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8 November 2013

Knowledge Management in Projects – It’s stuck in the 80s

Around this time last year, the UKs Association for Project Management (APM) Knowledge SIG held its first Courageous Conversation event, and I was really pleased to be part of it. Here is the video of the discussion that took place. If you watch it carefully and perhaps a couple of times, you will see the conversation really challenges our perceptions of the project management body of knowledge (BOK). Personally I thought the APM were courageous in supporting this event. The sound kicks in after 40sec. 




On the 3rd December this year the APM Knowledge SIG are hosting another Courageous Conversation event, and I’m sure it will be as disclosing as the previous one. It will be in Oxford this time.

The topic this time is set to challenge our preconceptions about project management knowledge management, and it begins by proposing the following provoking question: 

Why is knowledge management (KM) in project environments 20 years behind KM in the rest of the world? 

I thought that in the spirit of the courageous conversation I would add my comments here, and perhaps it would help fan the flames a little. 

On this matter I believe that the project management (PM) professional bodies are massively to blame. But it’s not their fault! They don’t do it intentionally. It’s just a consequence of how they operate and how they see themselves operating. Knowledge management in project environments is 20 years behind knowledge management in the rest of the world, partly because of the antiquated business model of the professional bodies and partly because most projects that fail don’t kill hundreds of people as a direct consequence.

Let me briefly tackle both of these points. First their business model, and second the consequences of failing projects.


The Business Model of the PM Professional Bodies/Institutes: Frozen in time


The business model of the various PM professional bodies or institutes such as the APM, PMI, AIPM etc. is stuck somewhere in the 1980s. Let’s not forget that each of these entities has full-time staff and premises. Their business model needs to at least support their commitment to these by generating revenue streams. The money comes in mainly through membership fees and the registration/licensing fees they charge training providers to register with them. To make the financial model work, they create levels of certification around a particular artefact in the form of their own book or project management body of knowledge or ‘BOK’.

A quick response to the courageous conversation question is that the business model (centred on creating BOK artefacts that underpin revenue streams such as certification, membership, and training provider agreements) is stuck somewhere in the 1980s. Consequentially this impacts on the PM community and creates a 1980s view of KM in the project environment.  This seems to be the same sort of behaviour Alan Clark generated in the late 80s/90s in the UK when he crafted the national vocational qualification framework (NVQ). 

Alan Clark was the Minister for employment, trade, and defence in Margaret Thatcher’s government. He fine-tuned this model and his diaries spell out the business model very well. Basically, the NVQ (national vocational qualification) was born in response to political promises to increase the qualification level in the UK workforce. The idea was to give people qualifications for the things they can already do! So let’s say you work on a production line soldering components into a printed circuit board. Realistically there are no qualifications required for doing this job, only a few hours training. But an NVQ can be created for this, and a whole workforce can be newly measured and qualified. But why would an individual want this NVQ? And why would an employer demand that their production line employees have this NVQ? Furthermore, why would anybody possibly want a qualification for a job that they can already do? These are all probably logical questions to ask. But logic goes out the window when political promises have to be kept. 

So Clark (or more likely his team) put together a business model to increase the number of people in the workforce with a NVQ. The business model was pretty simple. Firstly, you created some sort of badge that everybody had to have before they could apply for tenders for subcontract work from any government authority. In this particular case the badge was the ‘Investors In People’ (IIP) badge. The marketplace was given say 3 to 5 years, and within that time you had to have an IIP badge. It was a rather nice wall plaque to hang in the reception area, and a logo for your letterhead. Secondly, you defined the criteria for being awarded this badge (or levels of it) in terms of the number of employees on your staff that held a NVQ. Thirdly, you licence training organisations with the ability to award NVQs. And off the business train goes! 

Organisations at the top of the food chain began to appoint full-time staff to the role of managing their IIP status. NVQ performance criteria or competency standards were created by various bodies, and training organisations marched out into a NVQ hungry marketplace. The market was hungry for NVQs - If they didn’t have NVQ’d people in their workforce, they weren't able to contract with government agencies. An interesting by-product of this behaviour is that when an employee is measured against a set of competency standards (remember this is for a job they are already doing and have been doing for many years), they are found to be ‘non competent’ or ‘not yet competent’ in some areas. Of course the training organisation conducting this competency measurement inevitably has a training program that the organisation can tap into that will increase the competency level of their workforce. Training organisations have their NVQ assessors, and these assessors need to be trained and assessed. So there is a niche market for a trainer of trainers and assessor of assessors. Yes you can get an NVQ for that too!

