Lessons Learned—The Value of Knowledge Transfer

Transcript

Narrator

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified™ with PMI we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career.For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified™ with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play music or PMI.org/podcast.

Stephen W. Maye

Hello, I'm Stephen Maye, and this is Projectified™ with PMI. I'm here with my co-host, Tegan Jones, and in this episode we're talking about knowledge transfer. It’s kind of a wonky term, but it refers to the ways organizations collect and distribute the information people need to get their jobs done.

In many organizations, valuable information tends to live inside people’s heads. And if those people leave or move into different roles, they take that knowledge with them. Depending on the timing of that departure, that can cause chaos for project teams.

Tegan Jones

This is actually something that PMI looks at every year as part of its Pulse of the Profession® survey. The report drills down into the behaviors and the investments that separate what PMI calls “champion” organizations from their underperforming peers. And the 2018 survey found that knowledge transfer is actually a key element that makes high performers more competitive than underperformers.

Stephen W. Maye

So in this context, exactly how are we defining “champion”?

Tegan Jones

So, PMI defines a champion as an organization that completes 80 percent or more of its projects on time, on budget and meeting original business intent. And this year’s survey found that four in five champion organizations have a formal knowledge transfer process in place, as compared to just 16 percent of underperformers.

Stephen W. Maye

I think this is huge, but it’s not that surprising. We know there’s a direct correlation between sharing lessons learned and improving performance, so it makes sense that organizations that can do that effectively would be more productive.

But the details of how that process actually works can get a little complicated. And that’s something I recently discussed with Roger Forsgren, the chief knowledge officer for NASA in Washington, D.C. He talked about how the agency’s knowledge transfer approach helps project teams avoid repeating costly mistakes on these very high dollar projects. We’ll hear more on that later in the show. 

Tegan Jones

We’re also gonna hear from Betsy Mathew. She is the director of organizational development and talent management for a cybersecurity firm called Dark Matter based in the UAE. And she’s gonna talk a little bit about what it takes to create a culture that naturally facilitates knowledge transfer.

But first we’re gonna hear from Mustafa Hafızoğlu, who is a program director for Space & Defence Technologies in Ankara, Turkey. Because his sector experiences so much turnover, his company has found a way to transform knowledge into what he calls a reusable commodity.

Stephen W. Maye

I find this fascinating. With both of these guests, they’re really not focused on, “how do we ensure we don’t have turnover,” but rather accepting turnover as part of the equation and then approaching the problem from a knowledge transfer perspective. I think this is gonna be great. Let’s start with Mustafa.

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Tegan Jones

The defense and aerospace sectors move at breakneck speeds—and staying ahead of the competition takes the best and brightest minds. But top talent doesn’t stay in one place for long. And that brain drain can be a big drag on the bottom line. 

That’s why Space and Defence Technologies, an engineering firm based in Ankara, developed a formal knowledge bank. Mustafa Hafızoğlu, a program director for SDT, explains.

Mustafa Hafızoğlu

Each engineer leaving our company means, of course, a loss of knowledge and experience. And secondly, as a duration of the need for a new product decreases and the market demands a fast pace, then the projects are under high pressure for being on time. This sometimes makes the project teams skip the lessons learned to be documented and knowledge sharing becomes really a second priority.

Tegan Jones

To reduce the burden on busy teams, the company formalized a framework for categorizing, identifying, sharing and applying knowledge. And the documented lessons learned now live in a centralized knowledge bank.

Mustafa Hafızoğlu

Since we are a research and development company, at the end of each project we release a new product. And sometimes, some modules of these products may be used in other projects. We call this reusability.

For example, digital data recorders used in aircrafts, used in helicopters, and we have different types of these products, but they are specific to the type of the aircraft or the helicopter. So each time we design a product, we have to consider the specifications of that aircraft or the helicopter. So the reusability is very important at this point in order to shorten the development time.

Tegan Jones

And SDT makes sure the process is working by tracking key performance metrics.

Mustafa Hafızoğlu

Example for metrics are reusability level, project success rate, interaction rate between the knowledge bank and the people, and so forth. And we have seen that the pace of our projects has increased and we were able to provide our new products very earlier than our competitors.

