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The learning challenge in construction

Construction organisations, whether clients, consultants, contractors, or suppliers, have long suffered because of the project-based nature of their work. At the end of every project, the project team disbands, information that was anyway locked up in a project silo is then archived off, never to be seen again, let alone systematically learned from. At best, many project teams would hold a retrospective lessons learned session at project completion, document any lessons that the project management team could recall, and then file that sheet away somewhere. That approach has proved essentially useless.

This situation meant that every new project was essentially starting from scratch, without the application of the millions of lessons that previous project teams had already learned. With little or no institutional knowledge to apply from the history of the organisations project experience, project teams set out and kept made the same mistakes time and time again. Projects continued to veer off-course, often with little or no apparent foreseeability. Reactive management dominated and that was not good for project teams or the project clients. It especially made project management professionals look bad.

Lack of learning is a key issue preventing productivity growth

This problem is one of the primary reasons why construction industry productivity has lagged behind nearly all other sectors of the economy. It has also been one reason why the profession of project management has struggled to standardise a repeatable approach to project management that results in success each time - without a routine learning system, what was required to all but ensure success could never be figured out.

This problem had a further impact. Without institutionalised knowledge, the primary sources of project knowledge were individual project managers with specific experience on this or that type of project, and so projects and project-businesses became highly dependent on specific individuals. This was not good for businesses (who therefore had a limited pool of project-relevant staff and could not stretch their resources across a broader range of opportunities), for construction (the industry was not systematically learning despite the trillions of dollars spent on construction globally every year and the fact that projects still routinely go over time and budget), or even for the project managers themselves (who, as single repositories of knowledge could demand premium wages but have had to bear undue burden and suffer when ‘their’ project type was not on the books).  This lack of a learning system meant that organisations could not build up an organisational competency that would enable an organisation to stretch their resources further, be more agile, and capitalise on a more diverse and greater range of opportunities.

Solving the learning problem

Even where individual project teams have managed to learn from their mistakes, where this was not embedded in an organisational system and institutionalised, it proved of little ultimate benefit. NASA, for example, felt this problem acutely and have pioneered an approach to learning on each and every project for the benefit of future space projects.

To solve this part of the problem the project management system needs to capture and aggregate data across all projects in the portfolio, for each organisation working on a project. Without data aggregation you cannot understand trends across different project types, across geographies, between projects delivered using this type of contract or compare different clients against each other.

An effective lessons learned and knowledge management system therefore required an integrated project and portfolio management system that simply has not existed to date. This seemed to our team here at Keepsite to be an important problem and a problem worth focusing on and solving.

Principles of a useful learning system

Keepsite set out to solve this problem and we landed on a few principles that we believe are essential if people and organisations are to learn and deliver ever-better projects over time. These principles are;

  1. Project team members must be able to capture a lesson at the point of making (or nearly making) a mistake.
  2. Collective contribution will result in the fastest and greatest accumulation of knowledge, so the system should be able to be accessed by all project team members (from labour through executives) across organisational boundaries and within the entire organisational structure. That is, an inclusive learning system.
  3. All lessons added should be aggregatable (across projects) but there should be discretion for a project team member to only share a lesson with a limited pool of people (so that there is no disincentive to capturing sensitive lessons)
  4. The information captured, once aggregated, should be able to be searched and understood easily, through visualising it in simple charts, or by applying filters, for example.
  5. People within organisations and on project teams should be able to home in on lessons according to some prioritisation criteria be they impact on profitability, reputation, or health and safety, for example.
  6. Lessons should be able to be reviewed easily in the context of considering a new project opportunity or mobilising a new project team and directly ‘pushed’ to any new project engagement where it can be added to a ‘relevant lesson’s’ section, or converted to a project relevant risk.
  7. Lessons should be capturable at all levels of the organisation, from work package and project through programmes, portfolios, and corporate levels.
  8. With this system in place and at some minimum data threshold (amount of lessons data in the system), ‘system intelligence’ can be turned on through the application of machine learning algorithms that can augment human learning with artificial intelligence.

While we’ve not yet implemented all these principles within the Keepsite application, we’re well on our way to doing so. The fundamentals are already in place and project teams are for the first time able to capture valuable project-derived lessons and have them institutionalized as organisational knowledge.

Ultimately, those organisations who learn the most, fastest, will win

With every single lesson a project team and organisation learns, your knowledge management system will get smarter and strategies and initiatives aimed at improving the most impactful issues can be identified and targeted, driving operational performance improvements, increasing organisational stability and profitability, and, of course, helping to ensure the happiest clients.

Organisations that learn the most, fastest, will establish a sustainable competitive advantage and set themselves apart in a marketplace where it has long been difficult to compete on the basis of quality and performance. Partnering with Keepsite will help you realise that competitive advantage sooner.



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