The thesis “An advanced systemic lesson learned knowledge model for project organisations”

Well after seven years of research which started with a Master of Project Management (2010-12) with a research focus (thanks to USQ Project Management Business faculty) closely followed by a PhD (2012-2017) Doctor of Philosophy, I am now able to end phase one of the journey and start phase two. I look forward to working with researchers and knowledge management practitioners who want to take the Syllk model to the next phase and show how an organisation can learn how lessons from past projects experiences can be embedded in organisational artefacts, processes, practices, and culture. The thesis demonstrates that action research can benefit project management and knowledge management researchers and practitioners. The research program serves to support dialogue on the primacy of people (learning, culture and social) and systems (technology, process, and infrastructure).

To my followers, you are the first to have access to the thesis before I open it up to a wider audience. Enjoy the reading and if you have any questions, PLEASE do not hesitate in getting back to me.

Best, Stephen

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Project Management Around the world #pmFlashBlog: Project organisations require a new paradigm for organisational learning through projects

Project Management Around the world #pmFlashBlog: Project organisations require a new paradigm for organisational learning through projects.

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(Picture Source: Mike Licht, reports)

At the end of the last #PMFlashBlog I highlighted a 2011 project management PM World Today editorial post on Lessons Learned but Knowledge Lost, where  Wideman a recognized project management global expert stated:  “…in spite of all the technology that is available to us today, we have not yet found a presentation format that captures the essence of this wisdom in a way that is relevant to future usage, readily searchable and easy to store. …we have a serious cultural problem. …we are probably condemned to continue to throw away the valuable resources.”

The majority of project managers think of lessons learned as… follow a process and enter your lessons learned into a tool…am I right?  Well the focus on with this #pmFlashBlog will be on the various Project Management guides and models on lessons learned.

Not for the want of opinions, guides, and models on lessons learned

Generally speaking, there are many opinions and guides, but little practical advice regarding workable processes that effectively enable the organisation to learn from past project experiences. Over the last 14 years the PMBOK® Guide has increased its references to the term lessons learned. In the PMBOK® Guide 4th edition there is a focus on process improvement as a result of lessons learned. However, in the PMBOK® Guide 4th and 5th editions the ‘lessons learned’ process is not discussed anywhere except for a glossary description and both versions refer to a different description on what is a lesson learned. PMBOK® Guide 5th edition has an additional twenty two references (mainly due to a new knowledge area – Stakeholder Management) and still remains focussed on project closure lesson learned activities. The PMBOK® Guide 5th edition also aligns with the Knowledge Management (KM) Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom (DIKW) model. However, the DIKW model which is based on the work of Ackoff (1989) has been challenged by the KM community as “unsound and methodologically undesirable” (Frické, 2009; Rowley, 2007; Vala-Webb, 2012).

Organisations are also not to be found wanting for lessons learned models and methods. The Project Management Institute’s OPM3 Organizational Project Management Maturity Model references lessons learned. However, there is less guidance than that provided in the PMBOK® Guide. The APM Body of Knowledge 6th Edition refers to knowledge management as the governance process rather than identification of the specific process around lessons learned and highlights the importance of people skills (communities of practice, learning and development) and delivery of information management. The Office of Government Commerce PRINCE2  project methodology encourages project teams to “…learn from previous experience: lessons are sought, recorded and acted upon throughout the life of the project”. PRINCE2 has a single process (a lessons learned log) for recording lessons learned and reporting on them (lessons learned report). The last to consider would be the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) model which provides for best practice organisational process improvement where process improvement proposals and process lessons learned are said to be key work products and sub-processes. The benefits of CMMI identifies the classic approach of collecting and translating key lessons into processes.

The Syllk model research to date…may influence changes to our Project Management guides?

 syllk model

 Syllk model (

The Syllk model is developed to enable project organisations to learn from their past project experiences by capturing lesson learned from projects and distributing knowledge across an organisational network of elements such as people (individual learning, culture, social) and systems (technology, process and infrastructure).

This blog is about sharing project management lessons learned research findings. Initial research progress suggests that by reconceptualising lessons learned in terms of an adaptation of the Swiss cheese model for safety and accident prevention, the Syllk model can influence the identification, dissemination and application of project management lessons learned. Early results have established that the alignment of the people and system elements has the potential to positively influence the success of an organisation’s lessons learned processes and that the people element and culture factor may well be the most likely to negatively influence lessons learned in organisations.

