Have you ever said to yourself: “Why do we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again?!” Unfortunately in project-driven industries repeating past mistakes happens more frequently that we might think. There are many reasons for this; projects happening across the globe, high personnel turnover and inconsistent project execution practices are some of the surface causes, however in many cases the root cause can be traced back to the difficulty that many organizations have in collecting and leveraging organizational knowledge.

For the purpose of this article we will define organizational knowledge as the collective learnings of an organization that can be leveraged to add value. If collected and used effectively, this can be a very valuable asset to a project management organization (PMO) and a source of competitive advantage for companies selling their project delivery services. This form of intellectual property, if harnessed effectively, can result in significant benefits for PMOs including better results on individual projects as well as an overall increase in consistency of results across their portfolio. These improvements result from both the application of a consistent methodology that improves over time as well as collective experience that avoids the repetition of past mistakes made by others.

While knowledge can be collected in many ways and absorbed into the organization in different forms, the adopted practice for projects is to document lessons learned during the close-out of a project. This is typically done through a meeting attended by team members, whose output is documented and filed away for future use, entered into a lessons learned database or reflected in updates to project procedures. When future projects are undertaken, best practice is to review the lessons learned from similar past projects at the beginning of the project and then incorporate the learnings into the project plan. While maintaining a central register of project lessons learned may be best practice, according to one study only 22% of PMOs actually do this. A more informal but common way of transferring lessons learned on past projects is for this knowledge to be retained by the individuals involved and it then be disseminated to others through mentoring to colleagues on future project teams.

There are several challenges to maximizing the value of organizational knowledge that stem from the fact that this experience is gained by individuals who lack an effective way to translate these learnings to the organization in a way that gets other individuals the nuggets of knowledge that they need when they need them. These challenges can be grouped into two types that we label as follows:

  • Collection Friction: challenges associated with translating knowledge from individuals to the organization.
  • Retrieval Friction: challenges associated with disseminating relevant knowledge from the organization to individuals when they need it.

There are several sources of Collection Friction, including the fact that in many cases the right people aren’t at the project close-out lessons learned meetings, either because they have demobilized off the project project prior to the close-out phase or the meeting is largely confined to senior managers and not the extended project team. In addition, all the lessons that were actually learned on a given project aren’t necessarily documented because there is a bias toward not documenting the things that went right, and depending on the culture of the organization some of the most negative lessons that were learned would “point the finger” at individuals in the room and so they go undocumented in order to avoid calling out specific members of the team.

There are also several sources of Retrieval Friction, including there being no single source of documented organizational knowledge and instead it is distributed across a series of files stored throughout network. If a single lessons learned database does exist, then in many cases it is a small subset of the project team that performs a 1-time search for relevant information at the outset of the project and so learnings that may be relevant to the wider project team later in the project are left unused and the associated value remains locked inside the database. In situations where learnings translate into additional project procedures, the organization runs the risk of becoming over-proceduralized to the point where process becomes more important than results. While mentoring is probably the single most effective method of transferring knowledge to individuals in an organization, it is heavily dependent on the retention of experienced employees and it can be difficult to systematically disseminate knowledge in this way throughout larger organizations that are spread out geographically.

To unlock the full value of organizational knowledge, PMOs need to take steps to reduce Collection and Retrieval Friction. This involves the adoption of practices that reward employees for contributing to the organizational knowledge base and intelligent technologies that facilitate this as well as delivering this knowledge to individuals in a contextually-relevant way. While there will be short term costs to implementing these steps, they will be more than offset over the long term through increased competitive advantage and improved project performance across the organization's portfolio.