Capturing project knowledge using issue maps
Here’s a question that’s been on my mind for a while: Why do organisations find it difficult to capture and transmit knowledge created in projects?
I’ll attempt an answer of sorts in this post and point to a solution of sorts too – taking a bit of a detour along the way, as I’m often guilty of doing…
Let us first consider how knowledge is generated on projects. In project environments, knowledge is typically created in response to a challenge faced. The challenge may be the project objective itself, in which case the knowledge created is embedded in the product or service design. On the other hand it could be a small part of the project: say, a limitation of the technology used, in which case the knowledge might correspond to a workaround discovered by a project team member. In either case, the existence of an issue or challenge is a precondition to the creation of knowledge. The project team (or a subset of it) decides on how the issue should be tackled. They do so incrementally; through exploration, trial and error and discussion – creating knowledge in the bargain.
In a nutshell: knowledge is created as project members go through a process of discovery. This process may involve the entire team (as in the first example) or a very small subset thereof (as in the second example, where the programmer may be working alone). In both cases, though, the aim is to understand the problem, explore potential solutions and find the “best” one thus creating new knowledge.
Now, from the perspective of project and organisational learning, project documentation must capture the solution and the process by which it was developed. Typically, most documentation tends to focus on the former, neglecting the latter. This is akin to presenting a solution to a high school mathematics problem without showing the intervening steps. My high school maths teacher would’ve awarded me a zero for such an effort regardless of the whether or not my answer was right. And with good reason too: the steps leading up to a solution are more important than the solution itself. Why? Because the steps illustrate the thought processes and reasoning behind the solution. So it is with project documentation. Ideally, documentation should provide the background, constraints, viewpoints, arguments and counter-arguments that go into the creation of project knowledge.
Unfortunately, it seldom does.
Why is this so? An answer can be found in a farsighted paper, entitled Designing Organizational Memory: Preserving Intellectual Assets in a Knowledge Economy, published by Jeff Conklin 1997. In the paper Conklin draws a distinction between formal and informal knowledge; terms that correspond to the end-result and the process discussed in the previous paragraph.To quote from his paper, formal knowledge is the “…stuff of books, manuals, documents and training courses…the primary work product of the knowledge worker…” Conklin notes that, “Organisations routinely capture formal knowledge; indeed, they rely on it – without much success – as their organizational memory.” On the other hand, informal knowledge is, “the knowledge that is created and used in the process of creating formal results…It includes ideas, facts, assumptions, meanings, questions, decisions, guesses, stories and points of view. It is as important in the work of the knowledge worker as formal knowledge is, but it is more ephemeral and transitory…” As a consequence, informal knowledge is elusive; it rarely makes it into documents.
Dr. Conklin lists two reasons why organisations (which includes temporary organisations such as projects) fail to capture informal knowledge. These are:
- Business culture values results over process. In his words, “One reason for the widespread failure to capture informal knowledge is that Western culture has come to value results – the output of work process – far above the process itself, and to emphasise things over relationships.”
- The tools of knowledge workers do not support the process of knowledge work – that is, most tools focus on capturing formal knowledge (the end result of knowledge work) rather than informal knowledge (how that end result was achieved – the “steps” in the solution, so to speak).
The key to creating useful documentation thus lies in capturing informal knowledge. In order to do that, this elusive form of knowledge must first be made explicit – i.e. expressible in words and pictures. Here’s where the notion of shared understanding, discussed in my previous post comes into play.
To quote again from Conklin’s paper, “One element of creating shared understanding is making informal knowledge explicit. This means surfacing key ideas, facts, assumptions, meanings, questions, decisions, guesses, stories, and points of view. It means capturing and organizing this informal knowledge so that everyone has access to it. It means changing the process of knowledge work so that the focus is on creating and managing a shared display of the group’s informal thinking and learning. The shared display is the transparent vehicle for making informal knowledge explicit.”
The notion of a shared display is central to the technique of dialogue mapping, a group facilitation technique that can help a diverse group achieve a shared understanding of a problem. Dialogue mapping uses a visual notation called IBIS (short for Issue Based Information System) to capture the issues, ideas and arguments that come up in a meeting (see my previous post for a quick introduction to dialogue mapping and a crash-course in IBIS). As far as knowledge capture is concerned, I see two distinct uses of IBIS . They are:
- As Conklin suggests, IBIS maps can be used to surface and capture informal knowledge in real-time, as it is being generated in a discussion between two or more people.
- It can also be used in situations where one person researches and finds a solution to a challenge. In this case the person could use IBIS to capture background, approaches tried, the pros and cons of each – i.e. the process by which the solution was arrived at.
This, together with the formal stuff – which most project organisations capture more than adequately – should result in documents that provide a more complete view of the knowledge generated in projects.
Now, in a previous post (linked above) I discussed an example of how dialogue mapping was used on a real-life project challenge: how best to implement near real-time updates to a finance data mart. The final issue map, which was constructed using a mapping tool called Compendium, is reproduced below:
The map captures not only the decisions made, but also the options discussed and the arguments for and against each of the options. As such, it captures the decision along with the context, process and rationale behind it. In other words, it captures formal and informal knowledge pertaining to the decision. In this simple case, IBIS succeeded in making informal knowledge explicit. Project teams down the line can understand why the decision was made, from both a technical and business perspective.
It is worth noting that Compendium maps can reference external documents via Reference Nodes, which, though less important for argumentation, are extremely useful for documentation. Here is an illustration of how references to external documents can be inserted in an IBIS map through reference node:
As illustrated, this feature can be used to link out to a range of external documents – clicking on the reference node in a map (not the image above!) opens up the external document. Exploiting this, a project document can operate at two levels: the first being an IBIS map that depicts the relationships between issues, ideas and arguments, and the second being supporting documents that provide details on specific nodes or relationships. Much of the informal knowledge pertaining to the issue resides in the first level – i.e. in the relationships between nodes – and this knowledge is made explicit in the map.
To conclude, it is perhaps worth summarising the main points of this post. Projects generate new knowledge through a process in which issues and ideas are proposed, explored and trialled. Typically, most project documentation captures the outcome (formal knowledge), neglecting much of the context, background and process of discovery (informal knowledge). IBIS maps offer the possibility of capturing both aspects of knowledge, resulting in a greatly improved project (and hence organisational) memory.