Project Management Institute

Share the wealth

Building a knowledge base that spans the portfolio can yield plenty of insights, but be prepared to make a serious commitment of time, money and resources.

by Carol Hildebrand // photo by Scott Dalton


Horacio Reyes Rios, PMP, Codensa S.A.,
Bagotá, Colombia

For project managers, it's all about the nitty-gritty details. But unless the organization has a way to collect and analyze all those details, it's missing out on a treasure trove of information that could help save time and money across the whole portfolio, both now and in the future. Instituting a knowledge management process can help do precisely that.

“As you see continuous improvement from one project to another, and as learnings are identified and reapplied, the benefits become obvious,” says Nick Milton, Ph.D., director of resources and training at Knoco Ltd, a knowledge management consultancy in Bristol, England.

But only if it's done right.

“It's usually an area of untapped value, simply because people ‘half do it.’ Capturing and reusing lessons requires discipline and skill to do it well, and many companies don't give it due attention,” Dr. Milton says. “Also people are disinclined to assign project resources on activities, such as lessons capture, that value other projects, not their own.”

To truly capitalize on knowledge management, companies must build a learning-focused environment that spans the enterprise.

“Organizations need to structure their information,” says Horacio Reyes Rios, PMP, project manager, Codensa S.A., an electricity distributor based in Bogotá, Colombia. “However, many just try to document process, projects and everything else, and put them into sharing systems without the appropriate tools, becoming then a repository of information, instead of a real knowledge management system.”

The project management office (PMO) should be ready to work with knowledge management professionals to not only create the vision but also implement the initiative across the company. To cut the risk of turf wars and encourage teamwork, organizations should clearly define the goals and who's doing what, says Tom Young, chairman and director of Knoco Ltd.

“I always like to start by identifying what the key strategic knowledge of the company is and who will own that,” he says. “Normally, you would expect a subset of that would be owned by the PMO directors. If you then map onto that accountabilities and the relative roles that each plays, then you should be getting close to defining who does what.”

Organizations need to create a common framework and taxonomy for categorizing knowledge, and a standardized approach to how and when it is captured and reapplied. If it's done differently on each project, organizations face an array of very disparate approaches and results, making it difficult to find and share the knowledge effectively.

“You need processes where knowledge is discussed and identified, you need people with clear accountability regarding the acquisition and reuse of knowledge, and you need technology to allow knowledge to be identified, sought and transferred,” Dr. Milton says.

One of the reasons the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) set up the Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership was to instill knowledge management into the project management process. NASA provides a number of technology tools and processes—from databases to collaborative forums—to find and share knowledge among the many experts in the organization.

“We try to create a community that recognizes that part of the role of a project manager is to enhance and share knowledge,” says Ed Hoffman, Ph.D., the academy's director.

One effective way to ensure uniformity is to embed the knowledge management methodologies and processes right into the bedrock of the project.

Doing so ensures knowledge management processes aren't seen as additional or duplicative work, says Paul Ritchie, PMP, head of global project management operations at SAP AG in Walldorf, Germany.

Because the ultimate goal of knowledge management initiatives is to create value-added information, SAP established explicit performance metrics. “It could be a target that a certain number of recommended practices or project debriefs be done, or results published, but it was a clear and well-defined part of our people's objectives, and they are evaluated on the output generated,” Mr. Ritchie says.

During a project's planning stage, organizations can add another level of rigor to their knowledge management approach by creating a knowledge management plan that outlines:

  • The information that would help the team deliver the project
  • Where the knowledge can be found
  • How it can be accessed
  • Who will take accountability for finding and using that knowledge.

Launching a knowledge management plan is a way of “making sure people do their homework from the start,” Dr. Milton says.

And it also helps the team feel comfortable admitting knowledge gaps. “It's not an easy thing for a senior project manager who had been appointed based on his knowledge and experience to ask for help from others, and the structure of knowledge management plans give them permission to do just that,” he says.

At the same time, these methodologies must be flexible enough to accommodate changing needs. “One thing the project manager needs to think about is what the learning cycle is for the knowledge they collect—how fast they need to learn and feed those lessons into the next project,” says Dorothy Leonard, Ph.D., William J. Abernathy professor of business administration emerita at the Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and author of Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom [Harvard Business School Press, 2005].

NASA has certain basic requirements across all projects for capturing lessons learned and archiving key knowledge and information, using agency-wide systems to input the data. But after that, project manager can pick and choose from a variety of knowledge management tools and methods. “Each project manager has some latitude to define their strategy for success,” Dr. Hoffman says. “It's up to the project team—some may have web tools, while others may choose to do a case study on their project.”

Make It Personal

While knowledge management is best inculcated as a top-level initiative, organizations must find ways to institutionalize it without forcing it on project managers not ready to use the process.

