POWERING THE PROJECT ECONOMY
Identifying New Ways of Working

Talking about Project Knowledge with Larry Prusak and Joseph Cahill - Season 1 Episode 9

Center Stage podcast: The Voice of the Project Economy

In this episode of the PMI Center Stage podcast, guest Laurence (Larry) Prusak discusses how the most successful teams and organizations find, create, nurture, and distribute knowledge for the ultimate competitive advantage.

Larry is a teacher, researcher, and consultant who has been studying organizational knowledge and learning for the past 30 years. He was a founder of the Ernst and Young Center for Business Innovation and the Founding member and director of the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management. He has consulted to over 300 organizations and government agencies as well as being a senior advisor to McKinsey and Co., NASA and the World Bank. He has authored/co-authored 9 books, including Working Knowledge, which has sold over a quarter of a million copies, as well as publishing over 30 articles. He is a well-known speaker who has given hundreds of keynote and conference speeches throughout the world. He has taught as a visiting or resident scholar at over 25 universities and is currently a lecturer at Columbia University's master’s program in Information and Knowledge Strategy. He has two M.S. degrees and two honorary Ph.D.s in Information Science.

ANNOUNCER:

The nature of work is changing. As organizations restructure their activities around projects and programs during a time of unprecedented change and complexity they are also called on to reimagine how problems are solved and how work gets done. This takes a deep commitment to collaboration, empathy, and innovation. 

Through this podcast series, Center Stage: The Project Economy, PMI presents the real meaning of innovative change focusing on the strengths of virtual teams and cross functional project based work. We’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what is ahead for the project economy and your career. 

The following episode was recorded remotely during the Covid-19 crisis.

CAHILL:

Welcome to all our listeners. Hi, my name is Joe Cahill, I am the COO of the Project Management Institute, PMI. I am very excited today to be here with Larry Prusak. Welcome, Larry.

PRUSAK:

Thank you, Joe.

CAHILL: 

Everybody, Larry is a co-author of several business best sellers and a sought-after management consultant and keynote speaker. He is a strategic advisor for PMI’s very own Knowledge Initiative and a Senior Faculty at Columbia University. Larry has been a Senior Knowledge Advisor for McKinsey & Company, a principal at Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation and Executive Director for IBM at its Institute for Knowledge Management. He has also served as a Senior Knowledge Advisor to NASA.

Larry, as I mentioned, is a co-author of several of the most successful management books on the knowledge management subject, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know and What’s the Big Idea: Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking.

So how are you feeling today, Larry?

PRUSAK:

I’m fine though I’m getting tired of being home all the time.

CAHILL:

Tell me about it. I have reorganized this room that I’m in like ten times so I know the feeling. Let’s start off on the topic of knowledge and knowledge management, something that you are very, very experienced in and have a high degree of expertise in. Let’s talk about the fundamentals. What is knowledge? How does it differ from data, information and wisdom?

PRUSAK:

You know, Joe, I get asked this quite a bit. And much to my dismay, when my wife tells her friends... They say, what does your husband actually study? She says, knowledge. And then they come to me... [laughs] on airplanes and trips, people come up to me, what do you mean by knowledge? Can you help me fix my computer? Things like that.

CAHILL: 

Right, exactly. Yes.

PRUSAK:

So about five, no, maybe longer, maybe eight years ago I got asked this question by a reporter. And I came up with an answer that I’m very happy with so I’m going to start with that.

Let’s say you invited a friend over for a good dinner and you’re a little unsure of yourself in terms of your cooking skills. If you look at a cookbook the letters on the recipe are data. By themselves, they don’t mean much - a, b, c, d - they are just data. The recipe itself is information. It is a message, it has a sender, it has a receiver, it is codified data to give you a message. That’s what a recipe is, that’s what information is.

Knowledge is knowing how to cook. You can’t just read ten books and become a good cook, you can’t take a pill, you can learn it by practicing, by doing it. But it is a real subject, the knowledge of cooking. Wisdom is marrying a good cook.

CAHILL: 

I like that. And what you just said applies to just about every other profession, right?

PRUSAK:

Absolutely.

CAHILL: 

You don’t just jump into it on day one and say I just passed the CPA exam, I’m an accountant.

PRUSAK:

Exactly.

CAHILL: 

I just passed the Bar, I’m a lawyer.

Knowledge is a social activity.

