Project management as knowledge work



Complex projects are characterised by structural complexity, ambiguity about the goals of the project and uncertainty about the means to achieve those goals. This is compounded when the project is conducted in an unstructured or volatile context. In this paper we argue that in this context project management should be seen as a knowledge based practice and that knowledge management principles need to be explicitly integrated into project management practices. Knowledge based practices, such as experimentation, sense-making and learning, amongst others allows emergent issues in projects to be addressed in an innovative and flexible manner. Successful resolution usually creates new knowledge and potentially contributes to the Body of Knowledge (BoK) that underpins this type of project. The paper presents an illustrative case study of the building of the Hoover Dam to demonstrate how knowledge-based practices were used to resolve issues that emerged during construction.


For organizations to remain competitive, build market share or develop a new capability they need to innovate. Such innovations are complex and involve issues that emerge during the project. Project complexity can be due to structural complexity (the size of the project and the interdependence of the elements) and uncertainty in terms of both the project goals and the means to achieve those goals. Such projects tend to have unclear objectives and uncertainty in how these objectives will be met and require innovative techniques to deliver the project. In this paper we argue that project management is a knowledge based practice or occupation and that knowledge management principles need to be integrated with project management principles and practices. Knowledge work is often collaborative as the problems are so complex that it requires a number of individuals to work on the task/activity. Within complex projects solutions can be untried and can require the development of new techniques to perform the project. Knowledge work involving innovation often involves group collaboration. The structures of managing projects need to explicitly accommodate knowledge practices that allow innovation. The paper is structured as follows a background of complex projects is discussed and how knowledge based practices were used to overcome these issues followed by an illustrative study is to show how knowledge work to develop innovative outputs was used to ensure project success.


Complexity in Projects

For organizations to remain competitive, build market share or develop a new capability they need to innovate (Drucker, 2006). Such innovations are complex and inevitably involve uncertainty and ambiguity. Innovation usually has an element of technical uncertainty, may require experimentation, may change in scope (Deakins & Dillon, 2005), or is crucially dependent on technological development (Turner and Keegan 2004). Implementation of innovation or rapid change often requires an iterative or experimental approach (Eisenhardt and Tabrizi 1995) that is usually delivered via projects (Cleland and Ireland 2007) and requires a wide range of knowledge from different sources and backgrounds (Project Management Institute, 2004).

Project complexity can be due to structural complexity (the size of the project and the interdependence of the elements) and uncertainty in terms of both the project goals and the means to achieve those goals. Such projects tend to have unclear objectives and uncertainty in how these objectives will be met (Williams, 2002). Complex projects usually have a number of stakeholders with differing objectives and understanding of the scope of the project and how it should be delivered (Alderman, Ivory, McLouglin, & Vaughn, 2005, Williams 2002). This is compounded when either the scope of the capability that is being constructed is unclear, or there is uncertainty about how it will be implemented (Williams, 2002). Project complexity increases when it is conducted in unstructured context where the future is uncertain (Prahalad & Hamel, 1990). The combined effect of these situations can influence the complex, uncertain and ambiguous nature of projects.

All projects have a degree of uncertainty stemming from the interdependence of issues that characterize complex projects. Uncertainty is defined as the difference between the data, information or knowledge that exists in a project versus what is required to complete a project. Existing project tools and techniques such as project management processes, planning, budgeting and risk management techniques (Thiry, 2002) can be used to reduce or manage uncertainty. Another aspect of complex projects is ambiguity that that arises when differing, and often conflicting, interpretations of a situation leads to a lack of shared understanding about a given situation between project stakeholders (Thiry, 2002; March 1999).

Uncertainty and ambiguity emerge throughout the lifecycle of a project (Thiry, 2002; Chapman & Ward, 2003; Atkinson, Crawford & Ward, 2006). These issues can arise, for example, from community perceptions, safety concerns, environmental impacts, legal acceptability, political and social impacts, uncertain benefits, stakeholder attitudes, value management and communication problems (Jafaari, 2001; Thiry, 2002). To manage uncertainty, the planning stage of a project involves: defining the scope of a project to establish a shared understanding amongst stakeholders; allocation of appropriate resources in terms of personnel, skills and expertise; risk mitigation strategies are developed to anticipate uncertainty through quantifiable control processes.

Ambiguity involves both a conflicting understanding of a current situation and the realisation that this understanding will change over time (March, 1999; Robertson & Swan, 2003) as additional knowledge about that situation becomes available. Resolving ambiguity is more problematic as it is difficult to follow a rational decision making process utilizing existing knowledge, tools, routines and techniques (March 1999).

