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The PMO is the Knowledge Broker?

At the last PMO Flashmob Online, we thought it would be good to try out a little experiment. We asked people to take a look at a piece of published PMO research and then join in the virtual PMO Flashmob where we could have a chat about that research.

The research we went for was ‘Project management office’ a knowledge broker in project-based organisations‘ [you can download and have a read of that yourself here]

It’s a paper that was published in the International Journal of Project Management back in 2013 and touches on a few challenges that PMOs still face today – namely knowledge transfer – and yes it mentions lessons learned a few times too.

In this article, we decided to share the highlights of the research (because we know that reading research papers are not everyone’s cup of tea) Let’s get started and get a few definitions out on the table so we know what we’re dealing with.

Project-Based Organisations

Project-based organisations (PBO) are businesses that do projects. The PBO may be a standalone organisation or part of a larger one e.g., standalone = they just do projects – part of a larger one = like the IT department within a retail company.

The definition here is “it’s an organisation that is capable of handling many projects”

A Project Management Office

In this paper is defined as a “formal layer of control between top management and project management within a PBO”. That’s the jam on top of the cream in a Victoria sponge cake.

Of course, that’s the simplest definition – it does go on to cite Aubry and Hobbs (if you’re not aware of them, they’re probably the most ‘famous’ PMO researchers) and say that the project management office will depend very much on context on which they are incorporated.

Knowledge Broker

I must admit I disappeared down a rabbit warren of knowledge management (aka I had to Google a few terms to get them straight in my head)

Listen to this:

The main focus of this section is on knowledge sharing practices between projects and from projects to parent organisation; in particular, this review of the literature focuses on: knowledge sharing challenges in PBOs, the role of PMO as a potential knowledge boundary spanner between projects and PBO, and PMs’ knowledge sharing behaviours.
PMO as a potential knowledge boundary spanner? After some ‘research’ I found out that means people within an organisation who have, or adopt, the role of linking the organisation’s internal networks with external sources of information. So connectors then in the project based organisation. [if you’re interested, there’s a book by Ron Burt]

Lessons Learned

The research then highlights what we already know quite well – we’re rubbish at sharing knowledge in organisations (and there are loads of reasons for that)

It brings up the whole ‘lessons recorded’ phenomena – people can’t be bothered, the quality is not great, people move on from projects, box-ticking exercise etc

By this point, I’m hoping that the research is not going to just focus on lessons learned (learnt?) because that’s not the be all and end all of knowledge management (thankfully)

The PMO Spanner

Never thought I would ever write that..ever.

The PMO as a boundary spanner is all about the PMO having the potential to connect people within the organisation in some way that could mean more knowledge sharing goes on.

It says we’re the ideal bunch of people for this – we span at least three levels of the organisation – upper management, PMO itself and the PM & teams.

It says we should be able to provide a knowledge structure that enhances knowledge sharing.

And to do this we should be effective at translating; co-ordinating and aligning different perspectives.

It also raises the idea that knowledge brokering – or being the spanner – is very much a social process and we are involved in participating in the interactions.

Another Knowledge Management Term

I stopped for another Google search when the term ‘boundary object’ and ‘boundary endeavours’  were mentioned.

Here’s the context:

Boundary objects, that is, sketches and guidelines, and boundary endeavours, such as workshops, meetings and study tours, are often used as tools to bridge boundaries between, for example, the project and the end-user organisation.
Objects are the artifacts or stuff and endeavours are the interactions where stuff might also be produced.
In essence what its saying is the PMO should be involved in helping these objects and endeavours to become something that people can actually learn from – the knowledge will be transferred in some way. Note a lessons learned report would be an object.

Potential Roles in the PMO Spanner

Really loving writing that now, PMO Spanner, it has a certain ‘roll your sleeves up and make things happen’ ring to it.

There are potentially different roles – these are interpreter, negotiator, ambassador, educator and translator.

Nothing else is mentioned about these in this piece of research yet I can definitely see interpreter, educator and translator being very PMO aligned. [The research on these is here]

Knowledge Intensive PMO

A knowledge intensive PMO (as opposed to an administrative PMO) is a centre of excellence. It is the place for the knowledge base in a PBO and also provides project expertise, mentoring and training. It’s recognised as the organisation’s authority on all knowledge related to project management. (Desouza and Evaristo, 2006)

If you’ve already got a centre of excellence type model going on, in theory you’re halfway there to being the PMO spanner. It’s this type of PMO that could, again in theory, offer the most forward of knowledge sharing practices.