Tegan Jones

This success has also helped build buy-in across project teams, as people now see the value of this type of give-and-take.

Mustafa Hafızoğlu

All at the beginning, you may face various obstacles, because people will not be willing to share their knowledge. Even some of them will see this as a threat to their career.

The critical thing is to be able to show them the benefits of sharing knowledge. So if you just show that this relationship is a win-win relationship—if you just show that as the company wins, the employees will also win—then that is the key point that you can just convince those people to join your knowledge transfer system.

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Stephen W. Maye

Mustafa mentioned that rapid turnover is one of the biggest obstacles to effective knowledge transfer at his company. And I think that’s a trend we’re seeing across the board. A generation ago, people would work for the same company for decades, but that’s often not the current reality, which makes retaining knowledge and expertise that much more difficult.

Tegan Jones

Yeah, I do think that’s generally true. Obviously, turnover statistics are gonna vary by region and sector, but the overarching reality is that people change jobs a lot more frequently now. In the U.S., for instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average employee has been with their current organization for just 4.2 years. And that number is even lower for people who work at more innovative organizations, especially in the tech sector.

Stephen W. Maye

And four years just isn’t very long, especially when you consider how long it takes to bring a person onboard. And when you’re talking about project work, having a key person leave at the wrong moment can destroy the team’s ability to deliver results.

Tegan Jones

It can definitely be a big problem, and our next guest has some thoughts on how to reduce the potential damage that it could cause. Betsy Mathew is the director for organizational development and talent management for Dark Matter, based in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. And she’s gonna talk about how her organization goes beyond just capturing lessons learned to create a more holistic culture of knowledge sharing.

Stephen W. Maye

That sounds great. Let’s go to that now.

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Betsy Mathew

If you would ask me what is the value of knowledge transfer, I would say it is the big piece or the big message of retaining the institutional memory. And put simply, it’s the collective experience and understanding of your team and how the business works. And each time someone leaves a job, a chunk of the organization’s memory leaves, too. 

Being in the Middle East and being part of the changing landscape of the Middle East, where 80 percent of the workforce are transient expat population, this is something that we constantly struggle with. So the big question that we often discuss as a team is how do we convert individual knowledge into organizational knowledge, so that when experts leave the organization other employees may benefit from the captured lessons learned to solve problems that may closely match a similar or a different context. 

So how can organizations make sure they’re collecting the right lessons learned and sharing them in a meaningful way? Firstly, there is just good old-fashioned process and discipline. I think most people or most organizations get caught up in the big picture, right? Or the most common thing is to say that, “Okay, I cannot do this because I don’t have this particular software or this particular platform.”

I think it’s very important to keep it simple. It’s important to start small, even with our own little teams. And I think another common problem that we face is that we just assume that, you know, knowledge transfer happens, by itself. On the contrary, if we don’t pay attention the knowledge base of our team or business will definitely disappear. So it’s something that we’ve started doing as a team is, you know, putting together little knowledge-sharing sessions in the organization, so anyone attending a conference or a thought leadership opportunity would have to come in and share that information to the rest of the organization. And this has been really effective because, you know, these are little groups of people who get together, who network, who collaborate, and who also share common objectives and goals in terms of their subject matter interests. 

Creating an environment where knowledge sharing is encouraged I feel definitely helps individuals and employees feel valued and heard. When a person is able to give back and contribute to collective knowledge, be it in, you know, in teams or the broader organization, they can see how their work is truly making a difference. And I think by giving people a stake in the company in this way, not only do you increase their investment in that collective knowledge, but you also improve their morale and how they connect with the organization. And in general you make them feel more appreciated as an individual.

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Tegan Jones

You know, it’s interesting: Both Betsy and Mustafa mentioned that tying the success of the individual to the success of the company is key to getting people to commit to this idea of knowledge transfer.

And that makes a lot of sense to me, because once you’re finished with a task or a project, it’s kind of dead to you. Formally documenting the problems that came up and how you solved them can really feel tedious and unnecessary—unless you truly see yourself as an integrated part of a larger team.

