Knowledge Management: More Than Simply Learning Lessons

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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:

  1. Don’t know you don’t know (ignorance is bliss)
  2. Know you don’t know (seeking knowledge)
  3. Know that you know (marginally competent practitioner)
  4. 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:

  1. The availability of usable knowledge
  2. Ways to trigger learning activity before problems occur
  3. 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? 

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: January 12, 2016 12:30 AM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Lynda, this is a very interesting and crucial subject and you tackled it in a very smart and straight forward manner.

I would like ask you something: Don't you think that PMO plays a pivotal role here ?

With regards to the KS in my previous organization (An international company operating in 50 countries), the knowledge management system they have is outstanding and I would definitely and comfortably say it is VERY EFFECTIVE and this helped a lot on many jobs, significantly.

A properly set up PMOs could certainly have a KM role as part of its overall responsibilities Rami, but equally the function could sit with a 'corporate library' or be the responsibility of a less formally structured community of practice. The important elements are senior management support and a designed (but adaptive) process.

Your last point is particularly salient - Peter Drucker identified 'knowledge' as a key competitive advantage in the 1950s........ this is becoming increasingly true!

Lynda, you are right, as with any practice, there needs to be a strategy also for knowledge management it could be either the people to document type or people to people type. The only difference being the former uses the re-use economic model and the later uses the expert economics. Some companies have tried to utilize the mix behavior to ensure that the KM is successful, usually with one strategy dominant than the other.

Sometimes how a company implements its knowledge management strategy is also evident on its competitive strategy and people management. With the later there has to be incentives for participation within the community for the KM to succeed. Its also key to evaluate how much of technology you want to use. As with any other topics, the process has to simple and lean and not too reliant on technology

I certainly agree with your last point Kiran, organisations seem to forget knowledge is a social phenomena. Information in a database has no value until it is used by people.

Lynda, I can't agree with you more. This is exactly what we used to have: Corporate Library.

Very neatly written article on knowledge management.

Nice Article it is a crucial topic. I like the chart and your image.

Thanks Gyanendra + Nikhil

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