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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A good PM Lessons Learned article by Stephen Jenner (APM Oct 2011)

I recently read ‘Still failing for the same boringly repetitive reasons?‘ by Stephen Jenner in the APM voice of project management (October 2011).  Again it struck a cord with the research work I am doing on PM lessons learned.  I met Stephen during a tour in Australia in 2010., and he shared with me his thoughts on benefits and lessons learned. The Gateway reports have been a valuable source of reading research material. The following quotes from the APM article really say it all with the problem we have in not learning from our lessons.

‘…knowing-doing gap, many areas of management that good practice is known, but is rarely applied’   ‘The solution isn’t acquiring more knowledge – its learning and applying what already exists…’

Stephen goes on to talk about a major cause is ‘the difficulty of identifying lessons to learn’.  My research to date would say that we do okay with identifying, however we don’t do well in disseminating / applying our lessons learned, so this is an interesting point he makes. Stephen does talk about ‘ineffective management practices’ in that 80% of UK government departments don’t use Gateway 5 (Benefits Evaluation) and that there is widespread failure in post-implementation reviews. These stats align closely with the Australian experiences to date. The final cause Stephen talks about is the ‘Individual psychology’, where he describes that we suffer from a number of cognitive biases (the strongest is over-confidence). My research to date very much covers the social and cultural cognitive behaviours, so it is good to confirm with Stephens notes.

In closing Stephen describes a ‘solution for ‘A strategy for learning
Action1. Accept that learning doesn’t happend by accident
Action 2. Expect learning and monitor it
Action 3. Seek disconfirming evidence
Action 4. Robust post-implementation review
Action 5. Don’t wait for the post implementation review’

Always great to read articles aligned with ones research topic.

Cheers, Stephen D



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PM Lessons Learned is broken

A recent report from the Victorian Ombudsman (Brouwer 2011), finds that despite all the research, previous Ombudsman and Auditor-General reports, ‘…there are few signs that any lessons have been learnt in the public sector. A new and more disciplined approach is required if the government is to avoid being faced with continuing cost overruns and failures to deliver.’ The report highlights the difficulties and inconsistencies in ICT procurement with the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office stating ‘…Government agencies tend to operate independently and there is difficulty in capturing and implementing learnings from ICT projects.’ What we see here is not un-common across the public and private sectors; it is just that the reporting of the public sector problems is open to the public via government reports.

Source: Mike Licht, reports.

The Project Management Institute (2008) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) guide identifies the importance in collecting and documenting lessons learned, and implementing process improvements. The PMBOK knowledge areas reference the lessons learned process. However in practice it rarely happens and does not work well (Atkinson, Crawford & Ward 2006; Keegan & Turner 2001; Kerzner 2009; Milton 2010; Schindler & Eppler. 2003; Williams 2008; Wysocki 2004, 2009).

Milton (2010) has found that 80 per cent of 74 organisations that attempt lessons learned, 60 per cent are dissatisfied. Williams (2007) found that 62.4 per cent of 522 project practitioner responses had a process for learning lessons and of those only 11.7 per cent followed the process.

The project management PM World Today recently posted an editorial on Lessons Learned but Knowledge Lost (Pells 2011). In response Wideman (2011, p.1) a recognised 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.’ This open discussion again highlights the significance of project management, knowledge management and the lessons learned process and the impact that technology, learning, process and people factors have on the problem.

So is the PM Lessons Learned process broken?

For another understanding of what is broken, you may enjoy the Seth Godin talk on ‘This is broken’

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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 Lessons Learned Models

O’Dell and Hubert (2011, p.69) stated that the lessons learned approach typically focuses on a few key questions:
    ‘What was supposed to happen?
    What actually happened?
    Why was there a difference or variation?
    Who else needs to know this information?’
The major challenge is to then get employees to participate and reuse the captured knowledge (Milton 2010; O’Dell, Grayson & Essaides 1998; O’Dell & Hubert 2011).

