Knowledge Management in mega-projects

KM in mega-projects is much the same as KM in any project, but at a larger scale and a greater degree of rigour

image from wikipedia

Knowledge Management as applied to projects is a pretty well-understood field (see for example my book on Knowledge Management for Teams and Projects). It consists of a rigorous structure of Learning Before, During and After, and drawing on the knowledge of others in the organisation in order to anticipate, avoid, and (if necessary) solve problems.

So what’s the difference between KM in projects, and KM in mega-projects? ┬áThe answer is, Nothing much! Other than the scale, the principles and practices are identical.

The advice below is for the megaproject leadership team.

Setting up the KM framework. The KM system for a mega projects needs to be more robust, and better resourced, than for a normal project. You will need:

  • a KM policy for the megaproject
  • a good and robust KM plan, including a definition of all the unknowns, and how to make them known
  • a dedicated knowledge manager (potentially full time)
  • a lesson management system for the ┬ámegaproject
  • a wiki, and blogs, for building knowledge as the project continues
  • a set of KM processes, as described below.

Learning Before. Because the costs, risks and unknowns are far greater in mega-projects, “Learning Before” is especially important. This includes learning from the project management structures of successful mega-projects (according to the book “Mega-projects and Risk”, a lot depends on how the incentives are assigned and how the risks are allocated, for example), and learning from the typical reasons for cost and schedule over-run of megaprojects. One of the biggest causes of overrun is project wishful thinking – ignoring the unknown unknowns. These are things like

  • discovering the soil conditions are far worse than expected
  • finding unknown archaeological sites (Such as the unexpected discovery of 150-year-old revolutionary-era sites and Native American artefacts on the Boston “Big Dig”)
  • changes in government, leading to the need to renegotiate
  • changes in commodity price
You can’t know in advance what these are likely to be, but you can add in contingency, you can make a probabilistic risk, cost and duration estimate with some of these unknown unknowns included, and you can gather enough to knowledge to understand the major categories of risk, and have contingencies to deal with them. Knowledge management and risk management are closely allied in projects. Any megaproject should dedicate as much time as possible to Learning Before – forewarned is fore-armed.
Learning During. Mega projects are incredibly complex, and if mega-projects are to be able to learn, they need a comprehensive and integrated system for “learning During”. Learning events such as After Action Reviews need to be a requirement for all contractors, there need to be Lessons Learned Integrators in all teams and in all contractors, each contractor needs a lessons log, with cross-team lessons escalated to a lessons management system, there needs to be a learning team at project leadership level, and part of their role needs to be to pick up the weak signals and the first inklings that problems need to be fixed. This is a military learning model, and many mega-projects are military in scale. Learning During is not something a mega project can afford to ignore – rapid learning can save you millions – and the megaproject should develop and implement its own internal knowledge management framework, complete with governance.

Learning After. The megaproject needs to hold Retrospects after every major milestone, and the learning needs to be not just about engineering, but about the way the whole project is integrated, the reason for any delays and overruns, and also the softer aspects such as culture, behaviours and communication. It may be politically difficult for megaprojects to produce open, honest and public lessons after the completion of the project, given the implications of liquidated damages, and given the typical ties between megaprojects and politics. That should not stop them from trying, however, especially if the intent is to provide guidance for future megaprojects. Certainly every company involved needs to collect and document their own internal lessons for future use. The megaproject leadership team should even consider the appointment of learning historians, so that the Learning History of the project can be constructed.

Drawing on the knowledge of others. There may be online global communities of practice for megaprojects that you can draw on such as the PMI and the CII, and you can potentially convene an advisory group of past mega-project managers who can act as a sounding board and who can provide advice and experience during the course of the project.

Knowledge management, if correctly applied, can be a major factor in the success of projects, driving down costs, duration and risk.

Where megaprojects are concerned, with their complexities, unknowns, and political pressures, Knowledge Management becomes absolutely essential.

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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