Tapping tacit knowledge
Knowledge management involves making direct connections between an organization's intellectual assets and positive business results and has therefore become a major concern of corporations. The relevance of knowledge management has largely been driven by the transition from the Industrial Era to the Knowledge Era (de Geus, 1997) or Information Age (Hames, 1994), characterized by vastly enhanced communications and information availability as well as dramatic and discontinuous change.
In an environment of stability and continuity organizations are able to develop and maintain repositories of explicit corporate knowledge and they have opportunities to transfer tacit knowledge, embodied in their people, through workplace training and succession processes. In an era of information explosion and discontinuous change, tacit knowledge often has little time or opportunity to develop and is readily lost through corporate restructures. As organizations aim for efficiency, reducing staff numbers and expecting higher levels of productivity, there is rarely the time or the incentive to foster mentoring, coaching and other forms of knowledge transfer.
People are the ultimate repositories of knowledge, so another feature of the transition from the Industrial to the Knowledge Era is increasing importance of human capital and intellectual assets relative to physical assets. Knowledge management, which occurred almost as a matter of course in the relatively stable environment and organisations of the industrial era, has become more difficult and more critical and has become generally recognized as a strategic concern of senior management.
In an environment of dramatic and discontinuous change, more and more of the endeavors of organizations are unique and can benefit from being identified and managed as projects. Projects by their very nature represent significant knowledge management challenges, typified, in the world of project management, by recognition of the need to capture and disseminate “lessons learned”. However, while senior management generally recognizes the strategic importance of knowledge management, project management tends to be seen as a tactical capability. As a consequence, owners of project management in organisations often face difficulties in securing the attention and support of senior management.
Project managers should therefore pay serious attention to knowledge management. On the one hand, knowledge management as a strategic corporate focus provides a conduit to securing the attention of senior management and the resources necessary to achieve and sustain good project management performance. On the other, improved knowledge management can, of itself, enhance project management capability.
This paper presents a framework for evaluating knowledge management in project environments as a basis for benchmarking and improving knowledge management practices.
Managing Knowledge in Project Environments
'A firm's competitive advantage depends more than anything on its knowledge… on what it knows – how it uses what it knows – and how fast it can know something new' (Prusak, 1997, p.ix). This certainly applies to projects, which are by definition unique, requiring innovative solutions and which, for continuous improvement to be possible, require knowledge to be transferred from one project and one team to another. This process generally involves the sharing of tacit knowledge between people as well as the transformation of knowledge from tacit to explicit forms.
Tacit knowledge is informal and uncodified, is embodied in people, is deeply personal, and is developed through experience, involving personal beliefs, perspectives and values while explicit knowledge is formal and codified, can be articulated in language and can be processed, transmitted, stored and shared among individuals (Polanyi, 1958; Nonaka et al. 2001).
Management of knowledge in project environments is not simple and, to be effective, requires a systemic approach, which can be seen as involving four key dimensions:
- Capturing data, information and knowledge
- Storing data, information and knowledge
- Effective communication and sharing of knowledge
- Use and application of knowledge
These dimensions must be supported by:
- A culture that supports and encourages good knowledge management practices
- External focus and innovation to foster the creation of new knowledge and application of knowledge to improvement of processes and practices
Capturing data, information and knowledge
The first step in the knowledge management process is making sure that data, information and knowledge are captured. In projects this can take a number of forms. First, baselines should be established during the planning phases of all projects in an organization. These baselines should include but not necessarily be limited to time, cost, quality, scope and risk. As the projects progress, actual data should be captured and recorded. This type of data is fundamental to the improvement of planning and estimating processes.
Exhibit 1: Knowledge Management Processes
Project performance measures and success criteria should be identified, and data recorded and captured throughout the life cycle of projects in the form of practical project metrics. Processes should be in place to identify and capture “best practices” from projects and post project reviews are an important source of feedback data. The nature of tacit knowledge should be understood and recognized, and should be captured where possible in forms such as lessons learned and project stories (Laufer and Hoffman, 2000; Denning, 2001). Processes should be in place for translating tacit to explicit knowledge through development of templates, policies, procedures, manuals and the like.
Storing data, information and knowledge
Capturing data, information and knowledge is not enough on its own. It must also be stored. Essentially, it is data, information and explicit or codified knowledge that will be stored in knowledge repositories which should have effective cataloguing and archiving procedures to ensure currency and validity and therefore credibility of the data, information and knowledge that is stored.
Storage will need to be supported by security processes to ensure necessary levels of confidentiality, to avoid loss of data and to ensure rapid recovery in case of data loss. Data and information, however, are the easiest to store. Sources of tacit knowledge, such as people and project teams, need to be identified and recognized and processes put in place to ensure that this knowledge is retained in the organization.
Where possible tacit knowledge should be transferred to explicit forms and embedded in project management methodology, project management systems, manuals, quality management systems, documented workflow and the like.
Effective communication and sharing of knowledge
Project data, information and knowledge that are captured and stored will be of little value to other projects or the organization unless they are accessible to those who will be able to make use of them. One of the main difficulties encountered in projects is that people in organizations don't know what data, information and knowledge are available or how to find it. For instance, there may be templates available on an intranet, but project team members may not be aware of their existence or may not know how or where to find them. One important way of addressing this issue is to provide a flexible, well structured, user friendly and up to date knowledge map to guide staff in finding knowledge when they need it.