Literature on the lessons learned process model provides many variations on essentially three process steps (Williams 2007). The three components for an effective lessons learned process model are; creating, dissemination/transferring and application. Creating/identifying the knowledge consists of observing, collecting, and understanding the facts and information. A key element of this phase is to document the findings and provide sufficient information regarding the situation, action taken, results observed and recommendations. The next phase provides for the dissemination of information through codification, verification, storage, sharing for easy access and transferring knowledge to organisational members, improvements to standard processes and procedures to reflect changes in identified best practices. The final element is where we adapt and use knowledge (Bresnen et al. 2003; Bresnen, Goussevskaia & Swan 2004; Cowles 2004; Liebowitz & Megbolugbe 2003; O’Dell & Grayson 1997; Schindler & Eppler. 2003; Williams 2008).

Literature on knowledge identification and creation mention several ways project temporary organisations or individuals reflect on their experiences. Common techniques are: lessons learned sessions; after action reviews; project debriefings; close out meetings; post project appraisals/reviews; case study exercises; project reviews; project histories; project health checks; and project audits (Anbari, Carayannis & Voetsch 2008; Bakker et al. 2010; Busby 1999; Koners 2005; Maqsood, Walker & Finegan 2004; Reich, Gemino & Sauer 2008; Schindler & Eppler. 2003; Von Zedtwitz 2002; Williams 2007). Each method has many different features and characteristics however they all essentially capture-disseminate-apply knowledge.

Literature on knowledge disseminating and transfer often refers to codification, verification, storing, searching, retrieving, knowledge sharing and training (Boh, Wai Fong 2007; Cowles 2004; Firestone & McElroy 2003; O’Dell, Grayson & Essaides 1998; O’Dell & Hubert 2011; Schindler & Eppler. 2003; Williams 2007). Schindler and Eppler (2003) reports that if projects do not frequently disseminate their experiences, the project knowledge could be forgotten by the end of the project. The literature provides many technology ways of storing and recording the knowledge, the key is to identify what works for an organisation and constantly monitor, update and keep it current and relevant (Williams 2007, 2008). Technology is a critical element to knowledge dissemination. Quite often technology is blamed for failure in knowledge dissemination (Williams 2007). Most organisations maintain their lessons learned in house for competitive advantage, although some organisations make their lessons learned available to the public (Basili et al. 2002; Li 2001, 2002; Madden 1996; NASA 2011).

A number of methods are used during this phase to disseminate knowledge. Two methods of interest in literature are 1) process methods and 2) social based methods. Process based methodologies are those lessons learned where the knowledge is reflected in an organisations policies, processes and procedures. If projects follow the process then the chance of mistakes being repeated should be minimised (Keegan & Turner 2001; Midha 2005; O’Dell & Grayson 1997; O’Dell, Grayson & Essaides 1998; Schindler & Eppler. 2003; Williams 2007). Social based methodologies are those lessons learned that are not easy to break up and transfer knowledge from one person to another (Bresnen et al. 2003; Fernie et al. 2003). Fernie et al. (2003) argue that knowledge sharing is best performed through the communication of individuals. Two social-based processes are networking and mentoring (Bresnen et al. 2003; Huang & Newell 2003). A critical component of success for social methods is to ensure that an organisation’s culture and environment provide the support (Hoegl, Parboteeah & Munson. 2003).

Knowledge dissemination is an important step in the process, and the work of Dixon (2000) helps to understand different strategies when dealing with the transfer of tacit or explicit knowledge. Dixon identifies five types of knowledge dissemination strategies: Serial Transfer, Near Transfer, Far Transfer, Strategic Transfer and Expert Transfer (Dixon 2000; O’Dell et al. 2004).

Literature reviews on knowledge application and use often states that a significant effort, commitment, understanding of people behaviour is required for both the organisation and individuals, as this is the area where the process typically breaks down and fails (Duhon & Elias 2008; Keegan & Turner 2001; Williams 2007, 2008).

What are your thoughts on Lessons Learned models?

Have I missed something?

The next post will focus on culture around Lessons Learned.


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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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