A few years ago I found myself assigned to a new department within an organization. Upon arrival, I hardly had time to find my desk before I was being pulled in multiple directions for meetings about the various projects for which we were responsible. By the time I was able to get my bearings, I had far more questions than answers. But there was one question that bugged me more than the rest.

One of the projects we were working on was somewhat regular, as it was recurring once every several years. (Before the PMBoK aficionados come out of the wood work… okay, I get it, it’s recurring, that means it’s not really a project!) You would think for something so regular, we would have organizational experience that would limit our risk exposure and cut our learning curve. However, the vast amount of exploratory work I was assigned would disagree with that assertion. I began asking where the project documents were from the previous project team, and I’m sure you can imagine my shock when I was told that no such documentation existed.

Just to be clear, this is not something that happened once, fifty years ago. The last project had occurred in 2012, and this story is about a job I had in 2015 when I was trying to put together a plan. If it were a small project, it may be easily understood that records would not be kept – but this was a multi-million dollar project with thousands of people involved and years of planning. What the heck happened to record keeping?

What followed what one of the most intense efforts of reinventing the wheel that I have ever been a part of, equal parts embarrassment and frustration as people that were involved in the last iteration expected that we should somehow know what to do on this one. I can vividly remember looking around a conference room and realizing that I had identified the failure. There was too much dependence on the human factor within our processes. These people would silo information as a source of power.

Knowledge management is how an organization grows. It can only become more effective and more efficient through the appropriate application of knowledge management. I’m sure everyone has heard the cliche about how insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting a different result. Well, that’s what an organization does when it neglects the management of its knowledge. You relearn the same lessons on every project, in the same painful manner.

The projects will eventually get done through the application of single loop learning, but the lessons learned are then lost to organizational amnesia. Double-loop learning is only possible through effective knowledge management. The organization has no ability to change for the better if it does not understand what it needs to improve. When people silo information, they are acting in a manner contrary to the best interest of the organization and should be removed, a move that I rarely advocate.

Management by Exception is where management is only made aware of dire issues that truly demand attention. Basically, it is the belief that ‘no news is good news’. Knowledge Management by Exception is where the organization has a selective memory. Perhaps you only choose to retain the positive lessons while downplaying the shortfalls, or perhaps the organization only remembers the reason why the last project failed.

Proper knowledge management requires documenting and remembering everything that the organization does.

Karl Cheney
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