This industry (and it is an industry) is founded on the creation of an idea that there is a real need for NVQs. What if there is no real need? Does this business model sound familiar? Just replace the ‘Investors In People’ framework with any Project Management Maturity Program you wish, say P3M3 or OPM3. Then set the criteria for moving up the levels in these programs in terms of how many PRINCE2, PMP, RegPM, APMP, or IPMA Level D certified people there are in the organisation’s workforce. Finally, licence training organisations to award these certifications and deliver the necessary training, and you’ve successfully created an industry pretty much for the sake of the industry. 

But a significant problem with this business model is that it is anchored in the past by a physical document -the so-called body of knowledge (BOK) that has to have its contents agreed upon and sanctioned by the particular professional body. As you can imagine, the cycle for changing the contents of this BOK document is long and unwieldy. It is therefore within the interest of the project management industry not to change it. And that is how you stifle the knowledge base of the project management profession and lock it in a mode that is constantly trailing a decade or two behind where it needs to be. 


The unseen consequences of failing projects: they don’t fall 30,000 feet, but there are casualties


If you flew on an aeroplane a 100 years ago and something small went wrong, there was a good chance you’d crash, and a good chance you’d die. Today, the commercial aviation industry is the Gold standard for safety and accident prevention. Even medical surgery is learning from them. Aviation has achieved this fantastic transition because the consequences of its failures are self-evident. No one would step in an aeroplane unless the aviation business could demonstrate that it learnt from its failures. But that is tragically not the same for project-based organisations. When projects fail, and they do so every day, hundreds of people do not die. But there are casualties. Jobs are lost, some careers are ruined, companies slowly collapse, mortgages are unpaid and stress in the workforce rises, with consequences for health, well-being and families. There are casualties when projects fail. But because the casualties and consequences are not so publicly visible, we somehow don’t feel compelled enough to figure out why and to stop repeating the behaviour that leads them to fail and to manage the knowledge our organisations gain through project work. And so, returning to the courageous conversation question, knowledge management in project environments receives little more than a passing interest. 

But we could do better than this. We could employ the concepts of aviation safety in our project based organisations. In the same way that every aeroplane that leaves the runway is an opportunity for the aviation business to learn how to fly planes better tomorrow; every project can be an opportunity for the project-based organisation to run better projects tomorrow. Here’s a video presentation on how to do this. 




The model presented is simply a conceptual model to demonstrate how knowledge about doing something is distributed across various features of our organisations. It is a network approach. And if you watched the first courageous conversation video at the top of the page, you will see that this model is a practical application of the ideas presented there.

And so to some courageous concluding remarks on this matter: The business model of the project management professional bodies and institutes is not serving the project management profession well. It is simply serving itself. I have a feeling professional bodies know what to do, but somehow lack the courage, or the knowledge, or the mechanisms to do it. This morning I read on the APM Blog a posting called “listening to the profession” and there are tones of what needs to be done in there. The concept of where the BOK is needs to be challenged. The BOK is not a book, or a PDF, or an electronic web based form of a book like Wikipedia which is updated by a professional body. The body of knowledge on how to successfully and unsuccessfully deliver projects across all domains and disciplines is distributed across the community of project management practitioners in those domains and disciplines. All you need is a mechanism for asking them and tapping into that knowledge. 

If you are facing a challenge in your project, would you rather refer to a book of generic principles, or would you rather ask somebody who has experience in dealing what you are struggling with. All you need as a project management practitioner is a platform for asking this community, and the platform will help you find the right person to ask. This network platform should be, in my opinion, the business of the project management professional bodies. The true project management body of knowledge is a living dynamic thing, and these professional bodies should be connecting it up and making it work. It is, in a way, already doing this via its branch and chapter meetings but these physical networking devices should be brought to the front and centre of the business model. This is the sort of major courageous change the project management professional bodies and institutes need to embark on in order to shift the profession’s practice of knowledge management into a new and higher level of thinking.