PRUSAK:

Exactly. In fact, the very word knowledge has certain unfortunate grammatical tendencies. In some languages it is an active verb - knowing. And if it didn’t sound awkward, we would have called this whole subject Knowing Management, not Knowledge Management. Because knowing is an active verb. You know things by practicing them, by experiencing them, by doing them.

CAHILL: 

Isn’t that the truth. Not surprisingly, PMI, with our certifications, there is an experience component to it. It’s not just regurgitating knowledge. So, yes, we know it very well here at PMI.

PRUSAK: 

Yes, and I think a lot of organizations know this but yet they still feel that if someone went to a certain school and got a degree they have knowledge. What they have is a lot of information. Anyone, I don’t care what school you go to, you don’t really have knowledge of a subject until you practice it, you actually do things with it, and you acquire knowledge that way.

CAHILL: 

In some ways, it’s this amorphous thing. Maybe that’s the wrong word. But how can a management team or executives in an organization understand it or even measure the economic value of knowledge?

PRUSAK:   

Well that’s a very... [laughs] It’s a good question. It’s somewhat complex. It’s an intangible. I mean, you can measure information. How many books you have, how many documents you have. It’s an easy thing to measure. The Library of Congress actually measures all the books they have in Google Scholar or the Google Text, they actually know the amount of letters in almost every book that has ever been published.

You can’t quite do that with knowledge. You can’t do a Vulcan mind scan and look in someone’s head and say oh, you have a lot of knowledge. It’s a tricky thing because it’s intangible. And yet, without knowledge we wouldn’t have anything. It has been the basis of all progress in mankind, not so much information. Although you can’t have knowledge without information but you can have information without knowledge, I’m sure you’ve met may people who have that.

CAHILL: 

Oh my gosh, yes.

PRUSAK:

[laughs] Right. I live Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is the global capital of people with information and not necessarily knowledge.

CAHILL:

I like it.

PRUSAK:

So there are many ways you can measure knowledge outputs, knowledge outcomes. If you look at almost any large or medium sized organization they know how to do things, they have the capability of doing things. PMI has this capability. They know how to do things, how to develop knowledge about projects, how to package that knowledge, how to sell it, how to teach it. IBM knows how to develop, market, produce, sell computer technology equipment. So we can infer that if you know how to do something, you have knowledge, that is one way to measure it.

Some firms use proxies to measure knowledge. How many patents they have in one year. You’re not going to get a patent unless you have knowledge of something. Academic institutions use publications and how many people use those publications. Book publishers use how many books have been sold. People have proxies for knowledge without actually measuring the knowledge itself, which is the best way to go about this.

Or, how successful the knowledge was, that’s another interesting issue. Rather than measuring the knowledge, say did people use it? Libraries used to measure their success by how many books were circulated. But that’s not really a wonderful measure, they are really moving away from that and trying to measure were the books read, were they useful, is our collection well curated to provide books that people actually want to read and need.

And the same thing with organizations. If their products are welling well they obviously have the right knowledge. This is based on American pragmatism, William James and John Dewey, which has a lot to do with the value of knowledge. Rather than worrying ourselves about the philosophical issues around knowledge, it is much more useful to think is this knowledge useful - was it used by people?

CAHILL: 

So there’s outcomes involved, obviously, and measuring those outcomes is a good way to do it.

PRUSAK:

Yes, absolutely. Some organizations, their whole purpose is to produce knowledge and PMI is close to that, actually. Universities are the big... In that case, it is easier to measure things. But for most organizations that aren’t selling knowledge or producing knowledge, knowledge is an intermediate good.

Think of a pharmaceutical firm. They are full of knowledge but they are not necessarily selling knowledge, they are selling things that knowledge produced. Paul Romer, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics a few years back, said, “The only thing that exists are ideas and things.” There’s only two things, ideas and things. Which in some ways is true. And the things are really the embodiment of an idea.

It really matters far less what an individual knows, it matters greatly what the team knows.

CAHILL: 

That’s very interesting what you’re saying about ideas and things because what we say at PMI is project managers really make ideas a reality.

PRUSAK:

That’s exactly right.

CAHILL: 

It’s an idea and a thing. There’s definitely a parallel there.

PRUSAK:

So that’s really what there is. There’s ideas, which are really little pieces of knowledge. I mean, you could view them as a chunk of knowledge, and things. And if you start looking at work the way it takes on a really different meaning.

CAHILL: 

How do organizations really manage what they know and, more importantly, things they want to know or wish to know?