Furthermore, the initial research progress has also established that several elements of the model need to align to ensure organisational lessons are learned by means of projects. Finally, the research findings will contribute to the project and knowledge management literature and provide an opportunity to improve project knowledge sharing, and ensure projects achieve success for organisations to maintain a competitive advantage.

Understanding the impact of culture and just culture was identified as a key factor in the research and this was supported by the strong parallels found with health care, nuclear power, rail and aviation organisations. By applying the Syllk model to an organisation and identifying the lessons learned and knowledge management facilitators and barriers one can better understand the organisational systems required to support an environment that captures, disseminates and applies lessons learned.

 Until next time…Thanks for reading, Stephen

 About “#PMFlashBlog – Project Management Around the World”: This post is part of the second round of the #PMFlashBlog where over 50 project management bloggers will release a post about their view of project management in their part of the world. 



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Lessons Learned from a Nuclear Accident (A new addition to the lessons learned available to the general public)

Lessons Learned from a Nuclear Accident (A new addition to the lessons learned available to the general public)

As most of you know, I am always on the look out for public domain lessons learned. While researching for a new journal paper I came across the
Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). The INPO was created as a result of the Three Mile Island event. The INPO help to identify precursors, disseminate lessons learned and best practices, and generally ensure that every plant operates with the best knowledge available (and also to forestall further regulation). The World Association of Nuclear Operators performs these tasks globally. Although knowledge development and dissemination have been successful overall, problems continue in this industry, which is under continuous scrutiny by regulators and a wary public (Carroll 2004).

Nuclear Energy Institute
INPO Updates Report on Lessons Learned From Fukushima Daiichi Accident
Lessons Learned from the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

The lessons learned make an interesting read…..

Looks like to me the SLLCK Model could help?

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Lessons Learned 2.0 – When and how to capture lessons learned

All, another good post on the apm site. Lessons Learned 2.0 – When and how to capture lessons learned. I have just made a few comments, hopefully this may encourage some more feedback 🙂

Owain: When and how to capture lessons learned (often known more as Lessons Identified) >>> There are many KM methods one can use…(peer assist, scoping, action learning, after action reviews, CoPs, Project reviews, LL ?, Learning diaries, group brainstorming, knowledge cafe, knowledge jam, retrospect’s, post project reviews, knowledge histories, storytelling, case studies, reflection….the list goes on)  and the timing should be from Day 1, then weekly, fortnightly or Monthly at regular meetings…

How and when to share lessons learned >

Adoption – Issues, motivation and ways to gain adoption>>>These are the tricky ones…this is where culture, social and systems block the process.

patw: >>> Your on the mark with a KM solution… Not quite sure on the KM system front?… however my research to date in the KM space would say KM is broken in many aspects as much as Lessons Learned is broken. On the term ‘lessons Learned’ (I really don’t like this label – can we call it something else?) I do believe we should be looking at replacing the ‘Lessons Learned’ terms in PMBOK and PRINCE 2 etc with KM terms, as there are many other KM methods/ways we can share our learning’s.

james: >>> The behavioral issue you mention is very much from my perspective the social/culture factors that block the process.  I too have had an interesting background with best (good) practice, I have seen the best and worst of this approach…in summary many PMs do not want to follow others best practice? . why? We just like repeating the mistakes of others? More on this topic in the months to come on

Regards, Stephen



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Lessons learned debate turns to competitive advantage. Have your say… (from a Linkedin post) Part 1

Lessons learned debate has provided an interesting set of views, all focused in the right direction.

My latest comments are:  …Agree with Andrew, great to see the thread alive and thanks to Chris, Judfor their feedback. Chris, I am all for innovation, just that we need to be careful with the change process approach in learning lessons, as I have seen a couple of times that the leaning of a process may come back and bite you in the future, if you’re not careful. (A lesson learned for me). Judy, culture looks to be the key cause of failure in the lessons learned process, which is why I am looking for alignment to other culture experiences that may be able to add value to the project management lessons learned process. The just culture work of Sidney Dekker may also be of interest. On the question ‘lessons Learned’ (I really don’t like this label – can we call it something else? ) sends me down the path to why in am researching about lessons learned. For some reason, Project Management methodologies and PM knowledge books seem to only use the term ‘lessons learned’? Perhaps the Project Management community needs to shift the focus to more knowledge management, which will open up the language we use?  I like the work of Milton and Krammer in the KM space for projects. On the PMO front, having managed a functional PMO with 130 project managers, the trouble I see is you can lead a PM to best practice (…that has incorporated lessons learned) but you cannot make them follow it…hmm culture…people?  We as a PM community need to learn lessons and not repeat mistakes of the past.

