Do we really learn from ‘lessons learnt’?

This week I co-hosted a joint session between the PMOSIG and Knowledge SIG from the APM – the subject – Knowledge Management and the PMO.

Each time I ask any project practitioners about knowledge management in their organisation, the answer is nearly always, “yes we do lessons learnt”.

The situation at the moment for many project organisations is – as part of the closedown phase of the project, a ‘lessons learnt’ exercise is carried out with the project manager and project team. The outcomes of the exercise are often captured in document form (after being sanitized) and then filed away (on a share, in the cloud, on a database…). What then happens is sketchy. Do project managers who are about to start a new project take time to wade through previous documents looking for ‘lessons they can learn’?

Of course not. There might be attempts to uncover some nuggets of wisdom but let’s face it, often it’s difficult to retrieve what you really want when in actually fact you’re not 100% sure on what you’re looking for.

The PMO Knowledge Cafe this week was about uncovering knowledge management and understanding, through round table discussions, what it actually means and what practitioners can really be doing to help themselves. I was also interested to explore the concept ‘lessons recorded’ because I’ve been hearing that a lot from the project community. Yes we record the lessons, but do we actually learn? We can only really say we do ‘lessons learnt’ if they do indeed get learnt.

photo 4Knowledge Management is not about a set of records or details about previous projects in a database – it’s about conversations, interactions, networks and communities of people sharing their experiences. It is about using what has happened before to inform and educate others (the learning bit of ‘lessons learned’); it’s about bringing people together so experiences can be shared and more collaborative work can happen in the future. Ultimately it’s about not reinventing the wheel every time a new project starts because someone somewhere has been through the experiences before.

At the PMO Knowledge Cafe there were a number of ideas that could help facilitate the learning part of the lessons.

Let’s take the way the lessons are recorded – why are we still recording real-life experiences in such a boring 2-d way as a document? Shouldn’t we be looking at video logs and project Wiki’s that capture the interesting stuff as it happens? People learn in many different ways so why do we assume they’ll learn from just reading a document?

Why don’t we actually have collaborative sessions at the beginning of projects. These are not about kicking off the project, it’s one step before that. When there is a new project, we identify the type of project and invite people along who have similar experiences from past projects. These people have no role going forward in the new project, they are just there to join the collective heads of people who have been there and done it before. Get people talking and interacting, all on a level playing field so no-one feels the less knowledgeable or experienced.

When we talk ‘knowledge management’ what we should be doing is thinking ‘networking‘. Internal networking within organisations is a crucial skill for any worker in today’s economy. We know that a lot of our work is about problem solving, making decisions and directing others – these are all the behavioural aspects of project management that can make the real difference on a project. My question is, as project practitioners do we know how to network effectively and what does it take to make it ingrained in everything we do? When we think about knowledge management as an activity – something that has a physical input and output (lessons recorded – lessons retrieved and learnt) aren’t we missing the point that really it’s about having conversations about things that matter with other people?

Your opportunity in knowledge management  is to perhaps understand ‘what does matter’ and don’t be backwards in coming forwards when someone could really do with hearing about it.

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  1. It’s the same thing everywhere, we don’t share the lessons well enough. I do take time to talk with PM’s in the organisation and people who are trying to do the same thing. I was a meeting yesterday where I was able to assist a new project by giving tips and using a concept that’d worked previously. Every project is different, but the pain learned is useful if it can help others in the future. I guess that the problem would have come if they’d not known to ask me!

  2. I shook my head laughing. For years, I was forced to actually do lessons learned. Every time, they’ve gone into an electronic file never to be seen again. This is one of those idea’s that looks great on paper — but not so practical! Still laughing… thanks for that.

  3. Bravo! Excellent post Lindsay… too often I see project ( and PMO staff) go through motions or process just because it “has to be done”. I really liked your suggestions on how to make better transfer and learning occur.

    I think I actually learnt something form your post.


  4. good article … my experience so far: as documented “lessons learned” are part of the organizational process assets, the use of that (in generall) in our organization was/is totally untended. Some reason fior taht is for sure, that the “lessons learned” and their documentation and archivieng is not well structured, so that it is very difficult for project managers at new projects even to find and explore the historical data that may help …

  5. Good article and innovative. I agree with your oroginal thought Ulrika that no we don’t always learn from our lessons taught. Thanks for the tools Lindsey!

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