In a knowledge intensive PMO there are four PMO knowledge archetypes – supporter; the information manager; the knowledge manager and the coach.

It’s the coach role that provides the most proactive and active approach to knowledge sharing.

And this type of role that helps to bridge boundaries in an organisation – a relationship promoter is the term used.

Retrospective and Prospective Learning

This is why we should be interested in knowledge management. It’s part of the PMO’s remit to support the organisation in ensuring projects are delivered successfully. Part of that remit is training and development of everyone in the PBO. Knowledge management is about learning and the PMO should focus on both:

  • Retrospective learning – generating and managing knowledge from past projects
  • Prospective learning – transferring knowledge from past projects to future projects

I suspect we do a bit of retrospective learning work today.

PMO as a Knowledge Broker

There’s been two previous studies on the PMO as a Knowledge Broker already – these two focused on the role of the PMO and the research was from the view of the PMO personnel. Much of this has been highlighted already above.

What was missing from the research – and what prompted this piece of research was – what do the Project Managers want?

More eloquently perhaps, the question the research is trying to answer is:

What capabilities do the PMO have to possess to become a knowledge-broker and meet the Project Manager’s knowledge sharing needs?

In other words, the PMO may have ideas about knowledge sharing activities but do they actually meet the needs of the Project Managers and what they want.

PMO Knowledge Sharing Functions

The research is based on seven different organisations from Sweden and Australia.

The first part of the analysis focused on what the PMO do in relation to knowledge sharing and what the Project Managers also expected of the PMO.

There were six overlapping areas identified:

  1. a repository for lessons learnt
  2. active knowledge sharing
  3. training, workshops and seminars
  4. formal and informal social interactions
  5. control and quality assurance
  6. project standard and procedures

The analysis also showed that not every PMO satisfied the expectations of the Project Managers (nothing new there you might say!)

Project Managers – A Funny Bunch

A quick word here about Project Managers.

The research covers the attitudes of Project Managers and how those attitudes affect knowledge sharing activities.

Here’s how they are described.

They’re people-oriented; free thinkers; passionate; autocratic; conservative and pragmatic.

They also focus on their projects more and neglect the ‘broader and longer term perspective of the project-based organisation’.

They also have distinct learning and sharing behaviours – they prefer to learn by doing rather than learning from others.

What’s not really been researched is how they Project Manager’s attitude and approach affects knowledge sharing – which is interesting if you consider that we’ve had things like lessons learned for decades.

With this in mind, we’ll take a look at the six overlapping areas:

1. Repository for Lessons Learnt

The bugbear here was the PMO not being fully involved in the process of storing and maintaining the lessons learned.

This was left to the Project Managers (who don’t have the time or motivation for it)

They complained that the databases weren’t structured well enough and organised so they didn’t tend to use it.

The PMO then get annoyed that the PMs aren’t using it. Nothing new here that we didn’t know before.

2. Active Knowledge Sharing

Project Managers expected the PMO to provide ‘active support related to best practices for work procedures through improved integration and collaboration amongst PMs’.

Again, the PMO aren’t doing this.

3. Training, Workshops and Seminars

Project Managers want more training and certification (interesting one this – do they want it to help them in their current job or to have someone else pay for their market recognised certification?)

Where PMOs offer this service, it’s often a reactive approach – on a needs-only basis and tends to focus on basic project management skills. The Project Managers expressed a need for more behavioural training – around stakeholder management and leadership.

There was a wider issue reported here though which is that project-based organisations don’t generally see the value of offering training on the behavioural aspects of project management which is a whole other problem in itself.

4. Formal and Informal Social Interactions

Is another way of saying the PMO could do more in facilitating knowledge sharing – being actively involved in collaboration between projects and between projects and the organisation.

The PMOs that were doing this tended to focus heavily on relationship building and ‘provide support to handle emergent conflicts between Project Managers and other project stakeholders’ which is interesting – a mediator role?

Other examples included providing a platform or environment for forums where Project Managers can present to other Project Managers – and of course the good old-fashioned way of always having the PMO door open for a chat with anyone who wants it.

5. Control and Quality Assurance

This is an interesting one – you would think its in relation to the control of knowledge and the quality assurance of that – but it’s not.

It’s about the PMO providing a ‘certain level of control and quality assurance in order to obtain consistency in reporting and project management processes’

To me that’s a lesson to be learned by the PMO about one of the services they provide to the PBO.

It felt weird to see this one there, so I just ignored it!

6. Project Standards and Procedures

This one is all about the PMO being an exemplar (see the PMO Principles on that).

