Falling into IT knowledge trap

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Diane Luckow

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New research exploring how to make information technology (IT) projects more successful is generating interest among academics and information technology project managers around the world.

SFU business associate professor Blaize Horner Reich received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Initiative on the New Economy grant last year for the research and has so far identified 10 knowledge traps that consistently prevent IT project success.

Considering that several trillion dollars are spent each year on such projects and that only 35 per cent are successful, it's not surprising that her preliminary research presentations at conferences in Canada, the U.S. and in Budapest, Hungary have been well received.

“The 10 knowledge traps occur when project knowledge gets lost, isn't created or is misused,” explains Reich, who combined more than 50 research articles to create the model. For example, when key people leave a project before it is completed, their knowledge about the project is not usually preserved for others. “We can show statistically,” says Reich, “that if you lose a project manager, you'll be four per cent over budget, the project will be seven per cent late and you won't be able to deliver all of the requirements.”

As projects move from one phase into another, different people often carry the project forward. They may know the results from previous decisions but, too often, there is no documentation about why those decisions were made. “So project workers can make wrong assumptions and the final project design may be wrong,” says Reich.

She also discovered that at the end of an IT project, the team doesn't often document the lessons learned so that they can be passed along for future projects. “This is poorly done, rarely done,” says Reich. Nor, at the beginning of a project, does the project team bring in lessons learned from past projects.

“All the learning dissipates through individuals - you don't get much organizational learning,” she notes.

Reich says knowledge manage-ment is key to making further improvements to IT project success. “Tacit knowledge is the most powerful learning that people have. It's hard to talk about, but it drives them to good or bad performance.”

In the next phase of research, Reich plans to interview senior project managers and ask how they do or don't solve knowledge trap problems.

Reich's goal is to convince the Project Management Institute, a professional association, to include her research results in the Project Management Book of Knowledge, the textbook used to train project managers world-wide. Says Reich, “I'm trying to show how experienced project managers use the project team's knowledge - and what they do to avoid the knowledge traps.”

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