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Virtual communities of practice can foster project knowledge

Enterprise social networks, virtual communities and lessons-learned processes are great ways for teams to share project management know-how and make it accessible in the future.

If you think about it, the reasons for project teams to talk to one another and pool their knowledge are fairly...

obvious. When a new team forms, knowing what others have tried in past projects can help the team replicate successes and avoid repeating the same mistakes. And in instances where projects involve similar work for different clients or situations, teams may be able to make previous outputs available for others to adapt and build on. All of this can save both individual project managers and the broader organization huge amounts of time, money and frustration.

Indeed, the most competitive organizations develop strategies to allow far-flung project teams to exchange information, learn from one another and improve based on one another's hard-won knowledge and experiences. The most effective tactics include establishing virtual communities of practice to share project-related knowledge and documenting project lessons to drive broad improvements across the organization.

Using virtual communities to share team information

If you want to encourage project teams to cross-pollinate and share knowledge, launching a virtual community or enterprise social network focused on project management is probably the easiest option. In addition to stoking conversation among project-focused employees, these groups can serve as hubs for advice and how-to guidance on executing successful projects.

Such virtual communities of practice allow project team members to ask and answer questions, while sharing a range of useful information and documents -- from new ideas and workarounds to work examples and outputs. In most cases, the exchanges occur naturally in the flow of daily work, instead of just at key milestones, like project closeout proceedings or annual corporate summits. This is important because people are more likely -- and better equipped -- to share their know-how when the experiences are fresh in their minds. People are also more likely to ask questions if they know they can get immediate answers from peers who have encountered similar situations.

For example, global IT and communications equipment and services company Fujitsu Ltd. has a particularly robust community for project managers. All Fujitsu employees involved in projects in the Europe, Middle East, India and Africa regions are encouraged to join this community, which is a gathering point for project-related knowledge sharing and learning.

The community uses a Facebook-style social networking site as its hub. Any member can use the site to submit information, post relevant news, ask and answer questions, share ideas and practices or propose changes to the organization's project management approach. Fujitsu does not monitor or police what is posted to the community.

Members are particularly encouraged to share tools, templates and examples that other project teams can reuse. "What I like to see is really good examples of types of delivery that we can share with other people," said Fujitsu Project Management Community Lead Paul Jones. "For me, it's all about building on lessons that save time, effort and money."

A rating system allows members in Fujitsu's community to evaluate peer-shared project support materials, like templates and spreadsheets, by assigning them zero to five stars. This helps members determine which tools are worth using and prompts the organization when it needs to review posted items for inclusion in official processes and validated best practices. It also helps the community leader declutter the community by removing unhelpful tools.

Capturing and acting on project lessons learned

In addition to ongoing communication through virtual communities of practice, many organizations ask project teams to reflect on their progress and identify lessons learned at key decision points throughout their projects. In-depth collaborative sessions allow teams to review the status of their projects and discuss what went well (especially any new tools or methods that produced positive results), what went wrong (especially issues that the team could have mitigated or avoided) and what changes the organization should make or what the team might do differently in the future.

The meetings give project teams a chance to address differences of opinion about decisions and outcomes, while building consensus around the best path forward. Lessons-learned conversations also help project managers examine risks associated with their projects and document how the team is managing and minimizing those risks.

For example, manufacturer Volvo Group Trucks has a particularly thorough strategy to document and follow up on lessons learned. Project teams go through a five-step lessons-learned process before they pass through each stage gate of their projects:

  1. In a workshop setting, they identify all project pain points and compile a list.
  2. Before the workshop can close, they must list a root cause of each project issue.
  3. Then, they evaluate whether each issue has potential implications for other project teams.
  4. For internal project issues, the project team establishes its own corrective plan.
  5. For external issues, the team identifies possible improvements and enters in the lesson-learned system the lessons, root causes, proposed improvements and the owners who would need to carry out those improvements.

The key step in the workshops, said Volvo Knowledge Management Specialist and Implementation Leader Amer Catic, is ensuring that the teams identify a root cause for each issue. "You cannot just say that the purchasing process for a certain type of gearbox doesn't work," he said. "You have to say why it doesn't work. Otherwise, we cannot do anything about it."

Once the project teams log their submissions, a committee of senior project managers reviews the information and passes it to the appropriate recipient (usually a process owner or high-level manager) to make changes. The recipient may use the lesson to inform other project teams of a potential problem; update official processes, tools or product documentation; or kick off an organizational improvement effort. All of these actions allow other project teams performing similar work to benefit from the original team's experience and learning.

Picking the right strategy for your organization

Virtual communities of practice and lessons learned are different solutions to the same problem, and each carries its own benefits and drawbacks.

Communities tend to be easier to put in place, and they are flexible in that members can share whatever ideas, advice and tools they think will help others. They also allow people to communicate, build relationships and recommend ideas and examples tailored to a particular situation. However, virtual communities of practice are only useful if they are effectively managed and curated, and their organic nature may be a drawback if members are not motivated to post regularly or don't understand what kind of information they should share.

Lessons-learned processes, in contrast, are more structured. Organizations can mandate participation at key intervals, and the resulting knowledge is often easier to filter and analyze. However, a good lessons-learned process takes effort to implement and requires a commitment from leaders to make changes based on feedback from project teams. Many processes fall apart when participants realize that their lessons go into an obscure database where they are never seen by future project teams or integrated into improvement efforts.

The right combination of approaches for your organization will depend on the type of projects you do, the resources available to enable knowledge sharing and collaboration and the underlying culture. But regardless of the path you choose, exposing your project teams to a variety of experiences and insights will allow them to capitalize on one another's aha moments, build on good ideas and avoid reinventing the wheel.

About the author
Lauren Trees is the principal research lead for knowledge management at
APQC, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides expertise on business benchmarking and best practices.

This was last published in December 2017

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