM and its dependent variables, such as knowledge management success and project success. Former research lacks findings about organizational-and instrumental- design-alternatives of PKM as well as the factual user behavior of applied systems to support PKM and its success factors. The interesting questions—such as asking which industries may already be good performers in PKM and which industries can learn from existing good practices—have not yet been answered. To sum up, the following issues have been identified as research gaps:

  • A systematic investigation on the status quo of PKM research across different industries and types of projects does not exist.
  • The understanding and empirical evidence about influencing factors and cause-and-effect chains between managerial options (processes, organization, infrastructure, culture) and PKM outcome is insufficient.
  • Few concrete and differentiated solutions for the effective and efficient implementation and use of PKM exist.

Thus, there are several open questions to be analyzed in research:

  • In what way is PKM realized in a cross section of companies in different industries carrying out different types of projects?
  • Which are the barriers and pit falls of PKM in practice?
  • Which are the managerial options for implementing and employing PKM?
  • Which are the factors influencing activity and success of PKM?
  • What are adequate measures for PKM activity and success?
  • What are the causal relations between PKM activities and success on the multi-project level?
  • What can managers learn from good practices of PKM, is it possible to work out shaping recommendation for PKM?
  • To what extent do PKM practices and good practices differ according to different factors such as project type, industry, project size, company size, involved disciplines?

Table 1 provides an overview of important research on project knowledge management.

Autor(s) Year Title
Gulliver 1987 Post-project appraisals pay
Collier, DeMarco, Fearey 1996 A Defined Process For Project Post-mortem Review
Davenport, De Long, Beers 1998 Successful knowledg management projects
Ayas 1999 Professional Project Management: A Shift Toward Learning and Knowledge Creating Structure
Gann/Salter 2000 Innovation in project-based, service-enhanced firms: the construction of complex products and systems
Ayas/Zenuik 2001 Project based learning: building communities of reflective
De Filippi 2001 Project-based learning, reflective practices and learning outcomes
Prencipe/Tell 2001 Inter-project learning: process and outcomes of knowledge codification in project-based firms
Damm, Schindler 2002 Security issues of a knowledge medium for distributed project work
Schindler 2002 Wissensmanagement in der Projektabwicklung. Grundlagen, Determinantenund Gestaltungskonzepte eines ganzheitlichen Projektwissensmanagements
Fong 2003 Knowledge creation in multidisciplinary project teams: an empirical study of thee process and their dynamic interrelationships
Huang, Newell 2003 Knowledge integration process and dynamics within the context of crossfunctional projects
Tesch, Kloppenborg, Stemmer 2003 Project Management Learning: What the literature has to say
Karlsen, Gottschalk 2003 An empirical evaluation of knowledge transfer mechanisms for IT projects
Sense 2003 A model of the politics of project leader learning
Bresnen et al. 2003 Social practices and the management of knowledge in project environments
Fernie et al. 2003 Knowledge sharing: context, confusion, and controversy
Kasvi et al. 2003 Managing knowledge and knowledge competence in projects and project organisations
Koskinen et al. 2003 Tacit knowledge acquisition and sharing in a project work context
Liebowitz/Megbolugbe 2003 A set of frameworks to aid the project manager in conceptualising and implementing knowledge management initiatives
Schindler/Eppler 2003 Harvesting project knowledge: a review of project learning methods and success factors
Hunger 2004 Erfahrungssicherung in IT Projekten
Carrillo et al. 2004 Knowledge Management in UK Construction: Strategies, Resources and Barriers
Humpl 2004 Transfer von Erfahrungen - Ein Beitrag zur Leistungssteigerung in projektorientierten Unternehmen
Desouza/Evaristo 2004 Managing Knowledge in distributed projects
Karlsen/Gottschalk 2004 Factors Affecting Knowledge Transfer in IT Projects
Koskinen 2004 Knowledge Management to improve project communication and implementation
Bresnen et al. 2005 Organizational Routines, situated Learning and Processes of change in projectbased organizations
Koners/Goffin 2005 Learning from New Product Development Projects: An Exploratory Study
Love/Fong/Irani 2005 Management of knowledge in project environments
Adenfelt/Lagerström 2006 Enabling knowledge creation and sharing in transnational projects
Brookes et al. 2006 Social processes, patterns and practices and project knowledge management: A theoretical framework and an empirical investigation
Boh 2006 Mechanism for sharing knowledge in project-based organizations
Alavi et al. 2006 An empirical Examination of the influence of organizational culture and knowledge management practices
Grillitsch et al. 2006 Enabling Cross-Project Knowledge Creation through "Knowledge Oriented Project Supervision"
Haas 2006 Knowledge Gathering, Team Capability, and Project Performance in Challenging Work Environments
Söderquist 2006 Organising Knowledge Management and Dissemination in New Product Development
Sense 2007 Learning within project practice: Cognitive styles exposed

