Capturing and using knowledge in project-based organisations
Many organisations find it hard to capture and use knowledge effectively. This problem is especially acute in project-based organisations because project teams – the primary “generators” of knowledge in such organisations – are temporary structures which are disbanded when a project’s completed. Hence most project-based organisations emphasise (and enforce!) the capture of knowledge through end-project activities such as project post-mortems, documentation etc.
That’s fine as it goes, but capturing knowledge is only a part of the story. There is the other (not so small) matter of using it. Here’s where most efforts fall flat – all that supposedly useful knowledge is rarely used. This is the point addressed by Katrina Pugh and Nancy Dixon in a short note entitled, Don’t Just Capture Knowledge–Put It to Work, published in the May 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review. Pugh and Dixon suggest using what they call a knowledge harvest– an approach aimed at capturing knowledge and putting it to use. In brief, a knowledge harvest consists of:
Identifying those who might find the knowledge useful. Pugh and Dixon call these people knowledge seekers. These folks are interested in the knowledge on offer and so already have the motivation to learn. In projectised organisations, programme managers have a broad view of project activity, and can thus help identify suitable seekers to participate in knowledge capture (or harvesting) sessions.
Involving knowledge seekers in harvesting sessions. The idea here is that seekers, being self-motivated, will ask pointed questions aimed at extracting information that is often left out of typical post-project documentation. They might, for instance, ask probing questions regarding what went wrong and why; points that are often glossed over for political or other reasons.
In their note, Pugh and Dixon present a case study where this method was used successfully in a project situation. Following the initial success of the technique, it has been adopted by other programmes within the organisation that was the subject of the study.
This simple technique has much to commend it. For one, conversation is a more effective way (than documentation) to get at tacit knowledge. The presence of knowledge seekers at harvest sessions improves chances that the right questions – i.e. those that “tease out” tacit knowledge – will be asked. Secondly,the captured knowledge will almost certainly be used since seekers are identified by their interest in what’s on offer. Finally, if seekers find the knowledge gained to be useful on their own projects, they’ll pass it on to other seekers in harvesting sessions down the line, thus ensuring what’s learnt becomes a part of organisational memory.