Resolution of Emergent Issues Using Knowledge-Based Practices

Resolution of emergent issues that characterize complex projects require experimentation, innovation, and flexibility (March 1999) when such issues cannot be resolved using existing methodologies or standard processes. We propose that knowledge management techniques are key to the resolution of emergent issues through the project life span. (Owen, 2006; Owen & Linger, 2006; Thiry, 2002; Alderman et al., 2005; Pich, Loch & De Meyer, 2002). Reflective practice, learning and collaboration are integral to the theoretical framework and are the core processes by which knowledge management supports project management.

Emergent issues in complex projects are initially addressed by staff who bring to bear their experience, knowledge and skills as well as their collective understanding of the current situation. However, the complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of the situation often means that the tools, techniques and knowledge available to the project team are insufficient to resolve the issue to get the project back on track. Alternatively, project staff do not have the authority to resolve the issue as it might require fundamental changes in the scope and/or objectives of the project or resources available to the project.

Within the project, staff rely on their intimate understanding of their BoK in order to apply this knowledge to the issues. The BoK applies to the project, work processes and the management of those processes. The management of the project is mediated by the methodology adopted for this project that defines activities and work processes. To resolve issues internally the issue is escalated to the project team who can draw on the specialised knowledge of the subject of the project and/or methodological aspects, while professional knowledge applies to the broader issues of managing the project. However these are not independent areas but are highly interdependent and project staff often have roles in all three areas simultaneously.

Knowledge management principles are key to the resolution of emergent issues (Thiry, 2002; Atkinson, et al, 2006). Whatever the nature of the emergent issues, staff are involved in learning, sense-making and exploiting organizational memory as well as their own experiential knowledge. These knowledge processes allow staff to exercise professional judgement and take action to bring the project back on track. These decisions usually relate to the three constraint of projects; costs, time and resources. Such activity is typical for project management. However reflection on these decisions and action can also result in revision of project methodology for such projects to improve future practice. Typically such reflection is part of project closing. From a knowledge management perspective, these decisions, actions and their justification need to be documented to contribute the construction of the organizational memory, and subsequently to support learning, knowledge construction and improvement in practice through knowledge reuse (Burstein & Linger, 2003).

The resolution of emergent issues relies heavily on collaboration between project staff in order to meet project objectives and manage project knowledge. Individuals in project teams are usually cross functional, tend to have a different backgrounds and experiences, and consequently they frame and structure the emergent issue according to their existing knowledge, skill sets and competencies (Callon, 1998; Gasson, 2004). In the project environment, knowledge is constructed as a result of collaboration within the project team as staff gain an understanding of how and why different team members behaved in a particular way (Latour, 1993). In this context, collaboration can be defined by both the set of links within the team and the boundary that is set by the team and defined by the project (Law & Hassard, 1999; Callon & Latour, 1981). From this perspective, resolution of an emergent issue results in the production of a boundary object or artefact that is effectively information and knowledge that can be shared by the project team (Star, 1989).

Research Method

The objective of this paper is to focus on emergent issues and how innovation and collaboration were used to resolve untried and unknown techniques. The Hoover Dam study uses secondary sources in the form of a case study published by the British Broadcasting Company (Cadbury, 2003) and an historic account of the construction of the Hoover Dam (U. S Department of the Interior,1976). This is a rare opportunity to study how knowledge based practices, involving innovation and collaboration, were used to resolve untried and unknown techniques. Utilising different sources allowed triangulation to occur to view the phenomena in different ways (Stake, 2000).

Illustrative Case Study

The Colorado River, near the Arizona/Nevada Border was assessed by engineers as an area where a dam could be created to irrigate the United States Southwest and provide power to that region. The Hoover Dam is a concrete dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. The Boulder Canyon Project act was approved in June 1929, ear;u in the Great Depression. In the early 1930s thousands of people travelled to the region in the hope of obtaining employment. Construction began in 1931 and was completed in 1935 two years ahead of schedule. The contract to construct the dam was awarded to a consortium of six companies – ‘Six Companies’. The wining bid of $48,980,955 USD was the lowest bid. Completion dates for phases were built into the contract wit. If these dates were not met penalties would be invoked. The Chief Engineer of Six Companies was Frank Crowe who had worked on a number of civil engineering projects throughout America. Not only was Crowe recognized for his managerial skills and organizational ability but his innovative techniques which saved on time and labor. The dam would be the biggest dam in the world, creating a lake 150 miles long and 580 feet deep. Black Canyon, where the dam was to be built, was isolated lacking infrastructure, transport or services, or a township to house the workers.

The first stage of work was to divert the Colorado River to allow work on the dam to begin. Tunnels were to be built so the Colorado River could be diverted. Construction of the diversion tunnels and the diversion of the river needed to be completed by October 1, 1933 otherwise a penalty of $ 3,000 USD was to be paid by Six Companies. At the same time a number of workers were hired: miners, electricians, powder monkeys, and high scalers.