PRUSAK: 

Right. If I could, again, redo things, I wouldn’t have called this whole subject knowledge management. You can’t really manage knowledge per se. It’d be like emotion management or something. Maybe people take a shot at these things but basically you can manage the environment of knowledge, you can incent knowledge, you can manage the infrastructure that makes knowledge much more effective but you really can’t measure knowledge per se. Knowledge outputs? Of course you can measure that.

So you can measure everything around knowledge but you can’t measure knowledge. Unlike money, unlike things, you can manage that, you can manage money. A lot of people make their living managing money. But you can’t really manage knowledge. You can manage around it, which is what organizations do. They incent knowledge, they provide infrastructure for the knowledge, they provide spaces and an environment where knowledge can flourish, they provide management, which encourages people to be curious, to think, to read and write and collaborate. All those things are about knowledge but they are managing around knowledge, not the exact thing.

CAHILL:

So our mutual friend, Ed Hoffman, had told me that you’ve said that knowledge is profoundly social.

PRUSAK: 

Oh yes, yeah.

CAHILL: 

How does the social nature of knowledge make it different than the more tangible things like the data and information we talked about?

PRUSAK: 

Well, because they.. Some philosophers - I don’t want to get into this too much - some philosophers feel that there is no such thing as individual knowledge, there is just individual memories... that what we call knowledge - let’s pick chemistry - it’s a collaborative effort. It’s not one person knowing chemistry or who invented chemistry, it’s all sorts of chemists throughout history working on the subject.

And when you learn chemistry you learn the output of god knows how many people who contributed to the practice of chemistry. When you read a document, it is someone sending you... now it could collaborative, but generally it’s an individual activity. But practicing chemistry is something you do in a collaborative way.

So knowledge itself... this is an interesting point you bring up.. knowledge is a social activity. They gave a Nobel Prize, a couple of them, to human capital theory and some firms still base their activities on human capital, meaning how much education does an individual have, how many degrees, how many this, how many of that. But that’s really not the best measure of measuring knowledge in an organization.

People work in practices, in networks, in communities, in divisions, in regions, they work together. It’s not a group of individuals all working on their own, nothing could get done that way. It’s all in practice. And when you have knowledge, when we’re working on a knowledge subject, which actually everyone is, just like you say, like a project team, perfect example, it really matters far less what an individual knows, it matters greatly what the team knows and understands. 

And that is where knowledge comes in. If everyone in the project team read the same document, that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean they act on it. It doesn’t mean they all understand it in the same way. It would take facilitated discussions and talks and conversations for them to reach an equilibrium where they say yes, this is what this document means.

Most knowledge in organizations is local, it doesn't travel easily.

CAHILL: 

It’s not a straightforward topic, as we have discussed so far. You have to understand it more holistically and in a broader context, right? That’s how I look at it.

PRUSAK: 

Absolutely.

CAHILL: 

It’s not something that is discreet that you can pick up and say oh, this is what it is. It’s more involved.

PRUSAK: 

That’s right. Exactly. You can send me a memo, Joe, I’ll read it, I understand it, maybe I interpret it and maybe I may have missed a point or two. But basically that is how it works. But if we were on a team, a group, a project, like our Knowledge Initiative, people need to discuss with one another what do we mean by knowledge, what do we mean by initiative, and then come to some collective conclusions, collective action.

The word knowledge, again, we have this one word in English. But in a lot of other cultures, especially classical Greek, the word really meant practice. It was very similar to the word for practice. Doing things together. It wasn’t necessarily a passive word.

CAHILL: 

And the second you inject a social into anything it becomes complicated by definition.

PRUSAK:

Yes, it does. But that’s the way it is.

CAHILL:

That’s the way it is.

PRUSAK: 

Individuals very rarely accomplish that much. I can tell you a tiny little story that got me interested in this. When I was a boy, my father was a great fan of Albert Einstein, very proud of him, just thought he was one of the greatest men who ever lived and would talk to me how in the year 1905 Einstein wrote these five equations which completely overturned physics, completely changed the nature of how we understand things. And he did it all by himself. He was working in the patent office in Switzerland and wrote these equations in the middle of the night and it overturned things.

So I believed that. Father told me, it seemed reasonable. And I believed it for quite a while. And then I took a class in the history of science and the teacher was telling us how Einstein knew all the other great physicists in Europe. He was in constant communication, writing, going to conferences with all the other physicists. Now God knows he made progress and he was a great physicist but he did it with all these other people and he was the first to say that. He didn’t pick things out of the air, neither did Newton, for that matter. All great work.

