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Are knowledge worker skills key to the future of project managers?

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Knowledge workers are often the core of your organisation. According to Thomas Davenport, Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution or application of knowledge. Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performances And Results from Knowledge Workers.

In a recent knowledge management in action article called the Revelations about the new competencies of Knowledge Workers Jos Carlos points out that We face larger projects every time, which are becoming more complex and time-critical; these facts further increase the challenges we face.

However, the solution is not to have just enough knowledge, but we must ensure that todays professionals gain the expertise to create knowledge, i.e. have the capacity to undertake a process of meaningful and permanent learning, taking into practice a set of tools, strategies and tactics that will serve as learning tools to achieve effective learning and quality. They must put into action autonomous learning modes. Ultimately, the goal is to learn to learn and also, to share learning.

We all know that there are a range of skills associated with good project management.  And in a recent discussion in the project and programme management community of practice on the Knowledge Hub asked What makes a good project manager?

The discussion included skills such as leadership, influencing, listening, coaching, communication, empathy, people etc.  All skills gained from experience and the sharing of that experience with other.

Based on this Joses idea, knowledge workers need to manage the majority of their work as projects.  So in some ways you could say the main task of the knowledge worker is managing projects.

They may not be the large projects but as Dr Martin Barnes, APM President 2003-2012 points out At its most fundamental, project management is about people getting things done. These could be any manner of work based project.

So what does this mean in reality?

Project managers could soon be a tradesman with a limited toolbox unless they work on their knowledge skills.

Secondly, that project managers need to learn to direct knowledge flows while they are managing their projects. That means prioritising, periodically reviewing strategy and resources and ensuring that the intended benefits and learning are shared.

So how can you improve your knowledge skills?

A key activity for the APM Knowledge SIG this year will be a research project to look at:

  • how do organisations manage knowledge within and between projects?
  • how good are they at managing knowledge?
  • what would help organisations become better at managing knowledge?

We know some organisations are great a creating knowledge stocks (such as lessons learned databases) but what about knowledge flows, which we believe are more valuable?

If you would like (your organisation) to get involved please contact us


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  1. Albert Bissember
    Albert Bissember 19 December 2013, 05:36 PM

    It's with great pride to classify one's self as a "Knowledge Worker" within IT, as an example. Howerer there is a dark side to the  wording. It's intimidating to the (inexperienced senior managers) executive you have to report to in our current working environment. 

  2. Paul Millsom
    Paul Millsom 18 October 2013, 10:06 AM

    This takes me back to 1990 and Peter Senge's 'The Learning Organisation' which is most relevant to projects and project delivery capability.When I look at an organisation's Project Control Framework or equivalent and their adherence (or non-compliance) to their lessons learned processes to I see examples of good and bad.  And typically the learning 'leaks out of the bucket'. My observations are that organisations build knowledge, capability (through talented people and good process) but knowledge decays and becomes obsolete.  So the building of knowledge for the changing environment in vital.Senge wrote "...organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together..."When leading a project management practice/service its important to encourage behaviours for learning and sharing.  It needs to be a primary goal or KPI.More on Senge ... 

  3. R.J. Ansari
    R.J. Ansari 17 October 2013, 05:40 PM

    In oil & gas projects which tend to be very complex both in terms of cost, schedule and specfications, it is not just 'good to have' but a 'must have' skill in a project manager. But unless it (A) is clearly specified as a "project deliverable"; (B) gets financed by the corporate governance rather than the project management, and (C) gets monitored in same way as other project deliverable, with respect to its cost/manhours and schedule; "creation" of knowledge may potentially become a liability to the project's core responsibilities.

  4. Michael Norton
    Michael Norton 08 October 2013, 12:07 PM

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to the comments.  Just returned from a much needed holidayFirst of all, thank you Martin, David and Judy for your comments and feedback.  There some great insights that we can take forward as part of the research project.One thing that popped into my head is that whenever you read anything in the press and there is talk of new policies from governments that all say we are working in a knowledge economy.But as you pointed out Martin that the flows are quiet hard to unlock and David mentions  learning and knowledge can even be treated suspiciously.Which probably makes it an even tougher task? My take on knowledge and learning is about helping people make informed decisions.  So it fits nicely with your comment David about putting the knowledge in the right place at the right time.But as Judy mentions tasks and deadlines are tangible and much more easily measured. Maybe we have the way we measure things completely wrong which makes it difficult to reflect and share.  

  5. Judy Payne
    Judy Payne 04 October 2013, 10:32 AM

     Thank you Michael for this thought-provoking post, and thanks to David and Martin for the thoughtful comments.Davids point about project managers being perceived as subject matter experts really struck a chord with me. Ive been on both ends of this perceived as an expert (when I wasnt, I was managing projects with experts on the team) and ignored as an expert when a project manager decided to take the credit for my specialist input to a project.Project working is a great way of combining and integrating skills and knowledge from different team members. But most project managers are focused on completing tasks and meeting deadlines, and the knowledge and learning angle gets forgotten. As David suggests, maybe this is because people arent used to talking about knowledge and learning, or havent ever really thought about the importance of knowledge and learning in projects. Tasks and deadlines are tangible and much more easily measured than anything to do with knowledge and learning, but have little to do with value or benefits.I would go so far as to say that combining/integrating knowledge is one of the main reasons for doing a project in the first place. It follows that an important part of the project managers role is to facilitate this process.David hints at the need for more reflective thinking. I think this could go a long way towards raising awareness of the importance of knowledge and learning in projects. Maybe developing a reflective thinking habit should be part of project management qualifications.

  6. David Jones
    David Jones 29 September 2013, 12:48 PM

    Your article struck a chord as I am about to start a project in a public sector organisation, but it is not intended as a test! There should be a knowledge stock, lessons learnt from recent and comparable projects plus collaboration across different organisations. I should engage with the knowledge flow and the organisation as per the research project.I begin as a project manager and not the subject matter expert (with project management skills). So while I recognise my knowledge and transferable skills previous opportunities passed by as I had not been the "[Insert subject matter] Project Manager" or from that industry.I have no qualms about being knowledgeable in a range of subjects (and trust this is a strength), but recognise the need to disengage from a project and the organisation's perception that you become the subject matter expert. There is value in distributing knowledge and "super-users" etc., so yes knowledge skills are important.However, do you find that learning and knowledge can be too much an abstract dialogue within an organisation? At times even treated suspiciously, e.g., so even though we recognise the need for continuous professional and personal development, many people get things done with not so much (reflective) thought?The project manager to be a facilitator for various subject matters and their knowledge flows - not the subject matter expert - but still deliver the project. And for when the organisation "knows" but there is a failure to put this knowledge in the right place at the right time.

  7. Martin Arcari
    Martin Arcari 26 September 2013, 03:10 PM

    Some fascinating ideas, especially as I am project managing within a knowledge management department. Further, I came from a previous job in which the creation of knowledge stocks wasn't that bad (for example there was a lessons learned database) but the knowledge flows were dreadful and information remained stuck within monolithic silos