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

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For organizations juggling a portfolio of smaller projects, a majority of project-level benefits are derived from applying knowledge and lessons across similar projects occurring simultaneously or in close succession. For example, Fujitsu uses a knowledge-sharing community of practice as a resource for project managers to answer one another’s questions and share tips for improving project efficiency. Community interactions allow teams to exchange outputs that can be reused on similar projects, learn and improve based on others’ experiences, and find out about new ideas and ways of working.

A side benefit of KM activities at the project level is that they can help refocus and re-engage project teams. NASA Goddard, for example, cites fighting complacency as a major motivation behind its efforts to manage project knowledge. “These are big missions,” said Rogers. “They take many years, and it can get easy to think that we’ve done this before and you can stop paying attention.”

At Fujitsu, part of the intent of the knowledge-sharing community is to support professional development and reduce turnover. The idea is that if project managers have opportunities to learn from one another and build their skills, they will be more highly engaged and more likely to stay with the company.

Program-level benefits

The next wave of KM benefits occurs at the program level. The organization identifies a subset of project knowledge that should be made available and used to improve the execution of related projects. Typically, some mechanisms or criteria are required to filter out the most crucial knowledge that should be systematically applied to current and future projects across the broader program. Systematic application may involve updating the organization’s processes and procedures for a particular type of work. In other cases, it might be more context-driven, such as tagging a lesson learned with appropriate keywords and adding it to an enterprise database so that it can be surfaced easily by project teams performing similar work.

A good example of program-level benefit comes from Volvo Group Trucks, which uses a rigorous lessons-learned process to identify and transfer critical knowledge from large automotive design and engineering projects. The organization initially adopted KM practices to manage risks and hasten timelines. However, Volvo now sees KM as a means to innovate around its toughest technical challenges. “We call it knowledge gap identification, which means to identify which technical areas are the most challenging ones, where we know what we don’t know,” said Amer Catic, Volvo Group Truck’s specialist and implementation leader for knowledge management. “We use our previous knowledge, define the knowledge gap and then innovate to fill those gaps.”

Volvo teams conduct facilitated workshops at each project stage-gate to identify the root cause of project issues and corrective actions to take. A committee reviews the lessons tagged as having broader implications to determine which audiences the lesson applies to and whether systematic changes are needed. The committee also assigns a recipient for each validated lesson (usually the appropriate process owner); this individual is responsible for reviewing the improvements proposed by the project team and making any necessary adjustments. Through this closed-loop process, Volvo is able to continuously improve processes, tools and methods that will be used by project teams performing similar work in the future.

Program-level knowledge can also be used to help organizations assess and manage risks related to certain categories of projects. For example, the global charitable foundation that participated in the research has various processes in place to document project learnings, which are stored in a central repository. New project teams are encouraged to search and review that documentation while they develop their business case, scope and project plan. That allows the teams to validate their assumptions about timeline and risk based on the past performance of similar projects.

Portfolio-level benefits

The final wave of benefits, which accrues at the portfolio level, requires an organization to synthesize the cumulative knowledge and experience of its project teams to identify best practices and learnings that apply to all (or almost all) projects across its portfolio. The knowledge that takes center stage at this level typically goes beyond the details of any particular project category to address the project management methodology itself, the skills required to select and execute projects, or project-related decision making. Only a few of the organizations APQC studied in the research have matured their KM processes to the point where they are truly leveraging knowledge at the portfolio level.

One of those organizations is BAE Systems, which has developed a case-based learning program that distills and disseminates key learnings across the project portfolio. Although the organization’s sectors were already capturing lessons specific to their lines of business, the leadership team recognized that it had a gap in identifying and disseminating high-level lessons that would be applicable across projects and sectors. Based on a development needs assessment, BAE Systems realized that program managers were not always equipped to make fast decisions based on incomplete information in complex, shifting environments. Those gaps were causing similar mistakes to be made across projects.

To address the challenge, BAE Systems’ corporate learning organization created two training courses in which participants work through detailed, MBA-style case studies based on past successes and failures within the organization. The knowledge chosen for the case studies is highly curated to ensure it is applicable to a broad spectrum of projects. The interactive courses simulate real-world experiences, with participants working in cross-functional teams to solve problems and make decisions based on the information provided. Through the learning experience, BAE Systems aims to impart strategic and leadership skills that it sees as integral to winning and executing the types of projects it focuses on.

An organization can also derive far-reaching risk assessment and management benefits by leveraging knowledge at the portfolio level. That is the case at BAE Systems as well as at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where KM documentation on project solutions that didn’t work or almost didn’t work is fed into the center’s robust risk management program. The KM Office and risk management program collaborate closely to ensure project teams have access to knowledge that will help project managers assess risks and effectively balance them with other trade-offs.

Next steps

As the examples in this research suggest, there is a compelling business case to integrate KM into project management at the project, program and portfolio levels. Initiatives to systematically apply knowledge across the project portfolio can be resource-intensive, so APQC recommends starting at the project level by connecting project managers to one another and giving them an outlet to exchange ideas and experiences.

Future installments of this series will delve into the details of specific project KM approaches, including how the featured organizations structure communities and networks to get project knowledge to flow as well as the processes they use to document, validate and disseminate project-related lessons learned.

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