Table 1: Extant research on project knowledge management.

Research Approach and Methodology

We used an empirical methodology to conduct our investigation of PKM. Different industries and project types were considered in order to enable a general and differentiated analysis. We employed qualitative approach in order to identify the factors that facilitate and inhibit the success of knowledge management in projects. For this reason, we interviewed 27 expert in different companies. We collected the data during the year 2007 in face-to-face interviews with managers responsible for knowledge management and/or project management. The interviews were designed as semi-structured, qualitative expert interviews. We recorded and transcribed the interviews. In order to avoid a possible industry bias, we selected corporations from different industries. Table 2 shows the industry affiliation and the size of the corporations.

Industry Number of experts interviewed Company size (number of employees)
    <500 500–1000 1000–5000 >5000
Automotive 3       3
Plant Engineering 3   1 1 1
Mechanical Engineering 2     1 1
Transportation 1       1
Software 3     1 2
IT 2   1 1  
Insurance 1       1
Construction 1       1
Consulting 5 2 2 1  
Pharmaceuticals 3     1 2
Chemicals 1       1
Aviation 2     1 1
Total 27 2 4 7 14

Table 2: Interviewed corporations by branch and size.

We carried out a computer-based content analysis with the qualitative data using the software package ATLAS.ti (Krippendorff, 2003). In order to systematically examine the interview transcripts, we developed empirical categories. The coding frame relates to different aspects concerning the prevalence of knowledge management tools and project management methods as well as user behavior, user satisfaction, success factors, and project performance. We assigned the categories of the coding frame to different parts of the transcripts. In a second step, we consolidated the results of the analyses. For the most part, the results of the different investigators were identical. For discrepant categorizations, we conducted an intensive discussion in order to agree on a common assignment of textual parts to the categories.

Results

The results show that companies and experts in project management are aware of the problem of PKM throughout industry lines, enterprise sizes, and project types. The potential of project knowledge management is especially high for companies with high project-and knowledge-intensity as can be found in the high-duty plant construction sector and in construction and consultancy services. For instance, one of the interview partners estimated the potential cost savings by excellent PKM in the plant construction sector between 3% and 5% of total project volume. Apart from cutting costs, several other objectives of project knowledge management where stated (See Table 3).

Avoiding duplication of work Learning by repetition Promoting innovation Harmonizing of methods/standardizing Allocating resources
Reuse of previously acquired knowledge

Facilitating access to information (concerning methods, processes, contact persons)
Continuously improving processes and products

Avoiding repetition of mistakes
Identifying and applying innovative ideas

Using the potential of interdisciplinary collaboration
Identifying best practices and transfer in company standards

Establishing and supporting routines

Creating safety procedures and consistent terminology
Optimal staffing of projects with regard to capacity and competence of employees

Table 3: Targets of PKM, as stated by interviewees.