Just-in-time delivery of knowledge can be assisted by appropriate and user friendly technology, but it is important that this technology is available to all staff involved in projects, regardless of their location. Although it is important not to become too focused on IT support for knowledge management at the expense of the human dimension, it is important to ensure that there is good IT support for communication of knowledge. Such IT support should be scalable, platform independent and allow multi-format and multimedia access. It should also have a consistent and easy user interface so that the technology offers the least possible barrier to use by project team members with varying levels of skills throughout the organization.
Processes should be in place to encourage effective communication and sharing of tacit knowledge. This may include availability of up-to-date subject matter expert directories, work experience opportunities, mentoring and coaching, discussion databases, lessons learned repositories, best practices inventories and references, documented workflows, information exchange forums, communities of practice and the like. An important aspect is the nurturing of information networks across the organization to facilitate knowledge sharing and transfer of effective practices from project to project.
Underpinning all of these initiatives is a need for adequate resourcing of the communication and sharing of knowledge in terms of technology, people, facilities and the like.
Use and application of knowledge
Collecting, storing, sharing and communication of project data, information and knowledge are of little value unless they are used and applied on other projects. There are a number of ways in which use and application of data, information and knowledge can be encouraged.
First, even if knowledge is embedded in project management processes, procedures, systems, manuals and the like, and these are made readily accessible with the assistance of user friendly technology and knowledge maps, it is important to provide training, support and encouragement to ensure that they are used and used appropriately.
Rewards and recognition for adherence to project management processes and for providing feedback for ongoing process improvement will encourage use and application of this form of explicit knowledge. They will also encourage the use of knowledge repositories to improve planning, estimating and overall project performance. Individuals should also be visibly rewarded for teamwork, knowledge sharing and re-use. An environment in which everyone is willing to openly provide feedback and advice and assist others is also an indicator of healthy knowledge management practices To enhance this, the value of effective knowledge management should be understood and measured and achievements should be reported and celebrated.
Quality management systems can be a very powerful way of encouraging the use of lessons learned and disseminating these through documented process improvements for use in subsequent projects.
Good knowledge management practices will flourish in a supportive culture. Such a culture will have the following characteristics:
- General and project management personnel will understand and support knowledge management
- Open exchange of accurate information about projects and project performance will be encouraged even when projects are considered unsuccessful
- Mistakes will be tolerated as long as lessons are learned and processes improved
- Capturing and sharing of knowledge will be routine and an accepted part of the project, business unit or organizational culture
- There will be clear ownership and corporate support for knowledge management.
- There will be no restrictions on availability of data, information and knowledge unless it is personal or there is clear justification for confidentiality.
External focus and innovation
Effective knowledge management is not introspective. It draws on sources outside the project and the organization to introduce new knowledge, to create new knowledge and to improve performance. This external focus can be achieved in a number of ways. Internal and external benchmarking provides a basis for questioning current performance and identifying avenues for performance improvement. Memberships of and links with a range of communities of practices provide a source for constant refreshing of knowledge in projects and organisations. A programme of active participation in business and professional conferences and other discussion forums to share and learn for the experience and ideas of others is an important aspect of good knowledge management.
Another sign of good knowledge management is the encouragement of innovation. Existence of process improvement processes, availability of a budget to develop new processes, and willingness to accept changes that respond to new knowledge and opportunities to achieve performance improvement and enhanced business benefit are indicators that innovation is encouraged.
Good knowledge management practices can be used in single projects but, to be effective, needs to be used for all projects in an organization to enable the transfer of both explicit and tacit knowledge between projects. Further, knowledge management in projects will be enhanced if it relates to and is supported by corporate knowledge management practices.
Benchmarking Knowledge Management Practices in Projects
Within the Human Systems Global Knowledge Networks, an instrument has been developed for assessing and benchmarking knowledge management practices in projects. Initial use of this instrument with members of the network and others indicates that Cultural Support for knowledge management and External Focus and Innovation are the highest scoring aspects. On average, communication and sharing of data, information and knowledge is least well done. Overall, there is considerable room for improvement in all dimensions between the worst and best performers on each dimension.
Exhibit 2, below, shows maximum, minimum and average scores. No single organization is the source of either the lowest or the highest scores indicating that even those organisations that perform best on one dimensions have considerable opportunity to learn from the practices of other organisations in order to improve their overall knowledge management performance.
Exhibit 2: Results of assessment of knowledge management practices
Areas of best performance
Overall, project environments appear to be typified by openness and willingness to share data, information and knowledge and there is willingness to give advice and to assist others. Further, staff involved in projects have ready access to project information regardless of their location.
Identification, recording and capture of project performance measures appear to be widely accepted practices.
Areas of worst performance
The areas that appear to present most difficulty are:
- Provision of a flexible, well structured, user friendly and up to date knowledge map to guide staff in finding knowledge required
- Processes for recognition of repositories of tacit knowledge such as people and project teams in order to ensure that this knowledge is retained in the organization
- Provision of scalable, platform independent, IT support with a consistent and easy user interface, allowing multi-format and multi-media access in order to support communication of knowledge
- Reward and recognition of individuals for teamwork, knowledge sharing and re-use
Effective knowledge management has potential to enhance project management capability and performance. Evidence suggests that there is considerable room for improvement in the management of knowledge in projects with significant opportunities for organisations to share their own good practices and learn from those of others.
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