CAHILL: 

That makes sense, nothing comes easy, right? It’s so rare if it does.

PRUSAK:;

Yes. And nothing comes to individuals without a background. I mean maybe someone like Mozart, you know, compete geniuses just sort of spring out of the air but generally it doesn’t happen that way. You make progress but you base it on a lot of other people’s work.

CAHILL:

That’s inspiring in many ways in the world of artificial intelligence and all the trends in that regard. You still need the human intelligence. In fact, it’s even more important because you’re using AI to accelerate the understanding of the data and the information. So it’s even important these days for the HI, the human intelligence piece, for the PI to be in place.

PRUSAK:

There’s a lot of debates taking place among both philosophers and AI theorists, can you have intelligence that’s not active in the world? Now I can sum it up by saying that. I just read a very good book on this where the author said all AI, no matter how good it is, is reckoning, it’s a technological reckoning to a remarkable extent, while human intelligence is judgmental. And you can’t be judgmental unless you live in the world.

You can’t make a judgment, unless you make a judgement on mathematics or things like that. But you can’t make a judgement unless you are in the world and those machines... not yet. I don’t know what’s coming but they are not active in the world. They are reckoning machines to a spectacular -

CAHILL:

Oh I like that distinction. That’s a great distinction. Let’s get into the PMI Knowledge Initiative. You’re involved in helping us design the Knowledge Initiative, so help the audience understand what are the key characteristics of a successful knowledge initiative.

PRUSAK:

Knowledge is distributed in large global organizations. Obviously that is true for PMI, it’s true for most consulting firms, it’s true for almost any firm you could mention. It was very true for NASA, for example. It had 13 centers all over the United States.

So when you have distributed cognition you really need some governance mechanism to see... not to govern them in the sense of you do this, you do that, but to take advantage of the collective intelligence of the organization. There is no greater competitive advantage. And I’m going to use another quote here... Joe Stiglitz, another Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, who teaches at Columbia actually, I heard him give this great talk.

He was the Head of Economics at the World Bank in the late nineties and I was consulting for the World Bank then and I heard him give a talk to the staff. And he said in the 21st century there was not greater competitive advantage than seeking out and using new ideas. And it just struck me. It was like a voice from the heavens saying, "That is true." We live in a knowledge and idea-based economy.

And all large organizations have many ideas but then it’s not in a coordinated way. It’s not collaborative in the sense that it is easy for each to understand each other. Part of the Knowledge Initiative at PMI and others that I have worked with is to make sure people know what other people know, as best as we can, what groups know or what other groups know, and seek out new knowledge and bring it into the organization. Focus on knowledge - where it is, how to get it, how to leverage it, how to better use it.

And especially in organizations like PMI, which is bringing knowledge to their clients, bring the knowledge to them, bring them new knowledge, new ideas that they find in the organization and outside of it. To me that is the most important thing a service provider can do. And many organizations are beginning to see this. Not just consulting firms or firms like PMI, but you’re beginning to see publishers, universities, maybe even law firms entering this arena of finding knowledge, finding new ideas, bringing it to a client base that they mean to serve.

You can’t just look at a large firm and say, 'Everyone collaborate. We all have collective intelligence.' There has to be some social infrastructure.

CAHILL: 

You used the word collective very specifically. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, how important it is?

PRUSAK: 

It’s very important. It is the biggest expense you have - you, PMI, and any organization. I mean, there is some interesting work being done recently at the NBER, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Conference Board, how much do the organizations spend on knowledge. And at conferences I have asked people this, I’ve said how much do you think your organization spends on knowledge? And people say oh, one percent, two percent, it’s the training budget, etcetera, etcetera.

I said, what would you do if I told you it’s 60 to 70 percent? And people look at me as if I’m mad and say what, what are you talking about? I say, well, think of the delta between what you pay people with a certain degree who come to your organization, let’s say they’re 30 years old, and what you might pay someone 60 who comes to your organization with a world of experience, what are you buying if not knowledge? You’re not buying energy, you’re not buying good looks, you’re buying what they know, the access to what they know.

So if an organization, god, even small ones to huge ones, if they are spending that much, it’s a huge cost for knowledge, it’s not the only intangible they’re spending it on but that is the biggest one.

CAHILL: 

For sure.

PRUSAK: 

Are you harvesting it, are you using it to the greatest optimization? Are you scaling it? There’s all sorts of things that once you explain how much they’re spending on it they’re really happy, they are anxious to figure out how to do that. And that is why it’s becoming a burgeoning subject. People don’t always call that knowledge management, they don’t always call it collective intelligence, there’s all sorts of names for these things.

