The PMO as knowledge broker

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely

Identifying lessons learnt is a necessary part of the project process, not only does this information have the capacity to lighten the workload of the project manager, but it also places the company running the project, in a position of increased competitiveness – however, this is only if the knowledge is actually applied. Unfortunately, the reality confronting many project managers is that once boxes have been ticked and projects completed, it is very rare that this information is accessed and utilised in future projects.

Project managers are constantly challenged to find ways to ensure that at the end of a project, lessons are truly learnt, that the new knowledge that has been gained and valuable experience that has been attained is accessed and used in such a way that it guides future projects ensuring constant development and increased levels of project efficiency and success.

Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and begin all over again

The process of identifying lessons, both good and bad, at any stage of the project management process is a relatively easy task. Many organisations have a formal process for post implementation reviews and/or stage gate reviews. Why then, if it is simple to identify areas where experience can guide future projects, is this information rarely used.

Research has shown that despite 80% of projects running PIRs, less than 20% of PIR reports were ever re-accessed and there was little evidence of organisational learning. Perhaps there needs to be a conceptual shift between the process of identifying lessons and actually learning lessons. If learning results in change, then what usually takes place at the end of a project would be the identification of a lesson. Rather than having lessons identified as one of the outcomes of the project, it should be seen as the start of the process that develops the lessons that are actually learnt and thus, by definition, implemented. Lessons identified only become lessons learnt once the collected knowledge is used in current or future projects. There needs to be a transition space created where a shift takes place and vital knowledge is not simply stored away in files, not being accessed, but rather becomes implemented on a practical project level. But who is responsible for this shift from lessons identified to lessons learnt and how can it be facilitated?

The role of a project manager is to ensure the successful completion of the project put into their care. With this in mind, the project manager is perfectly positioned to facilitate the transition that sees knowledge produce beneficial change. But how can this shift be created? In a well commented discussion that took place on LinkedIn, several suggestions were made regarding the challenge of moving from lessons being identified to lessons actually being learnt. The ability to sit down and read through endless notes on the success and failures of previous projects, often feels like a luxury people think they can’t afford.

 “…putting people in touch with other people, rather than with information in a database, is a much more effective way of sharing…information and knowledge. In a dialogue, the people involved can ask questions, check their understanding, and establish the context”. (blog commentary)

Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself

Perhaps an answer can be found in the analysis of a company’s culture.

“If the culture is one that encourages the asking of questions, the seeking out of experts, a culture where curiosity is embedded, where employees routinely ask ‘who has done something like this before’ and ‘what can I learn from others before I start’; then it is possible that a work ethic can be created where project managers access information in both forms, through dialogue and the accessing of databases and in turn start to fully experience the benefits of lessons learnt”,blog commentary

From the discussion generated by the topic of lessons learned, it seems there is no doubt that, through the process of learning from both the successes and failures of previous projects and the collected wisdom that comes from experience, a company should, over time, be able to gather sufficient expertise to set them apart from their competitors. If the greatest challenge comes from the company culture itself, then the role of the project office and PPPM structures need to encompass the creation of a culture for learning.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn

Research on project management styles reported by Pemsel & Wiewiora (2012) suggests that one challenge we face is that project managers naturally prefer to learn by doing. They also suggest that project managers are ‘people-people’ and may adopt a lessons learnt approach better when they are encouraged to talk with others rather than read from others.

In one organisation we spoke with, the project office and sponsors routinely ask their project managers at the beginning of the project “What project is this most like and have you talked to them?”.  This is an example of the project office acting as a knowledge broker – bringing together and connecting relevant and useful knowledge.

If the project office is to genuinely act as a knowledge broker then it needs to not just gather data on projects but provide mechanism for knowledge about projects to be interpreted and made relevant to members of the project community – and that does not just mean the project managers.

Too often data gathered from projects seems simply to be a vehicle for blame at worst and a project manager learning tool at best.  The project office can make a real difference in the project capability of the organisation if they move from a recorder of lessons learned to a broker of knowledge transfer across the whole community.

We will be debating the importance of knowledge management at the PMO forum, hosted by PwC and PPO on Friday 28th February. You can register here for this and future sessions:

Other resources:

Success Stories Shared initiative, Linky van der Merwe & Louise Worsley:

Or try Ken Burrell’s excellent book on knowledge sharing in projects:

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