Mr. Ritchie rolled out a global initiative, but he did so by starting with audiences that were already interested in knowledge management. “We wanted it to go where it was wanted,” he says. “There are always people who are enthusiastic about knowledge management, so we went there and presented and rolled it out to them first.”

Mr. Reyes Rios made sure to fill his company's wiki-based knowledge management system with a critical mass of information to start with. There are 250 pages containing user manuals, discussion pages and lessons learned.

“It's important to build a knowledge-driven project environment that has enough articles published in the system before you bring the users on board, because they must be able to search and find enough information to perceive the knowledge management system as a real solution,” he says.

Take It In…Before They Go

They know the score. They've been around. They're the battle-scarred veterans with stockpiles of institutional knowledge and expertise. And they're valuable resources—until they leave and take it all with them.

“What you lose when a person walks out the door is the tacit knowledge in their head,” says Dorothy Leonard, Ph.D., author of Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom.

The problem is exacerbated by the graying of the workforce in many countries, says Nick Milton, Ph.D., Knoco Ltd. “It's become an increasing issue,” he says. “Shell estimates eight percent of its company knowledge leaves every year, and if they weren't refreshing it, it would soon be all gone. Knowledge is a finite resource. Don't leave it unmanaged.”

Organizations need to find ways to build knowledge transfer into their processes well before people leave—a task far more complex than having that employee give a lecture or build a PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Leonard says.

“The worst way is the way people usually try,” she says. Better options include storytelling, Socratic questioning or something she calls “guided experience,” in which the learner shadows the guru in order to watch his or her behavior on the job, or works with the guru on joint projects, Dr. Leonard says. “If you observe or jointly problem solve, you will see things that they wouldn't think to tell you about.”

To help build user acceptance of the knowledge management system, Codensa provides training and sends weekly e-mails offering user tips from other team members. The company also ran a scavenger hunt to encourage users to explore the system and see how it could help them answer business questions. To increase awareness and involvement, the company even offered rewards to the users who found the most correct answers. The end-result? A 722 percent jump in use and a satisfaction rate of 95 out of 100, according to Mr. Reyes Rios.

Different Schools of Thought

Organizations must respect different ways of learning. People accumulate and share knowledge in a wide variety of ways, and organizations must use a variety of communication channels that reflect those differences. One size does not fit all.

“We tried to pay attention to the different ways that people store and thought about information,” Mr. Ritchie says. “Some of the community is good at taking and processing written information, but there are other styles that aren't addressed by things like e-mails and PowerPoint.” So he initiated other tools, such as face-to-face workshops and brainstorming sessions.

Such thinking also lies behind NASA's wide range of knowledge-sharing tools. Dr. Hoffman says building a community geared toward sharing information helps project managers gather and disseminate knowledge that might otherwise fall through the cracks. Along with providing tools such as databases and web portals, he makes sure to include opportunities for in-person sharing as well. Every year, the agency stages several forums where experts in a particular field gather for several days off-site to share stories from different projects. Bringing the practice down to the local level, NASA recently instituted shorter, regional “fast forums.”

NASA also publishes Ask, a magazine devoted to profiling project case studies and lessons learned. “Every project has a degree of uniqueness, and part of the skill of the project team is to determine what they need and what will work,” Dr. Hoffman says. “And while databases and tools are helpful, it really comes down to building the community where sharing and learning is normal.”

Too Much Information

As companies gather ever-increasing amounts of project data, they also need ways to parse that data to uncover what's of use—and what can be tossed aside. As such, organizations find themselves instituting ways to identify and expand on the most popular knowledge areas. Mr. Ritchie, for example, tracks the most frequently searched terms in his document libraries, and counts document views and downloads. He also lets users rate document usefulness—giving him another barometer of success. And then he analyzes the success of his information-dissemination methods. “We'll look at the attendance rate of presentations or conferences, or whether newsletters or e-learning sessions are well-subscribed,” he says.

Perhaps most importantly, he recruits experienced project managers to act as global knowledge management moderators. The project managers, who rotate through the role, are responsible for advocating the knowledge management effort by conducting project debriefs, analyzing key performance indicators, and otherwise making sure the right knowledge is being gathered and shared.

“Failure to get a critical mass of knowledge is one of the main reasons knowledge management fails, so these moderators help people get engaged to edit and interact with the information out there,” Mr. Ritchie says. “If you don't put somebody responsible for kick-starting and showing leadership around knowledge management, you get the luck of the draw.”

Instilling knowledge management across an entire project framework is obviously not simple, but it can be well worth the effort. “The value of project knowledge can be sometimes greater than the value of the project itself,” Dr. Milton says. “It's something that shouldn't be skimped, ignored or half-done.” PM

Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer based in Wellesley, Massachusetts, USA. She is a former senior editor at CIO, and her work has appeared in Computerworld.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

OCTOBER 2007 |



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