But what we are talking about is that most knowledge in organizations is local. It doesn’t travel easily, it doesn’t always pop up. It’s at the rock face between the miner and the quarry. It’s at the local level. And unless there are mechanisms in place - infrastructure, incentives, spaces to talk, it stays where it is, it stays local. And that is one of the great challenges in these large global organizations that you serve, PMI serves, and PMI itself is one - how do you get this knowledge out of the local context and into so everyone can use it in some ways? So that’s part of the Knowledge Initiative that PMI is developing as we speak.

CAHILL: 

That’s very exciting. And I’m so happy that we’re taking this step in this direction. We started earlier this year and it’s just going to evolve and get better and stronger. And there is a big piece of it that’s important I believe and it’s the global network. So PMI by definition has a global network. And I think that global networks in general are critical in helping define what the future work ecosystem is going to be. It’s not just gonna be defined in Ohio or just in Hong Kong. It’s going to be a collaboration from around the world that finds the right answer or answers for what is the future of work. So how can we design an effective global network to get that outcome?

PRUSAK:

Well you’re absolutely right in everything you just said. These global networks are really key to having a good knowledge initiative. Networks imply that people are connected, they have nodes, they have governance structures and people are connected who want to collaborate. I call them knowledge networks and I have seen them developed in a number of places and they are absolutely essential.

You can’t just look at a large firm and say, “Everyone collaborate. We all have collective intelligence.” There has to be some social infrastructure is the word I’d use but people can use whatever word they want. To have nodes of knowledge, people who want to collaborate, who know what’s going on in their work space and who work together and that requires work to do it. It’s not so much money as incentive, governance, encouragement, acknowledgment.

The fact, Joe, that you’re leading this and that you’re really interested in this is a signal that this is important to PMI and it is exactly the right signal. Without that, people tend to "mmm, well, I’ll do that tomorrow, it’s not that important."

CAHILL: 

So we see that there is a very important aspect of this of reaching out into the regions. We just, in the last six months set up a new regional model to enhance our presence around the world in eight different regions. So we can see this Knowledge Initiative reaching deeply into those regions and creating regional collective networking and collaboration and then blending it in at the global level. So it’s a very exciting opportunity for us to do that.

PRUSAK:

I think it’s the most important.. Frankly, and it’s my perspective, but what’s interesting, Joe, is that you’re really seeing the democratization of knowledge. There was a time, I mean, when I was born [laughs] when really productive knowledge, the knowledge we’re talking about, was really somewhat the monopoly of a number of regions and areas in the world - the U.S., somewhat western Europe, parts of Asia. But it wasn’t at all spread around the world.

In my lifetime, and in yours, knowledge has become democratized. Cheap travel, technology, the influence of large global organizations like the U.N. and the World Bank and OECD have spread knowledge around. And universities have sprung up, great universities, in places they never were before. So we have a democratization. If someone makes a great discovery in physics, mathematics, business thinking, whatever, it spreads around the world. That never was the case. It wasn’t the case until, again, my lifetime and yours.

CAHILL: 

And it’s immediate.

PRUSAK:

It’s immediate, that’s exactly right. That is a brand new phenomena. We are living it and people don’t necessarily see it the way fish don’t see the water they swim in, it’s just there. But it also is good for the world.

Look at what’s going on with the Covid virus. As soon as somewhere, somehow, a good vaccine, a proven vaccine is developed, everyone’s going to know it right away. That would not have been the case again 50 years ago, 70 years ago.

What’s good about it is that the world progresses, and it does. What’s hard is that without global knowledge networks, it’s very hard to compete. It’s very hard to actually get a handle on the knowledge that’s being produced.

Without global knowledge networks, it’s very hard to compete. It’s very hard to actually get a handle on the knowledge that’s being produced.

CAHILL:

Let’s talk about another dimension of this knowledge initiative or knowledge network. Much of your writing has expressed the importance of diversity and inclusion in creating knowledge and learning.

PRUSAK: 

Yes.

CAHILL: 

Can you discuss with the audience why this is so valuable?

PRUSAK: 

It’s very interesting. There’s a fellow named Scott Page who I think is at Northwestern who wrote the wonderful book on cognitive diversity. And what he pointed out, and I’m drastically condensing what he said, his argument, he also wrote a book on teams recently, on teams, and the team advantage in cognitive diversity. That’s just one sort of diversity but let me mention that one because it’s not as well known.

