Knowledge management is the process by which that learning happens and is shared with others. It is an unsung hero of project management maturity, an often neglected factor or one that we think of as “as long as we have a lessons learned log template to attached to our post-project review it’ll be enough”. In this article, we will discuss what good knowledge management is and how, in addition to a template form and process, must also be supported by a knowledge management culture. Finally, we will look at how you can implement and improve knowledge management in your project team and in the organisation.

A project by definition is something new and different from what we are used to. It is not as familiar or predictable as our business as usual or operations so there is no way we can estimate or predict what will happen with 100% accuracy. Some things will go worse than we planned and some will go better. We may talk of failures or successes. However, what determines if something is a true success or a true failure is determined by our ability to harness those events and learn from them so that we are equipped and ready to recognise and seize opportunities and avoid threats and mishaps in the future.

What is Knowledge Management?

The holistic, cross-functional discipline and set of practices concerned with the way organisations create and use knowledge to improve outcomes.

                                                                        Association for Project Management

Perhaps more interesting is the question “what is knowledge”? This is a question that is seldom asked, but as noted by APM; the Chartered Body for Project Professionals, carries importance for how knowledge management should be done in practice within an organisation. It is important that the practices of knowledge management align with how we understand and think of knowledge. (APM ‘What is knowledge management).

Many organisations treat knowledge management as if it was the same as information management which means their knowledge management is inadequate. information is different from knowledge. Information is a tangible thing that can be captured in a document or database. Knowledge is less tangible, certainly related to information, but more like what the individual is able to do (feel, decide, take action) based on information available.

Having a good information management practice is therefore linked to good Knowledge Management because we need the information to feed our knowledge and give us context to use our knowledge in, but they are not one and the same. To clarify the relationship;

Information Management

This is the process and practice for how we gather, store, share and archive/destroy information and data. It is concerned with documents and databases, tangible things that can be saved, edited and destroyed.

Knowledge management

This is is everything we do to make sure our people can do something with that information to improve outcomes for themselves, their project or the organisation as a whole. Put in the simplest form possible, knowledge management is how we connect people to information, or how we connect people to other people.

There is no one-size-fits-all, not one process or template for exactly how to do this, but ultimately it will come down to creating and fostering an environment where people want to share what they know with others. (Learn more).

Why is Knowledge Management important?

Ever found yourself wondering why people in your project or organisation (or friends and family or even yourself) keep making the same mistakes? Or why, when Project A failed and had to close early because they didn’t manage a particular risk, Project B also mismanages that same risk and is heading towards the same fate? The answer is that you probably don’t have a good enough knowledge management process. The information is there but people are not engaging with it and therefore not doing anything with it.

Knowledge management enables us to learn from our own, or others’ experiences. It can turn a big mistake into an investment in our experience and expertise for how to do future work. If we have no knowledge management what so ever we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

How do I implement or improve Knowledge Management in my organisation?

There are three building blocks to good knowledge management:

1) Good information management

‘Good’ in this sense means whatever is right for your organisation, your people and the type of information you work with.

It should provide tools, guidance and process for how to:

  • Collect information
  • Save and store information
  • Edit and update information
  • Share information
  • Archive or destroy information

If you have a PMO they are in an excellent position to create the process and guidance for project information management, within the constraints of organisational tools, policy and regulations such as GDPR.

2) A culture and environment where people feel able and willing to share theirs and others knowledge

This is a trickier thing to establish because culture is not something we can design and switch on by clicking a button. Culture takes time to grow and must be reinforced to stick.

A culture that fosters knowledge management does not aim to blame and punish a person that has made a mistake. Instead, it seeks to learn constructive lessons for how to avoid the mistake in the future, while acknowledging and praising honesty for recognising and owning up to mistakes. It is also one where successes and well-managed opportunities are acknowledged and attributed to the right person (if possible with appropriate rewards), and again acknowledging and praising honesty.

3) Processes and practice that facilitate how people engage with information and other people

There is no one size fits all process or practice but a few examples include;

  • An appropriate and easy to use Lessons Learned form, process and database that is open to everyone
  • A process for how urgent actions or recommendations from Lessons Learned are to be escalated and implemented
  • A process for how relevant lessons learned can be signposted to project teams at relevant points in the project lifecycle
  • Communities of practice that allow “cross-pollination” of teams, ideas, information and knowledge
  • Peer-support networks where project managers or team members can seek help from colleagues

How do I implement or improve Knowledge Management in my project?

Few people like admitting to making mistakes for a variety of reasons, usually to do with fear of getting the blame or fear of losing face. As a project manager, you cannot set the tone or culture for the whole organisation but you can set the tone for your project to ensure team members feel able to identify, acknowledge and admit mistakes.

Tips to improve Knowledge Management in your project

  • Pro-actively own up to your own mistakes and admit when you are wrong
  • When a team member has made a mistake make sure you treat them respectfully, support them in finding a solution and thank them for bringing it to your attention
  • It is absolutely necessary sometimes to give team members a “telling off” or a “corrective conversation” but this must be constructive, should be done in private and assuming the team member heads the telling off, it should never be referred to when in the company of others. Shaming a team member in front of others will damage your team culture, it will damage knowledge management and it will ultimately damage the project
  • Make it a practice that when something goes wrong, or particularly well, as a team stop and review it to see what you can learn from that occasion that will help you going forward and then ensure that is implemented (and share this with the rest of the organisation)
  • Review the team dynamic to understand how well established your team is. The ability to discuss ones’ mistakes and be open to help is a sign of a well established, or “Performing” team (as per the ‘Tuckman model’ that describes the stages of team development as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing). It takes time to get to that point. As a project manager, you can help your team develop to get to the Performing stage by providing structure and clarity on roles, acknowledging and helping resolve conflict and ensuring you treat all team members equally
  • Ensure you host a Post-Project Review meeting and that all team members attend and contribute to it

We hope this article has helped clarify what knowledge management (that elusive thing!) is and why it is important for your project success.