Thanks for sharing, Stephen

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Can a Just Culture be applied to the project management lessons learned process?

Reason (1997, p. 195) defines a just culture as‘…an atmosphere of trust in which people are encouraged, even rewarded, for providing essential safety-related information – but in which they are also clear about where the line must be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.’ The other important elements of a safety culture are to have a strong reporting, flexible and learning culture (Reason 1997). Reason (1997) further states that the learning culture is the easiest to engineer however is the most difficult to make work. Pettersson and Nyce (2011) state that just culture is where individuals in an organisation want to be open about failures and mistakes. Lucier (2003) argues that if you can encourage team members to document their mistakes with no fear of further action, you will be able to establish a useful knowledge system.

The ‘Swiss Cheese’ model of defences. Source: Reason (1997)

Reason (1997, 2000) also reports on implementing defences in depth (swiss cheese model) where one identifies that projects have errors (holes) in them and one construct layers of defences to catch them. The Global Aviation Information Network describes a just culture within the aviation industry as a system that has accessible memory and underpins a learning culture (Stastny & Garin 2004). Stastny and Garin discuss the benefits and obstacles in implementing a just culture and there appears to be a lot of similarities with project management lessons learned process.

What are your thoughts on how ‘just culture’ can be applied to the project management lessons learned process?


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PMLLblog summary of Lessons Learned Culture

Culture plays a significant part in knowledge management, organisational learning and in the effectiveness of learning mechanisms (Duhon & Elias 2008) and is central to the change management process (Firestone & McElroy 2003; Maqsood 2006). Dvir and Shenhar (2011, p. 20) state that ‘Great projects create a revolutionary project culture. The execution of great projects often requires a different project culture, which can spread to an entire organization.’ Williams (2007, 2008), Hislop (2005) and Maqsood (2006) all suggest that it is critical to understand the culture of an organisation before implementing or using a knowledge lessons learned method as surveys consistently reveal that the main obstacles to success are organisational people (social and culture) factors (Ajmal, Helo & Kekäle 2010; Ajmal, Kekäle & Takala 2009; Ajmal & Koskinen 2008).

Hislop (2005) reports on what motivates employees to share their knowledge and expertise. Firestone and McElroy (2003) state that it is important to understand the following types of culture barriers: topical, historical, behavioural (socialisation), normative, functional, mental, structural and symbolic. Ajmal and Koskinen (2008) define project culture as a harmony between organisational and professional culture. They also identify four core cultures of control, competence, collaboration and cultivation. O’Dell et al. (2000) and Duhon and Elias (2008) discuss the impediments to sharing knowledge; don’t have time; not invented here; divisional stove pipe; geographical scatter; people afraid that sharing will make them less valuable; unwillingness to share; poor leadership and legal constraints.

What are your thoughts on the culture around Lessons Learned?

Have I missed something?


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PMLLblog summary of Learning and Organisational Learning

This post will focus on the learning component of the lessons learned process. Maqsood (2006), Maqsood et al. (2004) and Duhon and Elias (2008) all highlight the need to understand cognitive psychology when examining the effectiveness of tacit knowledge in the learning process. Maqsood discusses how the human information processing occurs and the need to understand: ‘perception and recognition’; cognitive styles (Van Gigch 1991); heuristics and biases in judgement (Baron 1998; Best 1989); functional fixedness and mental set (Baron 1998); and mental models (Best 1989; Johnson-Laird 1983a). Maqsood further reports that every person has a distinctive learning technique and learning depends on an individual’s capability to effectively acquire and use in a timely manner. Maqsood et al. suggests that when capturing tacit knowledge it is important to ensure that it is not under any bias and is understood in the right context, as incomplete knowledge should be avoided.

Duhon and Elias (2008, p. 1) describe learning as ‘…any increase in knowledge or skills that enables the learner to be more effective’ in achieving their objectives. When faced with a problem, an individual should: collect and evaluate data, assess the situation; develop objectives and identify alternatives; evaluate alternatives, select the most appropriate; and then take action to implement. Learning will be impaired if there is a failure at any of these steps. Duhon and Elias developed a decision process model to understand the learning limits and describe how the fields of psychology, decision theory and sociology are important in understanding why learning is difficult. Duhon and Elias describe the influence of: heuristics and biases (psychology); sense making; team psychology and sociology; naturalistic decision making;

Source: Duhon and Elias (2008), (Argyris 1999)

and action science (theory of action) based on Argyris (1999) model I and II. Duhon and Elias summarises that learning on projects is difficult considering that most projects are complex undertakings (Von Zedtwitz 2002). Duhon and Elias note that project team members develop different views as to the learning’s and when they commence the next project their memories will fade.