Consulting firms used to send let’s say ten people off on a project. Those ten people often had the same education, the same background. It didn’t matter of their gender or ethnicity, they bring a toolkit to the problem and the toolkit is what they learned at university and maybe graduate school or in professional training. So all ten of them sort of know the same thing and have the same tool kit with them.

When that doesn’t work, when they go to the client and say look we need ten more people, the new people know just what the older people knew. [laughs] It doesn’t really help, you just get more energy, more man power, but you don’t get new ideas. What Page actually proved is that if you have a mixed toolkit, so you have people with a marketing degree, people in manufacturing, people in R&D, working on the same team you almost always get a better output. Almost always.

And this is a fantastic idea and it has been adapted by a number of organizations, including NASA. Professor Nonaka, one of my gurus in Japan who wrote the first really working knowledge sort of book, talked about how Honda did this. They had the car of the future and instead of having the same sorts of people design it, they threw together marketers, R&D people, engineers in one team - again, I’m deeply simplifying a complex story - and they got a much better car out of it.

So that’s cognitive diversity, bringing people, whatever their backgrounds or genders, with different tool kits. The other argument of course is to have people from different regions working together. Knowledge is something you grow up with and your lens, the lenses you have, the way you see things, are strongly influenced by the context of how you grew up, where you grew up, what ideas were in the air. You get a great payback when you have people of different regions working together. Again, it takes a little bit of facilitation sometimes but you get a tremendous payback, you can prove this.

And I’d say the same thing with gender. It’s not only socially the right thing to do, which I strongly believe, or politically the right thing to do, which I strongly believe, but you get a better outcome. All these things work better. Someone made the point that if you take the eight countries which have the best record in fighting off the virus that we’re so sadly immersed in, almost all of them are run by women. Maybe that’s a coincidence... but maybe it isn’t. [laughs]

CAHILL: 

No that’s quite interesting, isn’t it?

PRUSAK: 

I think it is.

CAHILL: 

Yeah.

PRUSAK:

It certainly accords with what I think. Men act better when there’s women on the team, by the way, there is no question about that.

CAHILL: 

No, I believe it. It ties back to what you were saying earlier with the Einstein example. You just don’t wake up one morning and create the best ideas ever. At least in my personal experience, for what it is worth, there’s never been an idea that I had that wasn’t made better through a team and often, quite frankly, changed by the team.

PRUSAK:

Yes. I completely agree with that.

CAHILL: 

Yeah that’s where the good stuff is born.

PRUSAK: 

Well it is. And one of the advantages Asian societies have over western societies is that they are much more group oriented. We are more individual oriented. Now in terms of other things in life, I think it’s fine to be individual oriented. I don’t want to get into a whole discussion about philosophy. But being group oriented gives you a tremendous advantage in terms of producing ideas and working in a collaborative way and they use that advantage.

You know, there is a great World Bank case about how in 1955 Korea, which had just undergone a terrific war, a civil war there, and Nigeria had about the same GDP per capita and it wasn’t very good. It was really low based on wars and colonialism and things like that. Well, since 1955, Korea has now I think replaced England for GDP per capita. It is one of the richest countries in the world now. And since they have no natural resources there, all they have is Koreans working together. Well, Nigeria had all sorts of difficulties and they haven’t really progressed that much, somewhat but not that much in terms of GDP per capita.

So you can really become rich, and that is true for a lot of countries that have no resources, no natural resources, they just collaborate more and they work together. And it is a group mentality and obviously there is a great advantage in that, from project teams to nations it seems to me to be true.

The power of knowledge is stronger than anything on Earth.

CAHILL: 

That is certainly the strength in numbers idiom from mom certainly applies, it has held true the whole way.

PRUSAK: 

Yes.

CAHILL: 

Let me just touch on one other topic here. I want you to comment on how you see the relationship between the project economy, knowledge, as we have discussed, and learning and then how does this relationship between those three, how is it important to practitioners who deliver projects?

PRUSAK: 

Well I think I mentioned to you a few days ago that Ed Hoffman from NASA and I are writing a book about this along with Matt Kohut. We think it’s crucial. Projects in the past, not always but to a fairly large extent, really were self-enclosed little ecosystems. The project is what’s key to our success, we’re going to follow the rules, we’re going to stay talking to one another. It wasn’t connected necessarily to all the knowledge of the organization. And it certainly was less seeking knowledge from outside the organization.

