By Lynda Bourne
Organizations tend to struggle with knowledge management. Far too many treat it as an exercise in capturing and disseminating lessons learned. Because of this, organizations often fail to develop the social framework needed to allow the full richness of knowledge to be available to their teams.
In fact, knowledge management involves more than lessons learned. At best, lessons learned are explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be readily articulated, codified, stored, accessed and transmitted to others. But the process of transforming the lessons recorded by a project team into explicit knowledge requires:
- The lesson to be recorded by the team
- The data in the lesson to be validated by subject matter experts
- Information to be codified against an understood taxonomy and stored in a retrieval system with appropriate cross-referencing and indexing
This process is time-consuming and difficult, particularly given the lack of a defined taxonomy of project management terms. For example, terms such as PERT are used and misused in a variety of ways (see this PDF.):
A Four-Stage Learning Journey
Assuming all of the above is done well by an organization, all it will have is a knowledge repository that may be used. None of the knowledge has been transferred to people who need to know, and if those people don’t know they need to know, they are unlikely to look or learn!
This is because unskilled human beings tend to overestimate their knowledge. This is known as the Dunning–Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where unskilled individuals mistakenly rate their ability much higher than is accurate. Conversely, experts tend to underplay their expertise.
Therefore, the learning journey can be described as:
- Don’t know you don’t know (ignorance is bliss)
- Know you don’t know (seeking knowledge)
- Know that you know (marginally competent practitioner)
- Don’t know that you know (tacit expertise)
But the relatively simple chart above is complicated by four additional factors:
- Personal bias and prejudice
- Errors in existing knowledge
- Taboos that forbid or prevent the seeking of specific new knowledge
- Denial of new knowledge, because it threatens deeply held beliefs
Therefore, effective knowledge management requires three factors:
- The availability of usable knowledge
- Ways to trigger learning activity before problems occur
- Ways to ensure tacit expertise is available to know what knowledge needs to be adapted for use in the current situation
Without the last two elements, organizations are left with burgeoning lessons-learned databases and hundreds of end-of-project reports, but their people have no idea what to do differently to improve performance.
The problem is the tacit knowledge needed to recognize the need and adapt the knowledge to the current situation resides in people’s minds and is contextual. Consequently, it’s difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it.
Improving organizational performance needs personal interaction. First, subject matter experts need help to translate their tacit know-how gathered over years into usable explicit knowledge. This is very often a difficult process—the experts literally don’t know all of the factors they use in formulating a course of action; much of their intuitive processing is subconscious.
Second, less expert people need a friendly adviser overseeing their work to provide effective early warning of impending issues. The less experienced need to be made aware that they need to learn something new. “Trigger events” don’t have to be painful if the right advice is heeded at the right time.
Third, learning is rarely accomplished simply by reading about a lesson learned. Access to effective coaching and mentoring is important to ensure the full complexity and subtleties of the lesson are passed on and the learning is adapted to the circumstances. Every project is unique and consequently every lesson learned will need to be nuanced or adapted to work optimally in the new situation.
In addition, some aspects of knowing can only be learned by doing. This requires trust and encouraging people to form relationships and networks so they will share knowledge and help each other learn.
How effective is knowledge sharing in your organization?