Project Management Institute

The upward spiral

learning, knowledge, wisdom

Learning, Knowledge, Wisdom

by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin


THINKING ABOUT THINKING might seem like a rather circular pursuit, but it's what specialists in heuristics do best. One byproduct of the research into artificial intelligence (AI)—the pursuit of a computer that reasons like a person—has been deep probing of the processes by which human beings process information. How do we organize information, and—most important, as it is where what we consider real “thinking” takes place—how is that processed information compared, evaluated, internalized, and used to make judgments, to provide insight into related topics, to make creative leaps of the imagination, to achieve that nebulous quality we call wisdom.

What did you learn at work today? And who did you teach? Organizations and individuals follow the same path when incorporating new information into their behavior, and can be judged by how well they pass it on.

Debate rages as to whether true Al is an achievable—never mind desirable—goal. But along the way, the exploration has given us an understanding of how individuals acquire and use knowledge. This understanding has provided the basis for the development of an entirely new discipline—Knowledge Management—as well as fodder for training and development practitioners, who quickly noticed that the process by which people learn on the micro level can be replicated at the macro, or organizational, level. Thus was born the concept of the learning organization: one in which raw data is subjected to group processes that produce from it the behaviors that lead to corporate success.

Here's a quick overview of that process.

Information. First, let's back up a half step: In the beginning there was data. Data is the raw material of wisdom: data is to wisdom as an acre of desert in South Africa is to an exquisitely crafted diamond ring that has acquired several generations of family lore. Raw data is, essentially, useless, until some sort of filter is applied to distinguish what items are related and informative. Then it becomes information.

Computers are great at this step of knowledge creation—perhaps better than humans are. In any case, they are much faster at it so that they have become, for many, a kind of auxiliary brain that we use to filter and sort data into information we can use and compare. In the most simplistic terms, this same process is at work in the organization when we begin to implement procedures for knowledge management, except that another layer is added: not only must the information be sorted and stored, but it must be shared. Where once information sharing was a time-consuming matter involving printing and shipping of documents, or requiring face-to-face contact, now we share information at the speed of light and with as much ease as I type these letters. But that's still only step one for the learning person and his or her organization.

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin, ( former acting editor-in-chief of PMI‘s HQ Publishing Division, writes on project management and organizational development topics for the Center for Business Practices. Address comments on this article to

The Project Management Learning Curve

Recent research into the relationship between project failure and project complexity by Canadian scholars Mark A. Seely, PMP, and Quang P. Duong led them to develop a four-stage model designed to help identify the learning requirements appropriate for today's projects. The “people side” of this model, which they call the Dynamic Baseline Model, is described by a learning curve that moves through these four stages, which loosely correspond to the spiral process of information, learning, knowledge and wisdom:

Level 1: Management by Rules. Employees are encouraged to learn and follow rules, regulations, policies, procedures, directives, laws and so forth. At this level of learning, one learns how to apply existing rules to conduct business. Seely and Duong refer to it as a stage of “indoctrination.”

Level 2: Management by Methods. At the next level, employees build on their knowledge base by becoming proficient in the use of project management tools and templates, such as the work breakdown structure, scheduling tools, and so on. At this level, the employee can not only use the tools but can make recommendations for corrective actions based on analysis of project data.

Level 3: Management by Objectives. At this level, a employee is able to use the methods of Level 2 and the rules of Level 1 to establish and maintain project objectives: they know which rules to break and the implications of doing so, and are expected to make the decisions and trade-offs necessary to meet project objectives.

Level 4: Management by Values. The Level 4 employee has the capacity to manipulate and evolve not just the tools and rules, but the project objective itself over the course of the project life cycle, as appropriate to the overarching corporate values. They are expected to revisit and adjust project objectives with their attention focused on the “values horizon.”

Note: This description of the DBM was drawn from a research paper now under consideration for future publication in the Project Management Journal. Seely and Duong can be reached at

Learning. If information is a diamond in the rough, then learning is like diamond polishing: a process that refines raw materials into something valuable. Recently; experts in training and development have formed a new picture of how learning is best accomplished: rather than the solitary scholar, they argue, the collaborative group is the most yeasty learning environment. Not the classroom, but the field, is the most powerful center of learning. Where we once thought Just-in-Time learning second best, now we are recognizing that it is tops for turning information into applicable knowledge. (For specific examples, see the articles in this issue on collaborative learning, lessons learned, and the ROI of training.)

What's more, learning is being redefined: where once (remember high-school history class?) it was interpreted as memorizing facts, now that isn't enough to satisfy the demands of the complex workplace. Now, learning must entail mastery: the understanding of how to apply knowledge and skill to a given situation, often in the absence of rules. In short, the old learning curve has taken a sharp upward tilt (see sidebar).