The Project Managers expect the PMO to ‘provide support and procedural knowledge…how to act in a project and how to follow project management processes’

They expect all the standards, tools, templates, checklists and guidelines to be there.

In relation to knowledge sharing this means the PMO being available to help them find what they need.

Project Manager Attitudes

Coming back to the attitudes of project managers in relation to knowledge sharing activities.

They’re people-oriented; free thinkers; passionate; autocratic; conservative and pragmatic.

What does this mean?

  • People-oriented – face to face interactions were preferred, they’ll go and phone or talk to another Project Manager and have a discussion rather than read a report from a LL database.
  • Free thinkers – they rely on personal experiences and prefer to do the job on their own
  • Passionate – they’re passionate about the job and their project – more than ‘being faithful to the PBO’
  • Autocratic – giving lower priority to anything that’s not related to their project
  • Conservative – unwilling to change old routines or listen to advice from others – plus they’re not willing to share their feelings/shortcomings, preferring to keep that to themselves
  • Pragmatic – preferring learning by doing and relying on their own experiences and only willing to learn of they saw the value of learning for the project’s benefit.

When we start to understand the Project Manager’s attitudes, is it any wonder that lessons learned databases just seem to be soulless, empty places unfrequented by them?

Outcomes to the Research

If you’ve skimmed the article to this point, wanting to find the conclusions, here’s the part you start reading.

Here are the take aways:

1. The PMO have developed processes ‘for managing explicit technical and procedural knowledge’ but limited processes for the management of ‘tacit knowledge’

What does that mean? The PMO are good at collecting artefacts (documents, reports, tools etc) but not so great on knowledge around the behavioural side.

The Project Managers have indicated that it’s actually this tacit knowledge that they need and want.

2. The PMO focuses more on objects rather than endeavours

Which is another way of saying we focus more on producing lessons learnt reports where we think that will help project managers when they start new projects – however its the endeavours – those meetings, workshops and forums where face-to-face interaction goes on where project managers can discuss with peers rather than reading reports.

3. PMO needs to develop more social interaction capabilities

Which means devel
oping skills in facilitation, relationship building, coaching and mentoring. In other words the project managers are telling you to stop creating databases and talk to them 🙂

During our PMO Flashmob Online session where we reviewed and chatted about the paper, I loved this little, simple idea which is subtle. One Flashmobbers has fresh flowers on their desk and some Haribo. Everyone can see where she sits and everyone knows she has those sugar pickups. They also know that’s up for a chat at anytime, visible, approachable and something to snack on whilst you ‘socially interact’.

4. Use the hammer if needs must

The research says that ‘more commanding or law making knowledge governance strategies might be required and suitable to change current behaviours. PMOs therefore require capabilities of enabling and commanding governance strategies with knowledge of when to adopt them in order to become efficient knowledge brokers.’

I read that to be, the PMO should be interested in developing change management capabilities in order to facilitate a change in attitudes, rather than forcing PMO law!

5. The PMO focuses too much on retrospective learning and not enough on prospective learning

In other words the PMO focuses a lot of attention on collecting artefacts from past projects and not enough focus on how those artefacts will be used by project managers as they contemplate their next new project.

The project managers have also indicated that they learn by doing so how can artefacts even be used? What other options are available – is it things likes forums, peer mentoring, lunch and learns – you know, those kind of things.

During our PMO Flashmob Online session where we reviewed and chatted about the paper, there was a useful conversation about David Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory. You can read about that and other learning styles in this great resource [Are Learning Styles Just a Fallacy?]. Thanks to Simon and Anke.

6. The PMO should be trainers

Which is getting into the realms of prospective learning – the capabilities of a coach, relationship promoter and facilitator are all requirements here.

The type of training is also noted – more on the tacit and more of it rather than a one-off – tick in the box exercise.

Note the suggested capabilities for PMO here: “facilitating and promoting the strategic development of PMs’ relationships with diverse stakeholder groups” also, “PMOs need capabilities in educating PMs to strategically use similar boundary objects and endeavours in their operations” How can the PMO facilitate this? And educate? Much food for thought here.


The conclusion to the research is the PMO – and indeed the organisation – do not really understand what the Project Manager wants or needs to get out of knowledge sharing activities.

The first step – the most obvious perhaps – is to ask and to understand the underlying factors behind the answers.

The PMO and the organisation also need to understand the attitudes of project managers and how this relates to the way they learn – which is what knowledge management is largely there to do – to help people learn from the good and bad stuff that’s happened in the past.

The question for the PMO is – what approach do you want to take to really understand the project manager’s knowledge sharing needs and expectations? And what will you do when you do understand them?

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