Work on the diversion tunnels began in 1931. The work was carried out in three shifts in each twenty four hour period. As the work progressed issues emerged; heat was a real issue in the tunnels causing heatstroke to a number of workers with body temperatures rising to 110 degrees. While there was agitation from the Industrial Workers of the World to obtain better working conditions and some industrial action occurred Crowe reminded the workers that there was a plentiful supply of workers to replace them.

Work to dig the tunnels was slow until a rig that carried four platforms allowing two rows of miners (thirty in total) to work simultaneously was developed by Crowe's second in charge. The contraption was driven into position 120 holes were drilled and packed with 2,000 pounds of explosive, allowing 250 feet of tunnel to be excavated each day. The rubble from the tunnel was removed by specifically designed trucks. By late summer 1932 the tunnels were completed ahead of schedule.

Once the river was diverted to protect the construction site from flooding, two cofferdams were constructed. Once the coffer dams were in place and the construction site dewatered, excavation for the dam foundation began and all loose material from the dam was removed until solid rock was reached. After the diversion of the Colorado River through the tunnels, the walls of the Black Canyon had to be smoothed to allow the pouring of concrete. Work on the canyon walls was a risky job carried out by high scalers who were suspended from a rope from the top of the canyon for eight hours per shift. The risk of falling from the rope, or being hit by falling objects was high. To protect themselves from falling objects the high scalers invented the ‘hard’ hat, two baseball hats joined together and dipped in tar several times to protect themselves.

Crowe believed that if there was a more effective way to complete a job that he either knew about it or could develop the technique to overcome it. To reduce the time in building the dam wall Crowe developed a series of overhead cables to carry men and materials throughout the dam site. In addition he developed an element of competition by paying bonuses to Teams for fast efficient work.

Concrete was poured into the dam on June 6, 1933. If the concrete was poured as one continuous pour it was estimated that it would have taken 125 years for the concrete to cool, and the resulting stresses would have caused the dam to crack and crumble. To overcome this issue concrete was poured in five feet sections where after the pouring workers in rubber boots smoothed the concrete out to the edges of the section, and cleaned with pressurised water. In addition cold water was circulated through pipes in the concrete.

On February 1, 1935 the last diversion tunnel was closed off and the river flowed in an orderly manner. The Hoover Dam was completed two years ahead of schedule.

Discussion – Revisiting the Findings

Throughout the construction of the Hoover Dam innovative techniques were developed to overcome emergent issues as shown in Exhibit 1. The standard approached utilized in constructing a dam could not deal with the complexity of the Hoover Dam project. The schedule, with a number of penalty clauses, presented a number of challenges. As issues emerged, e.g. how to construct the diversion tunnels within the specified time, innovative techniques enabled the actors to address the issues and reduce uncertainty in the project. Experiential knowledge from earlier projects was used to develop techniques to reduce uncertainty.


Exhibit 1

To reduce the risk of high scalers being hit by overhead objects the issue was initially addressed by thee high scalers who utilized their experience, knowledge and skills as well as their collective understanding of the current situation to develop the hard hat. The hard hat was not only assimilated into the project, but has been formalized and is used today in construction projects.

The majority of issues that emerged during the project were due to the contextual nature of the project. These issues could not be resolved utilizing the standard making tools and techniques rather they were deescalated where broader knowledge, experience, and authority could be used to resolve the issue. A number of the issues had broader applicability and were assimilated into the organizational routines and methodologies of future construction projects and became part of the construction standards. Collaboration and emergent knowledge were key to the resolution of these deescalated issues. Once these issues were resolved they became part of the standard tools and techniques involved in the management of the project. Fundamentally the environment of people, processes, systems and the BoK interacts to resolve emergent issues.

The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930's emphasizes how innovation and collaboration were used to resolve untried and unknown techniques. Innovative techniques in concrete pouring and tunnel construction (to divert the river) were used in the building of the dam. These innovations involved experimentation and collaboration to resolve the issues. The insights of the illustrative case study are typical for the resolution of issues through collaboration using sense making and experiential knowledge. We identified that emergent issues are not resolved within the traditional project management model utilizing existing tools and methodologies, but rather rely on knowledge management to resolve these issues. This lies in the conceptualization of project management as a knowledge based practice and explicitly incorporating knowledge management principles into that practice. Reflective practice, learning and collaboration are the core processes by which knowledge management supports project management. This level of project organization is either formally constituted or can exist as an informal and/or ad hoc structure to support project management.


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© 2008, Jill Owen & Henry Linger
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Sydney, Australia



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