Despite these points, the interviewed companies show different emphases on the transfer of knowledge. While the majority states an emphases on personification (the transfer of knowledge by personal interaction), codification (the transfer of knowledge by documents) and combinations of both are used when dealing with knowledge transfer. It is worth noting that out of all interviewed companies, only consultancies where able to actually estimate the proportion of personal and codified knowledge. Out of these companies, the ratio of knowledge codification to personification strongly varies. In this respect, a correlation with the company size is noticeable. A higher number of employees seem to require a higher extent of formalization and therefore more codification of knowledge. In addition, it is indicated that a strategy of personification is applied if a higher degree of knowledge specialization is used. Overall, it can be said that the vast majority of interviewees clearly focuses on people and implicit knowledge (cf. Table 4), which can be brought down to a statement given by one interviewee:

“The trust in a person and her competences is decisive.” (no. 4, consulting)

Focus on Systems/ Codified Knowledge Equal distribution of use of Knowledge Transfer Focus on People/ implicit knowledge and social networks
“Integrating databases along business processes […]” “Essential besides expert knowledge and methodical skills is the gathering of knowledge that comes with experience.” “[…] people, not documents”
11% 11% 66%

Table 4: Distribution of knowledge transfer characteristics and representative quotations taken from the transcribed interviews. (All statements have been translated from German.)

Prevalence and Organization of PKM

Nearly all respondents spot the need for action when it comes to PKM in their companies. Nevertheless, a concrete and systematic approach towards PKM is uncommon. Repeatedly, individual measures are conducted in this respect but without sustainable effects. In rare cases, an institutionalized awareness and responsibility for PKM beyond the individual project cycle is recognizable. Again, consultancies constitute an exception to these findings. Here, the degree of institutionalization of project knowledge management is comparatively high. In some cases, an internal structure of networks, comparable to key-user concept, exist. In this case, persons in charge for PKM can be found in project teams and business units.

In principle, different starting points exist in terms of incorporating PKM in the overall organization. This is due to the dual nature of projects within the organizational setting. The issues of PKM are affiliated to the area of knowledge management, project management, or exist as a combination of both areas. At the same time, the responsibilities for knowledge management and project management are established in different forms. Within the interviewed companies, functional units, special departments, or an integration in the divisions are found in charge of parts of the overall PKM process (see Figure 3).

The use of methods of project management was covered by the interviews in order to scrutinize the eventual integration of PKM in these methods. In terms of use and binding character of project management methods, all characteristics were found. While some companies use no specific project management methods at all, some have different project management methods for every type of project. Thus, a differing level of usage of project management methods can even be found within one single company, depending on the type of project and the entity using it. Also the binding character of the methods in use greatly varies: While some participants offer project management methods in general but without obligatory character, other companies strictly use binding project management methods. In this regard, the size and the risk of projects are two major reasons for the consistent application of project management methods. The applied methods of project management vary from IPMA or PMI standards to adapted versions of these standards and individually developed methods.

A similar range of answers was given concerning the integration of PKM in existing project management methods. Lessons learned, which is one of the most frequently mentioned instruments of PKM, is in some cases integrated in the project management standards of the interviewed companies. Nevertheless, this does not imply that this form of recording experience made in projects is actually implemented. Often, the interviewees stated that time pressure, due to new projects or higher priorities in operational business areas, prevent them from actually conducting lessons learned workshops or meetings. Also, the rate at which they attempt to capture lessons learned varies greatly among the studied organizations. In some cases, only the project close-out reports were used for mapping lessons learned. Other interview partners stated a cyclical elaboration of gathered experience according to the methodology they use (e.g., after completing subprojects or reaching project milestones). Table 5 below summarizes the main measures that the studies organizations use to secure knowledge from projects.

Beginning of Project During project cycle End of project/ independent of project cycle
Staffing along skill and competence database

Using a typical errors database

Reverting on proposals written for similar projects in offer phase
Training project members in PKM

Reviewing lessons learned at project milestones and check points

Evaluating external consultants and sub-contractors and reverting on this experience during the project cycle
Lessons learned

Project review

Debriefings

One-page project summary for evaluation of potential project knowledge by Knowledge Management Office
Meeting of Project leaders on a regular basis

Table 5: Use and securing of project knowledge during project life cycle as stated by interview partners.

Great differences also exist in the evaluation and availability of the accomplished lessons learned and debriefings. Some companies distribute the corresponding documents only within project teams; other companies electronically store these documents in a way which allows access for all employees. Another option for collecting lessons learned during projects is the discussion about projects that occurs during meetings of project managers. Regarding the support of PKM by information technology, several of the queried companies are using Wiki-technology in addition to other measurements. This platform, similar to the model used by Wikipedia, enables all project participants to paste and modify articles on virtually any subject.