Stephen W. Maye

And really, unless you’re doing that in an environment where you know knowledge transfer is effective, you know the exercise is perfunctory. So being able to prove that value further downstream becomes critical. Even when you excel at capturing information, you still have to make sure you’re getting that knowledge to the right people at the right time and in a form that solves their problem.

And we’re about to hear more on that from Roger Forsgren, NASA’s chief knowledge officer. NASA does a great job of documenting lessons learned, and Roger had a lot to share about how they’ve built a repository that helps engineers get advice related to the specific challenges they struggle with every single day.

Tegan Jones

I always love to hear what NASA’s up to. Let’s hear what Roger has to say.

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Stephen W. Maye

Roger, I’m probably stating the obvious to say that cutting edge research, and space operations, and travel are inherently expensive. And NASA has a substantial budget, about 20 billion dollars. How does knowledge management and transfer ensure taxpayer money is spent effectively and efficiently?

Roger Forsgren

Well, as far as helping to save money, knowledge management means learning from the past, not making the same costly mistake again. And obviously when dealing with large, expensive and cutting edge projects, knowledge management can save money—and sometimes, more importantly for NASA, save lives. If you develop an open environment where everyone on a team has an opportunity to express themselves and are given the resources to learn, to get the right training, that’s a huge step to better engineering, better project management, as well as cost savings.

At NASA we wanted to take advantage of such a potential benefit for cost savings by utilizing knowledge management as effectively as possible. We decided to integrate knowledge management with our training program in order to give it the broadest possible exposure to our workforce. 

But Stephen, for a second, going back to our budget—and 20 billion dollars is a formidable amount—let me just point out that it represents less than half of one percent of the total federal budget. In that context, look at what NASA delivers to the American public: the international space station, Mars rover, the Hubble space telescope, the New Horizons mission recently that took those incredible photos of Pluto, along with research that continually makes everyday airline flights safer and faster, along with, you know, really countless technological spinoffs that make our life so much easier and safer. 

There’s actually been studies that have shown that every dollar spent on the space program has resulted in total impact of eight dollars for the economy. In that light, I look at NASA’s budget as an investment. It’s also an investment in science and in our future, in safe air travel, an investment, really, in American pride. And I see knowledge management as a tool that helps ensure that the taxpayers’ investment is managed wisely.

Stephen W. Maye

When you think about the field or practice of knowledge management, what does that include for you?

Roger Forsgren

Well, I think the most important thing is to ensure that mistakes aren’t made over a second time. With an organization like NASA and the kind of cutting edge research we do, that’s a hard thing to do because a lot of the technology is brand new or just, you know, in the conceptual phase. So I think it’s gathering information and disseminating it, and gathering knowledge and disseminating it. 

Stephen W. Maye

You’ve described what knowledge management means, what it means in your context, so what does that process look like? What does it look like for NASA to gather and disseminate knowledge effectively? And I guess effectively would really mean in service to your mission.

Roger Forsgren

Sure. Well, actually we do it in a variety of ways. The most obvious is our lessons learned database, and it contains over a thousand individual lessons learned documents, and it also gets thousands of hits each month. And by the way, many of these lessons learned are available to the general public to view right from our website.

On top of the lessons learned database, we use various formats such as articles and video interviews, face-to-face forums and case studies that capture knowledge from projects. For example, on our website we provide what’s called the critical knowledge gateway, which right now has over 600 short video interviews of NASA experts discussing their experiences and their own lessons learned over a wide variety of searchable topics, including technical issues and management style or contracts and procurement or purchasing off the shelf.

I think another way of dissemination is through communication. And at NASA there are chief knowledge officers at each field center and mission directorate, and their jobs are to make sure project teams maintain a open culture and share lessons learned through forums, and case studies, and other knowledge management functions. 

Stephen W. Maye 

How have you been able to get teams inside NASA to adopt new ways of accessing that knowledge, new ways of providing that knowledge, really new processes around knowledge management as a function?

