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Project teams and KM – Part 1
Organizations win when project teams learn from collective experience

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One frequently overlooked benefit of complex projects is the wealth of knowledge they generate. As a project team moves a project toward completion, it constantly discovers new contextual information, better ways of doing things and less successful methods that other teams should avoid. By insisting that project teams document and share what they learn, organizations can ensure that relevant best practices and lessons are applied in other, similar projects and situations. That both helps sustain project benefits over time and amplifies the impact of projects beyond their envisioned range of influence.

Despite the obvious advantages, getting project teams to reuse intellectual capital and share what they learn can be challenging. For starters, most project managers are measured on utilization and cycle time, which makes them hesitant to carve out time for perceived “nice to have” activities like knowledge sharing. And even when knowledge gets documented, it can be hard to convert it into a usable format and filter it so that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

In 2017, member-based nonprofit APQC set out to investigate the best ways to capture and transfer knowledge within and across project teams. As part of the research, we conducted in-depth interviews with leaders responsible for project KM at six organizations:

  • BAE Systems, a global defense, aerospace and security company;
  • Faithful+Gould, a consulting firm focused on project and program management;
  • Fujitsu, a global IT and communications equipment and services company;
  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which is responsible for building spacecraft, instruments and technology for NASA;
  • Volvo Group Trucks, which produces trucks, construction equipment and buses; and
  • a global charitable foundation that opted to participate anonymously.

The research revealed how organizations use communities or practice, enterprise social networking and knowledge-sharing meetings to get project teams to interact and share tips and experiences. However, most of the featured organizations combined that type of ongoing collaboration with more structured processes to extract, transfer and apply best practices and lessons learned at key project milestones.

Why apply KM in a project-focused environment? Embarking on this research, a key goal was to clarify the value proposition for applying KM tools and approaches to an organization’s projects. In other words: Why should an organization want to manage its project knowledge more effectively and what results could it expect to achieve?

In some ways, the answers are obvious. Project teams benefit from learning what other teams have tried, replicating their successful innovations and avoiding their mistakes. And in industries such as engineering and professional services, projects often involve similar work for different clients, so making reusable tools, templates and intellectual capital available allows project managers to deliver work faster and at a lower cost than would be possible if they started from scratch every time.

When APQC asked the research participants why their organizations invest in managing project knowledge, the most common answers were the “usual suspects” like:

  • to capitalize on successes and avoid repeating failures,
  • to avoid rework and complete projects more efficiently,
  • to proactively reduce project risk (this was particularly vital to the value proposition), and
  • to learn from mistakes and encourage continuous improvement.

However, in the course of the research, APQC discovered that there is more to the story. Applying KM to project management provides different tiers of benefits, depending on the approach that the organization takes and how the knowledge mined from projects is distributed and used. For some, the focus is on learning as a project progresses and applying the findings to help refine future stages of the project. In other contexts, the knowledge is applied more broadly to improve other projects or processes.

KM provides distinct benefits at the project, program and portfolio levels

A comprehensive approach to capture, transfer and apply project-related knowledge provides benefits on three levels, which APQC refers to as the project, program and portfolio levels (see chart on page 47, KMWorld, September/October 2017, Vol.26, Issue 8 or download chart). Those three levels work to funnel the right amount of detail to each prospective audience.

At the project level, KM is deep and narrow, meaning that a large volume of knowledge is captured and made available to a small group of relevant stakeholders. As you move up the levels, the scope of information decreases while the audience expands. At the top of the pyramid, more structure and curation is required to filter the captured knowledge and the benefit of applying the knowledge becomes more universal and widespread.

Project-level benefits

When an organization sets out to capture project-related knowledge, the most immediate application of that knowledge is to improve the course of current projects. That level of benefit is the easiest to achieve, and many firms can accrue project-level benefits with modest investments in KM infrastructure, such as creating a project managers community or hosting meetings where project teams can reflect on and document what they have learned.

For long, complex projects, the knowledge in question is often applied to future stages of that same project. At NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, for example, projects can span many years, and some (such as the James Webb space telescope) cost up to $8 billion. The teams in charge of those projects need opportunities to evaluate performance, ruminate on learnings to date and identify any necessary adjustments to the project plan.

NASA Goddard uses after-action review sessions called “pause and learn” to allow project teams to hash out lessons learned at key decision points and after incidents that require reflection or risk management. That involves sharing knowledge about both successes and failures: “You’ve got to know why you failed and fix that so that it doesn’t happen again, but you also have to know why you succeeded so you can repeat it,” said Edward Rogers, NASA Goddard chief knowledge officer. Armed with a shared understanding of what went well and what went wrong, the team returns to the project with fresh insights that inform decisions moving forward.

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