Further software tools for the support of PKM are varying in comprehensiveness and use in the interviewed companies. For example, some of the studies companies use electronic templates for project-specific documents. While in some organizations, these documents belong to standardized and binding project methods, other organizations use these as mere supportive documents. Table 6 below summarizes these tools.

Templates Electronic document masters for project specific documents (e.g., project mandates, proposals, structure plans, and status reports)
Platforms and catalogued storage Network-based Collaboration Rooms via network assigning (E-Rooms, Team Rooms) or document management systems, which have further capabilities compared to the basic file exchange on network drivers. Here, different versions and upgrades of documents, the search for bywords, categorization, and full text search can be accomplished and be of major use for the re-finding of knowledge and lessons learned.
Intranet Intranet-forums for the free and multidirectional exchange of knowledge between employees, in contrast to the bidirectional exchange that occurs when using email or telephone.
Databases Terminology database, as online reference work for vocabulary and source for the creation of a mutual language.

Expert database for finding reference persons for particular subjects are used by several companies. These can significantly reduce the search for knowledge and ensure that gained experience is traceable.

Error database with typically occurring errors and their causes are especially found for development projects but which can, in general, serve as a valuable knowledge source in project management.

Technical data of competitors: These databases provide valuable information (e.g., when it comes to launching new products in the market).

Proposal database with proposals for completed projects. A project team can develop new project proposals informed by the knowledge gained from previously submitted proposals.

Table 6: Overview of used electronic devices for PKM

Altogether, the support by information technology tools has proven to be a necessary but not sufficient factor for the quality of project knowledge management. This outcome is consistent with the vast majority of respondents considering the emphasis of knowledge transfer on people/implicit knowledge.

Corresponding to these findings, we found that cultural influences appear to have a major impact on how organizations practice PKM. Even the best possible IT-support is not sufficient if the corporate culture does not encourage the use of these devices. The following interviewee statements explain the gaps that exist between technical infrastructure and the nature of practicing PKM (all statements have been translated from German):

“This urging of project leaders to hand in lessons learned after each stage does not necessarily ‘live'. Technically, it might be done and then be ticked off, but is not part of the culture. …It is done a couple of times and then slowly abandoned.” (no. 2, transportation)

“Now we are getting to the point and that is the mental matter. We have the tools, they are here, without question, nothing to decide about, it is all Microsoft-BasedȆthe processes are clear, they are not complicated…but how this is then really lived—this does at the moment, as it seems to me, not really work, I clearly have to say that.” (no. 14, software/it)

In addition to this, corporate culture in the sense of interdisciplinary cooperation (culture within departments) and geographic distribution of project teams (culture within the enterprise locations, distance in communication), the cooperation of different nationalities (social culture) and the cooperation with external parties (suppliers, consultants) were shown to strongly and positively influence a corporation's knowledge exchange environment. One goal related to enhancing the quality of PKM could involve an organization's encouraging project managers to use soft skills, such as cooperativeness, openness, and trust. Other factors (e.g., one's initiative and one's fault tolerance) must be connected to the observable willingness to admit mistakes and learn from experience.

“We made the experience, that cultures are in fact very different. Even now, as I am in Switzerland, which is not far away but still a completely different mentality: You simply have to approach people in a completely different manner in order to ensure that knowledge is actually absorbed and secured.” (no. 7, consulting)

“Hey, you are Italian, nice for you. But he is French and he is different! Yes!? And you have to accept that. This knowledge is important and we do this [in our company]. Works quite well. First step is to simply accept: “They do not all have to think the same way I do, simply because we are in one project.” And they don't, and it's good that they don't. Brings innovation and diversity into a project.” (no. 13, chemicals/pharmaceuticals)

As a starting point for supporting soft factors, the role model function of senior executives was named in a number of interviews. In addition, the priority of PKM should be stronger emphasized as it is crucial for the securing of the sustainable development of the factor knowledge as one of the central competitive factors. This could for example be realized by the integration of knowledge goals in reward systems. One example in this respect is the binding of variable income to the transfer of knowledge to other colleagues, for instance via trainings or workshops.