Roger Forsgren

Yeah, Stephen, you know, actually, previously I believe we were better at gathering information than at disseminating it. And in the past two years, we’ve made a very determined effort to refocus on the NASA technical workforce. After all, they are the ones who need the information, and they are both our customers and our stakeholders. That was a driving force behind developing a one stop shop website. We wanted to consolidate all the knowledge tools, the lessons learned, as well as make available training to enable quick and easy access for the NASA technical workforce. As far as getting teams to utilize knowledge sharing, it’s actually documented requirement that all NASA programs and projects include a knowledge management plan. And to help project teams, we now offer on our website a template they can use for their knowledge management plan. And we even also offer assistance in writing it, if they would need it.

Stephen W. Maye

So Roger, you obviously sit in a position where you have the ability to kind of look across, and not only what’s available in the knowledge base and how it got there, but also what people tend to be drawn to. Is there a type of lesson learned that people are most gravitating toward, that people tend to use most often or value most highly?

Roger Forsgren

I think the technical lessons learned, the ones that involve, like, landing gear or brakes on the landing gear, or valves and which valves to purchase, and things like that, they’re all pretty much straightforward. But I think overall NASA engineers, and probably engineers in general, are more fascinated with the lessons learned about people, and decision-making, and problems along those lines.

One of my favorite books is “Engineering in the Mind’s Eye.” It’s by an author called Eugene Ferguson. And the book describes the history of the engineering profession. Ferguson makes a point that engineers are good at math and analytics, and they generally don’t make computational errors. But where they do make mistakes is in the decision-making process. And I really believe that the NASA technical workforce understands this and believes this also.

And that’s one of the primary reasons why we’ve created an all-new curriculum called “Lessons Learned for Mission Success.” The new curriculum consists of seven courses, and it covers such topics as cognitive bias, complex decision-making and critical thinking skills. All these courses include real NASA case studies as well as lessons learned. And because the Challenger accident is such a profound case involving decision-making, it’s analyzed from several different angles through each of these courses.

It’s in the people skills and the decision-making that we like to, you know, kinda teach as a fifth year of engineering school, we call it. Personally I dislike the name “soft skills” because it tends to minimize the importance of these skills. But in reality, look how critical it is for an engineer to feel comfortable in order to communication effectively and concisely.

To address this we developed courses in effective communication, team-building, assertiveness training, negotiations and even presentation skills. And there’s another tool we have in our arsenal, it’s just called “Virtual Project Management Challenge.” We do live sessions each month where a moderator interviews a variety of different subject matter experts around the agency concerning critical topics in project management. And these 90-minute sessions can be downloaded or viewed live. And again, they’re available to everyone right from our website.

Stephen W. Maye

Well, listen, you have been more than generous with your time here. I do want to ask you one more thing before you take off. If you had to boil it down, and you’re talking to someone who’s trying to establish and be effective in leading knowledge management and knowledge transfer in a large, complex organization, what is the most important piece of advice that you’d give to that person?

Roger Forsgren

That’s a great question, Stephen, and you’re PMI, so you know great projects and great things don’t happen without upper management support. That’s the first place to go to explain the value and the return on investment for lessons learned and knowledge management in an organization.

At NASA we’re very fortunate. We have absolute support. My boss happens to be the NASA chief engineer, and it’s a major emphasis with him that we provide superior training for our workforce as well as we emphasize the importance of learning from the past.

And I think another critical component in developing an open culture: look at what NASA did after the Columbia tragedy. Not only transform the way we manage projects and our culture, but NASA published the entire CAIB report detailing the agency’s failure during the Columbia mission. Really, what other company or organization is willing to do that, willing to air their dirty laundry to the entire world? But then, what better way to show your workforce that knowledge management and learning from the past, and openness, is the best way to manage projects and conduct business? Columbia was a horrible tragedy, but NASA learned from it. It became a better agency. Stephen, that’s the real value of lessons learned.

Stephen W. Maye

That’s wonderful. Leadership support, superior training, learning from your past, maintaining an open culture and modeling the behavior that you value. And with that, Roger Forsgren, chief knowledge officer, NASA, gets the last word. Roger, thank you so much. It has been such a pleasure to meet you and such a pleasure to learn from your experience. Thank you.

Roger Forsgren

Thank you, Stephen. It’s been fun.

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Narrator

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