Project teams often know they are in trouble however they take no or limited action to correct mistakes, as admitting faults may cause embarrassment (model I) (Von Zedtwitz 2002). Typically project reviews often don’t have an impact as the team becomes defensive and argues against problems rather than implement recommendations (Duhon & Elias 2008; Von Zedtwitz 2002). Duhon and Elias report that the same face-saving, defensive post-mortem attitude weakens the lessons learned process and hides the real problems of the project. When a problem is recognised they are biased to learning the least-threatening lessons (model I, single loop learning). Duhon and Elias (2008, p. 5) state ‘The more important a lesson is, the more difficult it is to learn’. They re-iterate that most of what we learn is unactionable and that many project problems are caused by model I behaviour (Duhon & Elias 2008; Von Zedtwitz 2002). Model II behaviour is seen as difficult to achieve as project team members are typically not open and trusting in difficult situations. Industry as a whole should be learning from others mistakes, however this is countered by in-group favouritism (Duhon & Elias 2008). If we view others as substandard to us, we then don’t believe we can learn from them. Another issue is that it is often hard to get relevant information on what went wrong. Duhon and Elias conclude that the current project management culture environment highlights that there is a need to examine if the aviation safety practice of just culture would have a positive impact on project teams learning.

Reflection learning has also been recognised as playing a key part in project learning (Julian 2008; Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995; Raelin 2001; Smith 2001; Williams 2007, 2008) and can also be viewed as double loop leaning (Argyris 1994). Senge (1990) presents the need for reflection reviews and states that unless those lessons change working practices no organisational learning has taken place (Atkinson, Crawford & Ward 2006).

The review of learning literature re-enforces that people factors influence the success of the lessons learned process and that a learning organisation culture is critical to successful dissemination of lessons learned (Fernie et al. 2003; Sense 2007). The shift from the individual to the organisation is not straightforward. The work of Senge (1990) motivated companies to become learning organisations. The other particularly influential author was Nonaka (1991, 2007) and Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995). Nonaka (1991) described how Japanese companies working in innovation created knowledge-creating companies. Simon (1991, p. 125) states that: ‘All learning takes places inside individual human heads; an organization learns in only two ways: (a) by the learning of its members, or (b) by ingesting new members who have knowledge the organization didn’t previously have. …What an individual learns in an organization is very much dependent on what is already known to (or believed by) other members of the organization and what kinds of information are present in the organizational environment. …Individual learning in organizations is very much a social, not a solitary, phenomenon.’ Simon further reports that cognitive psychology concepts used for human learning can and should be applied to organisational learning research.

Strang (2003) discusses the difficulties and provides a valuable insight into organisational learning theory. Strang recommends further research around organisational psychology factors that may explain why organisational learning methods are not applied even though the belief is that these practices would improve organisational project performance but rarely applied in practice.

Garvin (1993) discusses five main activities to becoming a learning organisation: 1) Systematic problem solving (based on quality plan, do, check, act cycle.); 2) Experimentation (use of demonstration projects.); 3) Learning from what went before (companies need to review both failures and success and document the lessons learned, unfortunately most fail to learn and allow knowledge to leave. Garvin sights the Boeing example of learning from the difficulties of different production lines.); 4) Learning from others (benchmarking and applying best practice), 5) Transferring knowledge (knowledge needs to spread rapidly and efficiently).

There are two themes that constantly surface from the literature as important; people culture and organisational structure. Duhon and Elias (2008) argue that an organisation knows something if just one person knows it and that the organisation culture and structure enables that knowledge event to be used effectively on an organisational issue. Duhon and Elias (2008, p. 5) define organisational learning ‘…as an increase in the knowledge or skills of individual members of the organization or a change in the structure, processes, or culture of the organization that enables the organization to be more effective at planning and implementing actions that achieve the organization’s objectives.’ They reference actions such as; individual learning; storage of knowledge that makes it available to others – checklists and work processes; organisational changes that re-focuses knowledge; culture changes to open and act on problems; and relationship building that enables skills and knowledge to deal with organisational problems.