Critical Factors for Successful Project Knowledge Management

Success factors and barriers from practice were specifically targeted during the expert interviews. A clear separation between success factors and barriers is often not possible, since many features can be effective in both courses, depending on their characteristics. Because of this, we will primarily use the notion of success factor.

From the interviews, we have extracted four categories of success factors:

  • Information and communication technology (ICT)
  • Organization
  • Methods
  • Cultural factors

ICT merely supports the factors needed to successfully implement PKM. This factor contrasts the prevailing approach used in the studied companies, but it is in-line with the answers given by the interviewees. Without pertinent support from IT-tools, organizations cannot easily implement PKM. But the concern of using corresponding software should not be considered as an end in-itself. The main focus has to be on the people who use the software and their acceptance of the tools that they will use. Based on this information, organizations should pursue—as their primary goal—the development of a software management process, one in which the used tools are integrated.

The interviewees stated several times that for voluntarily used tools (e.g., the Wikipedia model), the achieving of a critical mass of participants and information is a crucial factor for its enforcement and usage in the company. The additional effort for filling these systems with knowledge should at the same time be as small as possible in order to gain a high level of use and enforcement.

“It is more the thing that one realizes the benefit [of a tool] after a while, but this has to develop and get established… so the main point is the reaching of a critical mass in order to become a sure-fire success”. (no. 9, chemicals/pharmaceuticals)

In general, a self-explaining filing structure and tools with further features, apart from standard filing functions (e.g., categorization and full text search), should be feasible. This facilitates reusing deposited knowledge by providing efficient possibilities of search.

“People want to have access… It has to be structured in a simple way… otherwise no one uses that.” (no. 4, consulting)

The possibility of unwanted outflow of knowledge also has also to be considered. This could be prevented at the ITlevel by corresponding access rights. Further reference to this point in terms of other forms of knowledge exchange can be found in a later section discussing cultural factors.

Concerning the organization and the organizational embedding of PKM in a company, the support of the topic by top-management is a fundamental factor. The role model function of top-management was mentioned by several respondents.

“This has to be exemplified by the top-management. And if one does not do something, one must see consequences.” (no. 5, consulting)

“Because employees can only slightly change something, and if this would be a lucky case, if the management is open minded and acknowledges this and says: Yes, we see that, we anticipate this… But in the end, the management has to exemplify this. As long as it only comes from the employees, it will most probably not work.” (no. 5, consulting)

Organizations must consider the interfaces to other functional areas (e.g., personal development, quality management, management systems, IT) that have an impact on knowledge management. These functional areas should be included in the PKM process by looking for possibilities and facilitation of close cooperation in knowledge management related subjects.

Companies engaging in PKM should identify a person responsible for the management of project knowledge. This way, a designated person is a reference for possible ideas, questions, and suggestions and can push the very subject matter in the company.

The use of a standardized project knowledge management method offers general conditions and routines to employees and therefore facilitates concentration on the gist. Here, easy-to-use standards and processes should be chosen on purpose, since the aim is an easy usage with as little as possible additional effort. Most of the time it will not be possible to cover all probable use cases: For example, an employee can introduce knowledge into the system by passing along to a co-worker. There are incidents when an employee could reverse the situation: They may have difficulties accessing the system or finding relevant information.

“How do I do it then? I have an idea but don't know exactly. And then I'm searching and searching. You don't get into these problems when you have a certain person who can support you”. (no. 10, software/it)

In the ideal case, a process of quality assurance exists for the stored knowledge. This implies that a person different from the one who is feeding knowledge into the system is analyzing the documents and evaluating the applicability.

“In the past, it was a little bit, everybody put something into the system and of course that also grew with the number of employees… But for two years now we have used quality assurance, we now have worldwide several reference persons, all of which are in charge for defined areas and who filter what they want to be put in. And this quality assurance is essential for me.” (no. 7, consulting)

For political topics, such as the implementation of an expert data base (in which the qualifications of individual employees can be seen), it is indispensable to include the responsible person for data protection and the workers council.