This change is a corollary to the shift from the old hierarchical organization to a newer, more flexible style of work. Says organizational development expert Jim Cath-cart, one of the keynote speakers at the 1999 Project Leadership Conference, “In school you were taught to know, but not to understand. The old mode of learning was ‘remember what I tell you and say it back to me.’ This model doesn't work in today's workplace, however, because there's no value added in a rote exchange.”

Knowledge. People have been thinking about thinking for a long time—probably since we first became conscious that there was something going on upstairs. We'll skip the age-old epistemological dialogue about whether knowledge is best gathered by observation, experience or intuition. For our purposes, knowledge can be defined—as the dictionary defines it—as the “familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study; the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned.” Knowledge implies not only that information and skills have been acquired through study or experience, but that there is an organized database (mental or concrete) that incorporates not just facts but also ideas, understanding, and a sense of the big picture: how all the information interrelates as well as how it relates to things outside the knowledge area.

Wow! Comparing that to how most people operate in organizations, we have a long way to go. Jim Cathcart puts it this way: “Until we learn how to translate what we know into context, we don't know what we know. A hallmark of true knowledge is that we understand it well enough to pass it on to succeeding generations—either to our children or to the next team that will face a similar project.”

“Translating what we know into context” is a specialty of project managers: the context of each project being unique, the set of skills and fund of experiences a project manager brings to the table must be translated each time into usable information. That's knowledge transfer. But when project managers—or the project organization— can pass long the skill of translation itself, we begin to approach wisdom.

Wisdom. It's a cliché to say that wisdom comes with age; but all writers know that clichés got that way because they are so true and have proven it over time. There's a reason why the word “wisdom” suddenly popped up in the title of the PMI® Annual Seminars & Symposium in the year coinciding with the organization's 30th anniversary. PMI‘s founders, once young mavericks, are now venerable elders who possess, in addition to individual lifetimes of skill development and information-gathering, a sense of history: a lens through which we can view the development of the profession.

Can this sense of history translate to organizations? Is “organizational wisdom” an oxymoron or an achievable goal? In these days, when more and more workers operate as semi-independent nomads, consultants, contractors, or temps, accumulating organizational wisdom can't be left to individuals: it has to be an organizational strategy, supported by information technology. Still, the computer that can take information and tell us whether it is “true, right, or lasting”—part of the dictionary definition of wisdom—is a long way off. But today's OD experts advise that there are two tools an organization can use to pass on and develop wisdom: purpose and mentoring.

Chip Bell, author of Managers v4s Mentors [Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1996] and of an article on mentoring to be published in the November PM Network, suggests that people use knowledge more wisely when they understand the overarching purpose of their work: “When they think from a purpose-driven perspective they do process more effectively. With wisdom you can devise your own methods; with mere information, you are stuck with the methods you have always used.”

Having a sense of purpose within the organizational context also maximizes learning and delivers benefits, he says, since “nothing advances until you do more than is required,” and the understanding of what may be needed above and beyond mere requirements is only developed by broad-based information sharing in an atmosphere that welcomes initiative and innovation.

Jim Cathcart agrees: “If you understand the principles (what makes knowledge work), that's wisdom. Why is always more valuable knowledge than how. I like to say, How has a job … Why is the boss. What changes is the level of awareness … you are better able to engage in knowledge transfer, because if you really understand something you can explain it simply and put it in context. Organizational learning follows on more easily.”

Chip Bell adds that the learning organization must be one with “a culture that nurtures learning.” He insists that it isn't enough to invest in training, or use teams, or even have a knowledge database. “Companies that are winning have that kind of culture; they are evolving into a partnership orientation, embracing risk, moving from a parental to a collaborative mode, where error is an opportunity to grow instead of a platform for rebuke.” In short, they are companies that mentor instead of commanding or punishing.

The mentor—someone who passes on knowledge and wisdom to others—displays the organization's values by modeling them, in addition to imparting useful information. How important is this mentoring role? A 1999 McKinsey study found that almost 40 percent of people in IT who don't have a mentor jump ship within a year. So mentoring has a huge impact on keeping talent in house where it can grow and expand, bringing along newer cadres of employees and solidifying the organization's level of knowledge and wisdom.

IF THIS DISCUSSION of levels, models, processes, ages and stages brings the concept of personal and organizational maturity to mind—well, that's no accident. When a profession and its practitioners—both individual and organizational—have reached a certain age, reflection on the value of maturity is bound to ensue. The future challenge for project managers and project organizations will be to not only evaluate their level of maturity … but also to model wisdom for newer practitioners. images

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October 1999 PM Network



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