David Pearce – Project Director at Gleeds in the UK – is no fan of wasted effort. With over two decades in construction he’s observed a fair share of the long hours culture from his peers – extreme hours that haven’t always resulted in better project outcomes.
Enter knowledge management, a subset of project management aimed at bringing greater efficiency and visibility to project understanding, and a subject David is speaking about at the Association for Project Management’s (APM) Power of Projects virtual conference on 10 June.
A Fellow of the APM, Chair of its Knowledge Special Interest Group, and Chair of the South West Region at the Construction Industry Council, David has a vested role in bringing continuous improvements to our industry’s delivery of projects across the UK. We caught up with him recently to learn more about him and why he’s speaking on knowledge management.
How did you get started in project management?
I started as a designer, funnily enough, so I’m from an architecture background and because I saw a lack of management skills, I completed an MBA. On my journey beyond architecture, one of my roles was leading a large team of engineers on nuclear and energy from waste projects. I’m obviously not an engineer, but I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot about the field and get on quite well with engineers.
It was only years later through my research into knowledge management that I gradually moved away from design entirely to project management because I was invested into facilitating how people can work together.
How have the priorities of project management changed over the years?
Time, cost, and quality used to form the basis of all project measures. Today, many clients in sectors, such as infrastructure and defence, want more. Legacy, impact, and lasting benefits have taken centre-stage in the conversation.
The whole lifecycle matters more than ever, which makes perfect sense: why would you save five pounds during construction and then spend another £100 for each of the next 100 years of a building’s life? That’s the important message the APM is trying to drive home: it’s not just about the project anymore. It’s about stepping back and seeing the wider things needing to be taken into account. That’s where knowledge management comes in.
What is knowledge management?
The APM Body of Knowledge defines it as “a holistic, cross-functional discipline and set of practices concerned with the way organisations create and use knowledge to improve outcomes" (7th edition, 2019).
It’s a set of tools for acquiring, organising, and communicating knowledge of a project team so peers of various disciplines can deliver projects to a higher standard more efficiently.
The tools are really simple - talk to people, ask that person a question, etc. But it's not one-size-fits-all, which is where it gets complicated. Something you do on one project might not work on the next one, because it's all about the interaction of people.
Why is the application of knowledge management so important?
The big problem in the construction industry is you have lots of clever people on projects who know what to do, but they’re working within their thin slice without consideration for the big picture. Knowledge management helps you recognise that, amongst other things, your outputs are someone else’s inputs.
Getting this wrong could have deadly consequences. If a building was designed as all-concrete and so that nothing would burn, you can’t have someone decades later say, “let’s put some cladding on the outside because it doesn’t look nice.” Unfortunately, we see too many decisions taken on projects in the built environment without understanding the intent of the people who built the thing.
This happens more than it should because time isn’t set aside to understand intent. The people who build it don’t understand the intent of those who drew the building. The people who draw it don’t understand how things are built, because as an architect, your output are drawings and a specification which is delivered by a member of the supply chain who know all the technical stuff, and who do not share their knowledge back up the chain.
What caused this lack of consideration for the big picture?
If you think about how much fees have reduced over the years for architects, for example, the lack of wider engagement isn’t too surprising. A decade before I became a designer, architect fees made up 8-10% of a project’s value. On a recent project I supported for a big client, that number was barely 0.4% of the construction value. For engineers and designers more widely, it’s a fraction of what it used to be.
So, money is potentially a lubricant which will allow people to share, but the problem runs deeper because our industry isn’t asking the right questions on projects. We shouldn’t be asking, “have you produced x number of drawings by a certain deadline?” but rather, “have you spent time collaborating with other people to find out whether your solution is compliant with what the construction engineer needs to do?”
Given how important knowledge management is, what is the onus like for project managers to be technically skilled and competent in all the disciplines that go into construction?
If anything, I would say I don’t think there's enough pressure on project managers to know a lot about different disciplines.
The big misconception about project management is that it’s a generalist skill. If you're only bringing generalist skills, you're only saying “this is what the minutes should look like, this is what an agenda should look like,” etc. You're adding little value because you're in an endless cycle of asking questions you don't know the answer to and getting answers you don't understand. I appreciate it when people dig into the technical detail because it’s important to understand what people are saying.
The most important thing, though? Knowledge management isn’t exclusive to project management. It’s something that everyone should be practising, right down to the people installing appliances.
Visit the APM’s Power of Projects event page to sign up for or learn more about the conference, which will provide practical tools, discussion, and learning to help you become a better project professional. It will also feature interactive sessions such as group discussions and facilitate networking.
The big problem in the construction industry is you have lots of clever people on projects who know what to do, but they’re working within their thin slice without consideration for the big picture. Knowledge management helps you recognise that, amongst other things, your outputs are someone else’s inputs. David Pearce