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International Journal of Project Management 32 (2014) 1423 – 1431 www.elsevier.com/locate/ijproman
Knowledge formation and learning in the management of
projects: A problem solving perspective
Terence Ahern ⁎, Brian Leavy, P.J. Byrne
Dublin City University Business School, Dublin City University, Ireland Received 8 July 2013; received in revised form 6 February 2014; accepted 13 February 2014 Available online 15 March 2014
In contrast to traditional projects, which are assumed to be fully speciﬁed and then executed with little learning anticipated, complex projects cannot be fully speciﬁed at the outset and require continuous learning over their life cycles. Nevertheless, the key role of knowledge formation and learning in managing complex projects is under-developed for expanding project capability boundaries to include knowledge uncertainty and indeterminacy.
Drawing inspiration from Karl Weick's enactivist ideas and an empirical study of two organizations that developed project capability for complex projects, the paper develops an integrated view of projects and project management that is grounded in problem solving learning and organizing. More speciﬁcally, a project is reconceptualized as ‘a mode of organizing to accomplish a temporary undertaking’ with intrinsic learning. This perspective views complex projects under knowledge uncertainty as learning organizations, with implications for project management theory and practice.
© 2014 Elsevier Ltd. APM and IPMA. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Project management; Complex problem solving; Knowledge formation; Modes of organizing and learning (MOL); Practice
In traditional project research, even when complex projects
cannot be fully specified and planned in advance, such as major infrastructure projects, normative expectations require the appearance of planning and control for these projects through management processes based on instrumental rationality (Sapolsky, 1972). This normative approach treats ‘complex’ projects, which cannot be fully specified in advance, as just ‘complicated’ projects that can still be managed and planned in the traditional way as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques … to meet the project requirements” (PMI, 2013, p. 5, italics added). Not surprisingly, this planning approach privileges static and explicit ‘known’ knowledge (designs, etc.) over dynamic and experiential ‘knowing’ knowledge (know-how, etc.), which leads to an
⁎ Corresponding author. Tel.: + 353 1 7031752.
E-mail addresses: email@example.com (T. Ahern),
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expectation of little learning during the execution of project plans as prior knowledge. In this project culture, the role of knowledge formation and learning in project delivery is downplayed, which is to the detriment of enhancing the boundaries of traditional project capability to include project settings characterized by knowledge complexity and indeterminacy.
Using the enactivist ideas of Weick (1979, 1995), this paper examines knowledge formation and learning as a key aspect of developing an organizational capability for delivering complex projects, which is based on an empirical study featuring two Irish state-owned organizations in the late 1990s and early
2000s. During this time, each of these organizations was
challenged to develop a project capability as a core supporting competence in order to deliver major infrastructure projects well beyond their project capability up to then (Thompson,
1967). While acknowledging the difficulty of distinguishing
between large projects and complex projects, Williams (2002) builds on Baccarini (1996) to highlight the indeterminacy and uncertainty of complex projects,...
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