“That was a very pleasant cooperation, I have to say. It really is a very good thing, I'm sure it'll get through the board for privacy protection, together with the workers council… and then, this is of course the signal, that is the cachet, the seal of approval, that everything is ok.” (no. 3, transportation)

During the expert interviews, it became clear that cultural factors are of fundamental significance for PKM. Here, company culture as well as national culture is important, the latter especially in projects which overcome geographic and national boundaries. In several interviews, an insecurity concerning the danger of the outflow of knowledge (outside of the company) was apparent. In this context, a trustful cooperation needs to be built and obtained. At this point, cultural differences have to be regarded in particular.

One important element is how companies communicate their processes for practicing PKM. This approach inherently competes with business lines for resources. The overall disregard of the importance of an individual's contribution to PKM seems to be a major obstacle when it comes to a successful implementation of PKM. Here, a prioritization in favor of PKM can be reached by supporting the regard of use of PKM on the individual and company level.

“And I think this is the essential point, [the securing of knowledge] has to become second nature of the people… And that is for me the decisive factor.” (no. 5, consulting)

A second possibility in order to permanently secure the knowledge gained during projects is the establishment of reward systems. In this connection, a combination of strategies is imaginable, where the value for the individual is not exclusively realized with the results of PKM (time saving, avoiding of mistakes) but with additional rewards. As one example in some of the companies, the leading of trainings and workshops with to-be-worked-on subjects was part of the employees target agreements. Here, the exchange of knowledge is anchored in the reward system and becomes a success factor for the employee. In this context, the acknowledgement of an individual's achievements can also occur in form of a general acknowledgement of the individual's achievements.

As we discussed earlier, the executives serve as role models when it comes to knowledge transfer, and they can positively—as well as negatively—influence the behavior of employees. What is essential in this context are openness and transparency as well as the prioritization of PKM-related activities and the dealing with mistakes. In this context, it should also be possible to communicate and tolerate mistakes. What must also exist is the willingness to learn and in the ideal case, the ambition to eliminate mistakes.

“I used to work for [XXX] they really nearly managed it to crash the whole big business… simply because they did not have an adequate culture to tolerate mistakes and you weren't allowed to say it… and they changed, they really learned from that, but it was a good example that a big ship can sink because of that.” (no. 5, consulting)

Another important factor is the capacity to communicate across all levels of an organization's hierarchy. This is particularly important in the weighting of arguments towards positions. One approach, which is used in the studied companies, is the systematic support of knowledge exchange on an informal basis. This ranges from regular project rehearsals (among the team/location as well as across teams/locations) and employee-led trainings and workshops to current topics and company-wide events introducing best practices.

“This is the typical way, that we do this every three to four weeks, the so-called brown bags, where we just come together during lunch… and one is presenting his recently gained knowledge… the aim is to simply make this knowledge accessible to the others.” (no. 7, consulting)

Conclusion

This paper illustrates the first findings of the explorative research project on project knowledge management (PKM). The observations are based on a series of expert interviews with representatives from different industries. Previous studies related to the field of PKM were primarily investigating case-studies, individual companies, or single industries. In contrast to that, the focus of our research is to establish the first cross-sectional overview across different companies and industries.

The findings of this study strongly support the assumption that PKM is a topic of highest relevance in contemporary forms of the organization. Further significance arises from the observation that the implementation of knowledge management in project settings still appears to be insufficiently used. This generally observed shortcoming in business practice is striking concerning the high potential of PKM benefits, as these relate to efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation. Above all, it has been shown that the organizational culture seems to be a critical factor for successful PKM. In this context, several interviewees noted the significance of executives acting as role models and individual employees pushing the concept of PKM. Even the best IT systems for supporting the storage and dispersion of knowledge gained in projects are useless if the employees resist using them.

However, we found that a high-quality IT system, particularly one which fits the needs of the project and the organizational structures, was found to support successful management of project knowledge.

Further research in the field of PKM is necessary in order to further determine and evaluate organizational interdependencies and alternative approaches to successful project management. The authors of this work suggest conducting a large-scale survey in order to specifically analyze the causalities of successful PKM. Further research goals of this survey should be the foundation of a solid understanding for supporting decisions regarding improvements in the knowledge management for specific types of projects in different industries. This will lead to the improvement of already existing attempts to determining industry specific best-practices.

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