Jul 31, 2015

The Beauty of Expertise

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin in Project & Program Management, Demand Management, Human Capital, Project Management Maturity, Project Management Office (PMO), Project Management Research | 0 Comments

Knowledge – whether in a library of lessons learned, or in the head of an experienced project manager –is a critical resource.

My last blog post picked the brain of PM Solutions’ consulting practice director, Roger Bryson, on the reasons why companies reach out for expert assistance with projects and programs.

His comments renewed my interest in the topics of knowledge transfer and expertise. Consulting thrives because we operate on the assumption that expert knowledge is valuable. But what makes an expert “expert”? How do experts pass on their knowledge to those who work with them? What’s the value of new or improved knowledge, anyway?

If you come from the hard sciences and engineering side of the aisle, it may be surprising to realize that there is an entire academic / philosophical realm devoted to understanding what knowledge is and how it is passed among humans (how it’s passed among other animals is another story). One of my favorite reads on topics related to knowledge is sociologist Daniel Little’s Understanding Society blog. In his post about expert knowledge, he says, “Expertise can be viewed as a kind of social capital, on the basis of which the expert and those who employ his/her services are able to gain various kinds of advantages.” In discussing technical knowledge, Little notes the vast gap between “knowing what” and “knowing how.” (In project management terms, that’s the difference between merely passing the PMP exam, and having actually managed 100 complex projects.) In his piece on “synchronized cooperation” (that’s teamwork to the rest of us), along with the usual examples from professional sports teams, he points out that, for most situations in the workplace, instead of the instant-by-instant synchrony of an NBA play, “one person's work product needs to be aligned with the goals and needs of the other person's work product; and this requires leadership and communication" (italics mine).

Leadership and communication, not surprisingly, showed up as the most valued and needed skills in the PM College’s recent PM Skills Benchmark study; they are the bridge skills that help knowledgeable, experienced project managers succeed on projects, while at the same time bringing up the level of competence among those they work with. As Roger Bryson said in our interview, there’s a training and mentoring component to every consultant’s work; it’s hard to separate demonstrating expertise from teaching expertise. And the value of those encounters is hard to measure. The study cited here pointed out that:

" ... you must become part of a community in order to learn. ... if novices will need to perform in a variety of contexts or the environment is volatile and frequent changes are expected in the dimensions of the task, then relying on those expert enough to convey abstract, advanced knowledge that can be transferred between tasks would appear to be more a more effective training strategy."

Knowledge transfer and management has long been a critical partner in improving project management, though too frequently under-utilized or even ignored. You have only to think about the many studies that have bemoaned how poorly lessons learned are collected, organized, and utilized to realize that our ways of knowing, and of sharing knowledge, can have a profound impact on project outcomes. In the Project Management Maturity Model, it’s telling that Level 5 – Optimizing Process stresses repeatedly the role of applying lessons learned to promote continuous improvement. It’s not much of a conceptual leap to see the same message in these data points from our State of the PMO 2014 study: While 15% of PMOs at the “Basic” level use consultants to help manage the PMO, 43% of “Best-in-Class” PMOs do so. Looking at PMOs in high-performing organizations, more of them use contracted resources to manage projects and programs, as well. Either great PMOs recognize what they don’t know and reach outside the company … or PMOs become great because they do so. Either way, the understanding is there within the project management discipline that knowledge – whether in a library of lessons learned, or in the head of an experienced project manager –is a critical resource.

[Editor's note: Next week, we'll start to unfold the research we're doing for a new white paper on Resource Management. Stay tuned!]

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