Knowledge, Performance and the Opposable Thumb

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
Last month’s article, where we interviewed Knowledge, and gained many new insights about her and her family, must have been an interesting one. It received even more “hits” than normal, and not just from spammers… The time viewers spent on the page was also higher than most, a good indicator of perceived value—or maybe they were trying to figure out that strange anthropomorphism of Knowledge. But let us tie up a few loose ends on the themes we covered, and then finish with the importance of the Opposable Thumb.

Discoveries at the NASA Knowledge Forum
I had taken a copy of last months’s article along with me to the Knowledge Forum; I reported on that event in last month’s IPMA-USA newsletter. I shared the article with Larry Prusak, one of the key people in Knowledge Management (KM) practice. When he got around to reading the article, he sent a polite email that suggested that the data to information to knowledge relationships are more complex than my simple assertions. I agree, and will leave it at that. After all, that was a 30+ year-old story.

At that NASA event, I figured out that there is quite some difference between my own naive interpretations, and those of a bunch of really bright people in the KM practice. And, there were some striking parallels. For example:

  • My perspective about Knowledge is mostly on the individual side: How individuals grow, develop, and improve their performance. My realization at the event is that the KM discipline is much more oriented to the organizational accumulation and sharing of knowledge.
  • They view Knowledge very much along the lines of a complete Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, where at the higher levels, you are dealing with synthesis. In other words, they are speaking of “Big K” Knowledge, not drill-and-test memorization—“little k” knowledge. That was a big aha for me.
  • My former KM biases were based on this: Far too much of my time spent in helping project teams (and their organizations) succeed has been spent overcoming the flaws of “little k” knowledge. This is often manifested by people who merely memorize enough to pass an exam, rather than to really understand how to apply the topic in a project.
  • In the NASA event final exercise, where all participants worked in teams to identify ways to improve the success of organizational Knowledge Management, I had another aha! moment. We were all identifying exactly the same Change Agent actions I have coached executives, project management offices and functional managers in for years. In what context? To help organizations adopt and adapt project management methodologies—to improve organizational PM performance.

The take-away: Project Management and Knowledge Management have many strong parallels. And, success in improving one in your area will also help in improving the other—for those who are so inclined. We saw exactly the same pattern with the successful Quality movements of the 1980s. Here is an example of the mutual reinforcement of KM and PM: Lessons Learned are one of the greatest opportunities for sharing knowledge in any organization. And yet, in too many cases, they are merely recorded—and then the same “learnings” are repeated in project after project, over again. That shows nobody learned anything. With a KM approach that actually institutionalizes applied prior knowledge, all projects will benefit, and performance will soar.

This is one reason why every one of our dozens of PM methodologies, both those we developed, and those we tuned for others for over 25 years, has a unique project kick-off action: Review the Lessons Learned from similar projects, including those with this team, this technology, and this customer. This might be a good KM policy for you to implement in your organization, if you do not already follow this savvy practice.

Counting the Knowledge-Related Words
Also in last month’s article, I realized, as I read through it later, that I used many words that are surrogates for Knowledge. Such words as reflect, understand, insight, grasp, content, perspective, absorb, concept, material, abstraction, components, decisions, assimilate, mastering, cognitive, learner, answer, intelligence, application … And that is just in the first half of the article. Clearly, Larry Prusak is right: Knowledge is much broader and more complex than I imagined!

The insights I gained at the NASA Knowledge Forum caused me, on my return home to go online to Amazon.com and order a bunch of the books written or edited by the people I met at the conference. I never thought I’d be this eager to learn more about this knowledge, no, Knowledge, that I had long deemed to be merely the entry-level step of the PM success progressions I promote.

About the Opposable Thumb
A confession: In last month’s article I cheated, when I placed Performance as the top step in the Performance Progression. It is not at all the top step in a progression, but is, in fact, a whole ‘nuther thing. I did make the assertion that all the other items in the progression are merely Inputs. I often repeat the difference between evaluating all the inputs and processes, versus just evaluating the results; pointing out how it is just smarter (and more cost-effective) to do it that way. And, this is true whether you are evaluating learning development, assessing a competent project manager for PM Certification, or identifying the strengths and opportunities for improvement of an entire organization. As we do, for example with PRO, the Performance Rated Organization, an organizational assessment of PM Performance.

About the Opposable Thumb: Rather than Performance being a similar step at the top of the Intelligence Progression, it is a different thing altogether. Just as is the opposable thumb. How many fingers do you have on one hand? Some say four, some five; others may have a different answer. Is a thumb just another finger, or a special category of its own? Thumbs have similar attributes to the “other” fingers, but also have very special characteristics. Thumbs can do a lot more than the other fingers, including repositioning and circumduction. And, thumbs differentiate primates from many other animals—they work with the fingers to strongly grasp, to allow us to use tools; to apply our motor skills, to write, or type, even! These differentiations are so important that Bloom, in his taxonomy, had a separate six-level scale for motor skills!

In the world of projects and programs, PM Performance is not just the top of the Intelligence Progression—it is the opposable thumb. Those who master it wield the tools needed for the team to deliver to executives, internal or external customers, and all other stakeholders exactly what they want: Business results. These key stakeholders don’t care about all those inputs, they disdain the mystical processes; they want their project results when they need them, and your PM Performance in achieving that is what counts.

Outside of projects there are many other uses for this opposable thumb. See the “thumbs-up” sign, at right, for example. It is curious, however, that the difference between the thumbs-up earned by the successful and performing project team could be confused by the uninformed with the hitchhiker’s futile thumbed request. And as a side note: There are a few marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, and others, that also have opposable thumbs. Some even have opposable thumbs on their back feet, something most of us have not yet achieved. But they do not write blog post articles—or hitchhike—yet.

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