Well, Joe, you know as well me, much better than me, how much work is being done through projects these days. It is an overwhelming majority of the work is done through project, project teams, and there is a project economy. It’s a real thing. [laughs] Anyone who works would know that.

However, the traditional models of projects were really self-enclosed, self-referential. They weren’t necessarily tied to all the knowledge in the organization or certainly the knowledge that exists outside the organization. It wasn’t a key component to how the project can be developed.

Now that couldn’t have worked at NASA. The projects NASA did were so complex, so complex, that they had to use all the knowledge they could find in NASA plus knowledge outside of NASA. We once tried to figure out how many people had input to the Apollo projects. It was impossible to reckon, it was impossible to do, it was such a big number and too complex.

But even small projects and smaller organizations, less complex, you need to find the knowledge you need, you need to find new knowledge if you really want to do this in an efficient and effective way. And again, having a knowledge environment that is supportive of the project, having access to the knowledge of the organization, having an infrastructure that allows you to find who knows what. And then going outside, learning where the knowledge is outside your organization, I mean, within the bounds of discretion.

That is a key difference in terms of project management and it is something that I think is essential for making projects more efficient, innovative and more effective. Take the knowledge that is available in the whole world and use it, if you can, as best you can. Take the knowledge that’s available in your organization.

I have seen many organizations - many, I’ve worked at about 250 knowledge projects - people didn’t know what was in their own firm. They had no way of finding it. People weren’t necessarily collaborative, they weren’t rewarded for being collaborative or even recognized. So they’d go along their own way. People do what’s right in front of their plate rather than seeking new ways of doing things. We all do that to some extent, but the less you do that, the more successful you will be.

Don’t be content with what you already know. Always read, always think, always talk to people, take advantage of all the knowledge there is in the world and this astounding technology we have to access it.

CAHILL:

Yes, it strikes me right now as we’re talking, just for the time we’ve had on this podcast, we’re talking about knowledge but you’re the premiere example of knowledge, right, with your experience? You just mentioned 250 knowledge projects or programs and certainly all the research you have done. Is there something you can tell us about what inspired you as a youth or as a young professional that really influenced where you are today, what got you where you are? I’m sure you took a lot of lefts and rights along the way.

PRUSAK: 

I did, Joe. I will tell you one interesting story about this and then I’ll answer. When I was 12 years old, my father told me that his father, who had grown up in Russia, was an officer in the tsar’s army.

CAHILL: 

Wow.

PRUSAK: 

I was astounded to hear this because my grandfather did not seem like a warrior in any way. [laughs] But I said, really? And he said, yes and he fought in a war in 1905, Russia got into a war with Japan. Now, my grandfather couldn’t speak English so my father had to translate. I said, Dad, I know about that war, Russia lost. He goes, absolutely, they got their asses kicked by the Japanese.

Now in my room when I was 12, I had a map of the world. And I would look at that map and there was Russia, this is pre the break up, and it is an enormous country. [laughs] Then I looked at Japan and it’s archipelago of islands that looks like it could fit 100 Japans into Russia. So at 12 I said, gee, how did that big country lose to that little country?

What’s more, growing up in New York City, there were Russian people and they all were sort of big. [laughs] Especially compared to the Japanese I saw in New York City, who weren’t big. And I began to... how did this happen? What really happened? Well my father couldn’t answer that and my grandfather couldn’t speak English.

So I went to college, grew up, went to college, and I took a class in Russian history. I majored in history. And I learned that what happened is the Japanese sought knowledge all over the world when they modernized, when they redid the whole country in the Meiji Restoration, and they learned all about military tactics from the Prussians, who were the greatest experts at this. And they learned all about military technology from the United States. They sent engineers, people to learn what’s going on.

The Russians, having those days no openness to these things, they weren’t interested in ideas, they were using guns they had bought from the U.S., from the U.S. Civil War. The Japanese beat them on knowledge. And it is a great example of how these things work. So it got me interested in... you can be small and you can be less powerful in some ways…

CAHILL:

Oh yeah, isn’t it the truth?

PRUSAK:

Exactly right. And then I looked, and you think about small countries that are rich - Singapore, Israel, Finland - no resources, small, doing pretty well, and some of the European countries. So I got interested in knowledge.

And on a more, or maybe less dramatic story, I was working at Ernst & Young, we founded the Center for Business Innovation. And in those days, and I’m sure Joe you remember this, the mantra that was passed around was if you got the right information to the right person at the right time you would be absolutely successful. Do you remember hearing that?

CAHILL: 

Yes, of course.

