Knowledge and Learning in Project-Based Organizations

John Bork
ENC 6292, Summer 2009
Research Report


This research report considers a very focused topic in contemporary project management literature, the role of knowledge and learning in project-based organizations. As Ajmal and Koskinen observe,

many “non-project businesses” are now adopting a “project-style” approach to their conduct of a variety of operational activities, and the influence of such “project-based” actions on the whole organizational performance is of increasing importance in a range of industry sectors. However, as Love (2005) has noted, knowledge management within projects is often suboptimal within these organizations because knowledge is created in one project, and then subsequently misplaced. (7)

The impetus for this study is therefore two-fold: project management techniques continue to expand into more areas of business and institutional operations, whereas the management and transfer of knowledge within these organizations under this new model is not well understood by project managers and other leaders. Three aspects of this phenomenon will be examined from three different perspectives, via three different research papers all published within the last decade: the role of culture in knowledge transfer, the division of knowledge between specialist and integrative skills, and the modeling of the knowledge function over time in IT projects. Some concluding comments will then be made concerning the future possibilities of this area of research in the context of Clay Spinuzzi's concept net work, which attempts to bring together the diverse goals of actors in information organizations.

Organizational Culture

In their 2008 article “Knowledge Transfer in Project-Based Organizations: An Organizational Culture Perspective,” authors Mian M. Ajmal and Kaj U. Koskinen address the question of how organizational culture affects the process of knowledge transfer in project-based organizations. They view knowledge as either explicit, that which is “documented, public, structured, externalized, and conscious,” or tacit, that which “is active in the mind, but not consciously accessed at the moment of knowing” (8). Tacit knowledge grounds and sets the stage for the development of explicit knowledge within a project team. Indeed, one characteristic of project-based organizations that complicates the growth of explicit knowledge is the need to continually relearn, within the local group, what resides in organizational memory. Knowledge flows in three ways: as solution, experience, and social creation. Knowledge is transferred as project participants solve problems and forward the goals of the project via these practical solutions. As experience knowledge flows across time from one project to the next as lessons learned. Social knowledge pertains to the cultivation of interpersonal relationships among team members and other employees, as well as developing an understanding of the overall organizational culture. The authors point out that in all three cases, “project information is infrequently captured, retained, or indexed so that people external to the project can regain and apply it to future tasks” (9).

What is significant about their study is that they theorize that these deficiencies are not merely due to the lack of technological solutions for knowledge management, or even adequate budgets, but rather point to inadequacies in organizational culture, which they liken to an individual's personality: “culture is to the organization what personality is to the individual - themes that provide meaning, direction, and mobilization” (11). They describe a type of active, participative learning as “double-loop” or “generative” that is characterized by the same kinds of conditions often deemed necessary for psychological growth of individuals: “An organizational culture that is based on a commitment to truth and inquiry empowers individuals to: (i) reflect on their actions, (ii) consider how these actions can contribute to problems, (iii) recognize the necessity for change, and (iv) perceive their own roles in the change process” (11). Thus barriers that condition employees to avoid open analysis of failures and mistakes, insufficient motivation to document lessons learned, and lack of leadership championing the importance of knowledge management may lie within organizational culture itself rather than the idiosyncrasies of particular individuals. They claim that organizational cultures fall within a continuum of four core styles: control, competence, collaboration, and cultivation. Each valorizes a particular core trait. The control core culture favors safety, predictability, quality, dependability, and formal procedures for accomplishing its objectives; the competence core culture is concerned with achievement, uniqueness, and gaining recognition; the collaboration core culture values affiliations and synergies, and is often people-driven, organic, and informally managed; and finally, the cultivation culture values meaningfulness, self-actualization, potential, ideals, and inspiration.

An important insight is that different professions (engineers, project managers, account managers, and so on) may have their own core cultures, and these may clash with each other within a project or the prevailing culture of the project team. To foster knowledge transfer and cooperation within a project-based organization, careful attention must be given to the awareness of these internal cultural variations, with the goal, the authors suggest, of “a synthesis of cultures, rather than an attempt to unify the various professional cultures; it thus requires appropriate modes of cooperation and communication for the project at hand” (12). Ajmal and Koskinen conclude their study with a number of questions that should be asked that pay heed to this desired synthesis, and they emphasize the need for project managers to “assess and identify the organization's core culture, and align the project with it” (13).