Duhon and Elias (2008) state that people learn by processing information using the human central nervous system. An organisation does not have a central nervous system, so they need to create a structure to enable their personnel to learn (collect and analyse, transfer/disseminate and apply) as a group. Duhon and Elias find that individual learning is a cognitive (psychological) process and for an organisation the learning process is social. Duhon and Elias suggest that organisations collect and disseminate knowledge using organisational learning mechanisms (OLM)s (Lipshitz, Popper & Friedman 2007). Examples of OLMs are: lessons learned studies; after action reviews, communities of practice; work processes; procedures; standards; mentoring; team-building exercises; classroom training.

Individual learning is held back by many people factors and these same factors can affect organisational learning and in some cases there are significant increase effects. Culture continues to have a significant impact in organisational learning and usefulness of learning mechanisms (Duhon & Elias 2008).

What are your thoughts on Learning and Organisational Learning?

Have I missed something?

The next post will focus on Lessons Learned Practices.


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PMLLblog summary of Knowledge

‘What is knowledge?’ represents a question that humankind has grappled with for centuries at least back to Plato and Aristotle (Hislop 2005; O’Dell, Grayson & Essaides 1998). The current day knowledge exploration is attributed to Drucker (1993) (knowledge as management resource and power), Wiig (1997) (knowledge as a form of belief), Polanyi (1958, 2009) (distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge) and Davenport and Prusak (2000, p. 5):  Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates in and is applied in the minds of knowers. In organizations, it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes, practices, and norms.’

The Australian Knowledge Management Standard, Standards Australia (2005, p. 2) defines knowledge as ‘A body of understanding and skills that is constructed by people and increased through interaction with other people and with information’.

Polanyi’s work formed the foundation for the highly respected KM theory authors Nonaka and Takeuchi (Nonaka 2007; Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995). Tacit knowledge is subjective, environment-specific and personal. Tacit knowledge is difficult to communicate whereas explicit or codified knowledge is objective, easily communicated and transferred without in depth experience (Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995). Polanyi (2009, p. 4) stated ‘…we can know more than we can tell’ and contends that human beings create knowledge by involving themselves with objects through a process Polanyi calls ‘indwelling’. Nonaka and Takeuchi propose that tacit knowledge consists of cognitive and technical elements. The cognitive element is based on Johnson-Laird (1983) ‘mental models’ (schemata, paradigms, perspectives, beliefs and viewpoints) where humans create working models of the world in their minds. The technical element is the existing know how and skills. The cognitive elements are important as they form the mobilisation process in creating new knowledge. An understanding of people elements in the lessons learned knowledge process requires further work as Duhon and Elias (2008) reports that failure of learning valuable lessons from projects can be connected to a number of cultural, social and cognitive factors (Bresnen et al. 2003; Fernie et al. 2003; Holste & Fields 2010).

What are your thoughts on Knowledge? Have I missed something?

The next post will focus on Knowledge Management.


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PM Lessons Learned Study

To the PM and KM world, I am currently close to completing (June 2012) my Masters Project Management (research). I have a strong interest in PM Lessons Learned. Over the last 12 months I have enjoyed learning about the KM World.

My final project/thesis will be ‘Exploring factors that impact knowledge management dissemination of project management lessons learned’.

The focus of this study will be to understand why the majority of projects do not disseminate lessons learned to organisations. Knowledge and project management literature suggests that the lessons learned process in practice rarely happens and does not work well and fails to deliver the intended results. The study will address the significant factors that impact the dissemination of project management lessons between the project team and the organisation. The literature review will focus on the areas of: knowledge; knowledge management; knowledge conversion; learning; organisational learning; lessons learned practices; and culture. So far, the literature review suggests there is limited research on how knowledge management, learning and culture impacts project management and project temporary organisations.

A review of the literature highlights project management literature gaps around people, learning, technology and process. The people factor is the most likely to negatively influence the dissemination of lessons learned in organisations. A conceptual lessons learned model has been derived and based on a swiss cheese model where the variables people, learning, technology and process need to align and be effective to disseminate lessons learned.

By undertaking this study it is expected that a better understanding of the significant project technology, learning, process and people factors will be established. This will assist in the dissemination of the Project Management lessons learned practice being improved. The findings will also contribute to the project management literature and provide an opportunity to improve project knowledge sharing ensuring projects achieve success.

I would be interested to know some of your thoughts on the Project Management world around ‘lessons learned’?


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