PRUSAK:

Well I have a friend, and he is still a good friend, who is an economist at MIT. And I said, what do you think about that technically? If you got the right information that’s legal in an organization to the right person at the right time, would you have great gains in productivity? And he did some number crunching and he said no, you’d get some productivity but it wouldn’t be so spectacular as these firms are claiming. And I began to really question what defines, why are some firms more successful than others? Excluding the industries they are in and there are all sorts of exogenous factors, but I began to really study this.

And then I had a nice discussion with Peter Drucker, just happened by good fortune. And he looked at me, I talked to him about it, and he says... And I won’t imitate his accent, but he said, it’s knowledge, that’s what matters. And it was like a bell went off in my head. I said, he’s right. It’s knowledge, which is a different thing than information. If you got the right knowledge to the right person at the right time, that would be great. But that’s a harder thing to do. A lot harder. [laughs]

CAHILL: 

No it includes a sender and a receiver too, which makes it even more complicated.

PRUSAK:

It does. But on the other hand, that is what counts I think. When I was... Another example of this, how ideas rule the world, in the 1980s Jeff Bezos gave a talk - he was working for an investment bank then and someone knew him - to the Consulting Club in Boston where I am.. and no one knew really who he was.

And it was a talk about this new idea he had about how hard it is to buy books that aren’t in stores, you had to wait two, three months from the publishers and stuff like that. And it seemed like an interesting idea. I am a big book buyer. And I said, great, that sounds great. This man had just that one idea and of course it became Amazon.

CAHILL: 

And here we are, yeah.

PRUSAK:

So the power of ideas, the power of knowledge is stronger than anything on Earth. I mean Google, those guys figured out that algorithm, the search algorithm. You know? There’s a trillion dollar firm.

CAHILL: 

And then they just keep building on it.

PRUSAK:

That’s right, that’s exactly right. So all these things factored in. I said, it’s knowledge. It’s not so much information though you need information, you can’t do much without information, it’s not sufficient to build a great organization, it just isn’t.

CAHILL: 

So Larry Prusak, in the spirit of your wisdom, your lifetime of experience and thinking, what is a key learning that you would like to leave with the audience today?

PRUSAK:

Being open to new ideas. Search for them, use them. Don’t be content with what you already know. Always read, always think, always talk to people, take advantage of all the knowledge there is in the world and this astounding technology we have to access at least where the knowledge is or parts of the knowledge. Access new ideas. Be open and invest your own time in learning.

I know people tell me all the time, I’m too busy to read, I’m too busy to learn new things. You are going to sink. Yo won’t know you’re sinking but you will. Refresh the knowledge you have. Always be open, always be learning.

Refresh the knowledge you have. Always be open, always be learning.

CAHILL: 

That is awesome advice for everybody and it’s very consistent with what we try to do at PMI.

PRUSAK: 

Yes.

CAHILL: 

We’re really committed to lifetime learning, certainly with technical skills but also all the soft and we call them power skills that people need. So it is a never ending... Well, if you have curiosity, it comes naturally. But if you don’t have natural curiosity, it’s something you have to plan and make time for, to your point.

PRUSAK:

Absolutely. And I think everyone, if it’s presented well... It’s an investment in yourself and in your organization and in your society.

CAHILL: 

I love that. So Larry, I want to thank you so much. This has been a great discussion that we’ve had and the time we’ve spent together. I’d certainly like to spend more time with you and I think we will be, working on this PMI Knowledge Initiative.

I’m very thankful and grateful for your participation and all the experience that you bring to bear. It’s probably going to help us save a lot of time of making mistakes that others have made. I value that in a very big way. I think time is the biggest component of building anything. The more time that you can gain, the faster you can get to your outcome. So I really look forward to working with you and I’m very grateful about today’s conversation. Thank you.

PRUSAK:

Thank you, Joe. I love the opportunity. I really enjoyed the conversation. And I am really looking forward to the future, the immediate future of you leading this Knowledge Initiative and really turning PMI into more of a knowledge based organization. It’s really exciting and it’s great for everybody.

ANNOUNCER: 

Thanks for listening to Center Stage. If you like what you’ve heard, please subscribe to the show and leave a rating or review. We’d love your feedback. To hear more episodes of Center Stage, visit Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher or Spotify or head to PMI.org/project-economy.

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PMI community members can access 2015 PMI Pulse of the Profession report: 'Capturing the Value of Project Management Through Knowledge Transfer’ featuring Larry Prusak.

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