Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Knowledge Management in projects

I have been asked to give 1000 word summary of my presentation at KM Russia 2010, on the topic of knowledge management in projects.

Here it is for your interest.

Knowledge management represents how you manage your organisation, your team or your project, once you realise how important knowledge is. Once you realise that knowledge is fundamental to making the correct decisions and taking the right courses of action, then you will put in place certain interventions to guard that knowledge, to build it, and to make sure it is applied where it's needed. This is knowledge management.

Knowledge management is a combination of people (roles and accountabilities), processes, technologies and governance, with knowledge is a focus. However above all, it is a change program, changing the organisation from one in which knowledge is seen as personal property, to one in which knowledge is seen as fundamental to team and organisational success.

Project an ideal testing ground for knowledge management, projects are discrete, they repeat, their focus is clear, and their scope and remit is limited. Where knowledge management is applied to projects, the results can be seen in learning curves. Learning curves represent process improvement over time, and are generated through learning. The only thing that you have at the end of the learning curve that you do not have at the start, is knowledge. Knowledge management can accelerate the learning curve and deliver value.

Knowledge management can be seen as one of many project disciplines. Together with a risk management, safety management, cost and schedule management and so on, knowledge management addresses some of the key assets and enablers of the project. It is a component of good management practice; the component that delivers continuous improvement. Therefore it needs discipline and rigour, it needs to be a business requirement, it needs to be integrated with the other disciplines, and it needs to be governed in the same way as the other disciplines.

So what is knowledge management looked like in a project context? It will probably addressed learning before, during and after a project activity, it will probably address knowledge sharing between the projects, it will address knowledge ownership (who looks after the knowledge?) and it will address the issues of a knowledge base of reference material which projects can access.
A key tool in learning before project is the project knowledge management plan. This provides a focus on the critical knowledge for the project, and then addresses how the knowledge will be accessed, who will find it, how and when, and how new knowledge will be created and stored. You can think of knowledge as flowing into a project at the start, and out of the project at the end, and this flow of knowledge needs to be managed. The KM plan is the tool that manages this flow.

The plan is created at the planning workshop involving all the project team, and one of the key outputs from this workshop will be the knowledge needs register.
Learning during the project is conducted through after action reviews after each crucial milestone or activity. However the after action reviews need to be linked with process improvement within the project, so that the project can adapt and react to every new learning.

Learning after the project is linked to lessons identification. This can be done either by scheduling and lessons identification meeting such as the retrospect, or actually embedding the learning engineer with the project in the later stages. The retrospect is like a large-scale after action review, where attention is paid, and discussion held among the team, on each of the learning points in turn. This review should be externally facilitated, and the aim is to identify their lessons and document them in enough detail and context that they can be useful to others in future. However the main objective is not merely to identify the lessons, but to make changes to processes, procedures and organisational structure so that the learning is embedded. To this end, there needs to be a learning workflow, so that lessons are validated, and carried through into action and process improvement.

Learning will need to be shared between projects as well, and this is where the communities of practice come in. The communities form a second, cross cutting dimension to the organisational structure, and allow knowledge to flow in and out of the project, crossing the walls and the organisational boundaries using the communities as a conduit.

As well as providing the mechanism to link practitioners with each other, other communities can also look after the organisational knowledge base, either through linking up the subject matter experts and allowing others to access the tacit knowledge, or by building and maintaining an explicit knowledge base for the community of practice. The community can also facilitate cross-project dialogue such as knowledge Handover meetings, where a recently finished project will talk through and discuss its major lessons with people from other similar projects. These meetings can be very powerful ways of transferring true learning and understanding.

So a knowledge management framework can be built for projects, including communities, project knowledge managers and learning engineers, after action reviews, Retrospects, peer assist, community knowledge bases and so on. However even the best framework will deliver no value if people do not want to use it, which is where the issue of governance comes in.

Knowledge management needs to be governed just like any other management system. The first step in governance is to make it very clear what is expected of a project in terms of knowledge management. Should every project have a knowledge management plan, for example? Should every project end with a retrospect? Should there be a retrospect at the end of each project stage?

The second step in governance is monitoring. You may want to collect statistics on how many Retrospects are being held, how many knowledge management plans are being written, how many lessons are being identified, and what percentage of identified lessons are carried through into action. This monitoring allows you to identify and recognise the good performers, and to assist those who need more help in performing better.

This combination of people, processes, technologies and governance at a project scale will deliver faster learning, steeper learning curves, and improved continuous performance improvement.

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