Islands of Shared Knowledge

Where the Ajmal and Koskinen look to the role of organizational culture in knowledge transfer and learning, Steven Postrel has produced a complex mathematical instrument for determining the correct balance of different types of knowledge to be sought by project managers in order to execute projects successfully. Its inspiration is the long history of inexplicable snafus that occur when crucial understanding is missed within a project team, such as the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter debacle. His 2002 article “Islands of Shared Knowledge: Specialization and Mutual Understanding in Problem-Solving Teams” seeks to explore the paradox at the core of most modern, large scale business processes in which it is recognized that “mutual ignorance across specialties is usually optimal, but there are key interactions where shared knowledge is important, and those key interactions are just the ones that attract scholarly and managerial attention” (304). He recognizes two key types of knowledge at work within projects, that of the disciplinary specialist, and that of the integrator who understands the connections across specializations. As he puts it,

If the traditional problem of the division of labor is to trade off the superior task efficiency of specialization against its inferior coordination properties, the fundamental tension in the division of knowledge is between the superior learning efficiency of specialization and its inferior integration properties. From the standpoint of this problem, the relevant classification of knowledge is between specialist capability and trans-specialist understanding. . . . In essence, this approach entails thinking about knowledge profiles in two roles: as inputs to a production process where different sorts of knowledge are used to generate output, and as assets, that is, as the outputs of an investment process which converts human learning efforts into new knowledge. (306-307)

The function of knowledge is two-fold: as an input to the production process within the project work, and also as the output of the learning process during the project work in which the participants generate new knowledge and enhance their skills. Just as Ajmal and Koskinen see the role of the project manager as discerning and leveraging the organizational culture in order to overcome the obstacles to knowledge transfer, Postel sees the role of the project manager as discerning the “optimal knowledge profiles” to be deployed in a project that balances the benefits of marshaling specialized knowledge and trans-specialist understanding against the cost of acquiring them (315). It amounts to a quantitative analysis of what he calls the design production function and the knowledge production function; “the interaction between the design production function and knowledge production function then determines the optimal amount of specialized and trans-specialist knowledge, which is the goal” (307).

Postrel's analysis of the value of specialist knowledge is similar to the analyses of manpower staffing regarding the relative costs of skilled versus unskilled labor. On the other hand, the value of trans-specialist understanding is more subtle. The latter sensitivity helps avoid designing unbuildable parts and incompatible components, and also aids in shifting problems to the specialty best equipped to handle them. He develops mathematical functions to determine the shape of the two types of knowledge with respect to a given scenario. His key theoretical supposition is that the two types of knowledge are substitutable; that is, there is are points where the functions cross each other. “Substitutability leads to the general result that the desirability of knowledge integration depends mostly upon the relative costs of acquiring the two types of knowledge” (304). Due to the high costs involved crossing specialties, versus the relatively low costs of increasing knowledge within a specialty - Postrel invokes von Hippel's notion of the “stickiness of information” - the typical project team consists of “islands of shared knowledge within a sea of ignorance.” The specialized meta-knowledge about these islands is the domain of management science. Thus, he argues, with great emphasis, “a crucial role of management is to decide (a) whether these islands are worth the cost to build and maintain, (b) if they are, how to set up work processes and task assignments which will generate them, and (c) to devise a structure of governance that will motivate the parties to cooperate(316). The take aways from his analysis include a set of tasks for project managers, which include the strategic management of shared knowledge, addressing the classic problems of work distribution within an organization in light of these insights, and the implications for governance, which touches on organizational culture and problems of agency beyond the boundaries of the project team and the organization itself.

Modeling the Knowledge Perspective

Rather than present another theoretical description of knowledge, the third article in this research study aims to model the knowledge perspective of IT projects over time, from project inception through completion. Reich, Gemino, and Sauer argue in a paper presented 2008 Project Management Institute conference that enough attention has been given over the years to the “action” perspective of projects, and more should be given to “views a project as a place in which learning and knowledge is paramount” (S4). Their knowledge-based view of IT projects focuses on ten areas of risk occurring over the course of a project in four areas: project inputs, operational processes, project outputs, and overall project governance. These are derived from evidence they found by surveying empirical studies linking different types of knowledge risk to project performance. The knowledge risks at project inception are lessons not learned and flawed team selection. In the project governance process spanning the entire project duration are the risks of volatility in the governance team and lack of role knowledge. Throughout the course of the operational project processes (using the familiar phases of plan, design, configure, and implement), there are the risks of inadequate knowledge integration, incomplete knowledge transfer, the exit of team members, lack of knowledge maps, and loss between the phases. At the conclusion of the project, the knowledge risk is failure to learn, which then feeds into the inception of subsequent projects (S6). The research question posed in this study is whether the knowledge function can be used to model project performance. The researchers report conducting a survey of 194 projects from 194 different project managers in Ohio, and analyzing the results using a partial least squares approach to find “partial support for the knowledge perspective of IT projects” after dividing the results into various subconstructs (S9). They were able to conclude that “when we looked inside the components of project management practices, we saw that expertise coordination, the knowledge component, has more influence than both administrative coordination (i.e., task and time monitoring) and process integration” (S10).

From their survey results the team created a temporal model of IT project performance that depicts the positive and negative influences of knowledge resources and structural risk at project inception upon organization support resources, project management practices, and volatility risk during project execution, which in turn influence project process performance and project product performance at the outcome (see Figure 2, S11). From these results they also developed a preliminary knowledge-based model for IT projects featuring five key constructs that appear in the temporal progression of the project. They recognize that “we have only a very simplistic understanding of the impact of time within a project on knowledge and risk. . . . This model admittedly does not consider the impact of cultural and institutional knowledge on project success and also may fail to capture the client's knowledge needs and contributions” (S10-S11), but suggest that the models and their underlying research are sufficiently robust to warrant further study.


Project management is increasingly concerned with taking systems and processes that originated in the conventional paradigm of project management and applying them to general organizational theory” (Ajmal and Koskinen, 8). An organization's culture has been likened to its “psychological climate,” analogous to personality on the individual level (Ajmal and Koskinen, 12). Postrel's design production and knowledge production functions, along with management sensitivity to their substitutability, add an additional layer to this collective psychoanalysis. The review of existing empirical studies, and the survey conducted by Reich, Gemino, and Sauer introduce a temporal domain to the modeling of knowledge and learning in project-based organizations. Together, these examples of current research in project management point to the growing importance of the awareness of the symmetries between human learning and cultural dispositions, and those that may be evident in collective environments. Clay Spinuzzi, in his 2008 book Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications, argues that “lifelong employment is replaced by what Zuboff and Maxmin call 'lifelong learning.' . . . Workers are having to focus far more on boundary spanning or coordination among very different activities” (173-174). And further, in agreement with Ajmal and Koskinen's division between explicit and tacit knowledge in organizations, he claims that

vertical expertise was supported by a mix of formal techniques and informal techniques . . . but their horizontal expertise - the cross-boundary coordinative work that is so common and vital in net work - was supported almost wholly by informal, contingent ways of learning: workers learned through apprenticeships, stories, and trial-and-error how to perform the boundary spanning that they had to do each day across multiple activity contexts. . . . The developmental paths or learning trajectories were less like spirals and more like eddies. (189)

It is in this context that awareness of and interest in knowledge and learning in project-based organizations by project managers is crucial in today's corporate and institutional environments, both for the sake of the organization and the individuals involved.

Important to remember that lifelong learning is connected to studying how networking machines, understood as machine and human hybrids keyboard, monitor interfaces running software, learn and exercise knowledge skills in their workplaces.


Ajmal, Mian M. and Koskinen, Kaj U. “Knowledge Transfer in Project-Based Organizations: An Organizational Culture Perspective.” Project Management Journal 39.1 (2008): 7-15. Print.

Reich, Blaize H., Gemina, Andrew, and Sauer, Chris. “Modeling the Knowledge Perspective of IT Projects.” Project Management Journal 39.Supplement (2008): 4-14. Print.

Postrel, Steven. “Islands of Shared Knowledge: Specialization and Mutual Understanding in Problem-Solving Teams.” Organization Science 13.3 (2002): 303-320. Print.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.