Lessons learned. Structuring knowledge codification and abstraction to provide meaningful information for learning

Publication Date14 August 2017
AuthorVaughan Michell,Jane McKenzie
SubjectInformation & knowledge management,Knowledge management,Knowledge management systems
Lessons learned
Structuring knowledge codification and
abstraction to provide meaningful information
for learning
Vaughan Michell and Jane McKenzie
Henley Business School, University of Reading, Reading, UK
Purpose To increase the spreadand reuse of lessons learned (LLs), the purpose of this paperis to develop
a standardised information structure to facilitate concise capture of the critical elements needed to engage
secondarylearners and help them apply lessons to their contexts.
Design/methodology/approach Three workshops with industrypractitioners, an analysis of over 60
actual lessons from private and public sector organisations and seven practitioner interviews provided
evidence of actual practice.Design science was used to develop a repeatable/consistentinformation model of
LL content/structure. Workshop analysis and theory provided the coding template. Situation theory and
normativeanalysis were used to dene the knowledge and rule logic to standardiseelds.
Findings Comparing evidence from practiceagainst theoretical prescriptions in the literature highlighted
important enhancements to the standard LL model. These were a consistent/concise rule and context
structure, appropriateemotional language, reuse and controlcriteria to ensure lessons were transferrable and
reusablein new situations.
Research limitations/implications Findings are based on a limited sample. Long-term benets of
standardisationand use need further research. A largersample/longitudinal usage study is planned.
Practical implications The implementation of the LL structurewas well-received in one government
user site and other industry user sites are pending. Practitioners validated the design logic for improving
capture andreuse of lessons to render them easily translatableto a new learnerscontext.
Originality/value The new LL structure is uniquely grounded in user needs, developedfrom existing
best practice and is an original applicationof normative and situation theory to provide consistentrule logic
for context/contentstructure.
Keywords Lessons learned, Norms, Infons, Information structure, Lesson capture
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction what are lessons learned?
Lessons learned (LLs)are a widely accepted industry method for recording improvementsto
project and work activities (Dufeld and Whitty, 2015;Fuller et al., 2012;Rhodes and
Dawson, 2013;Weber and Aha, 2003;Wellman, 2007). The term is a deceptively simple
expression for a complex knowledge-sharing process that is rarely optimised for
organisationallearning (Milton, 2010).
Confusion arises as lessons learnedcan denote different things in practice and the
literature: learning experienced within a project team (DOE Society, in Weber et al., 2001),
USAF in Weber and Aha, 2003,Secchi, 1999,Stewart, 1997), organisational recommendations
for improvements, wider behavioural change (Bartlett, 1999, in Weber et al., 2001; Siegel, 2000,
The authors wish to thank members of the Henley Forum for Organisational Learning and
Knowledge Strategies for their involvement/contributions.
Received 9 November 2016
Revised 19 April 2017
Accepted 24 April 2017
VINEJournal of Information and
KnowledgeManagement Systems
Vol.47 No. 3, 2017
pp. 411-428
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/VJIKMS-11-2016-0061
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
in Weber et al.,2001; Bickford, 2000a, in Weber et al., 2001), innovative enhancements to
formal policies, systems and processes, that is, sequences of activities (Bickford, 2000a,
in Weber et al.,2001,USAFinWeber and Aha, 2003) or simple local tips and checklists
(Stewart, 1997). Weber considers a lesson is a signicant, benecial, factual knowledge
artefact established from experience relating to a specic design, process or decision
(Secchi, 1999). In this paper, we argue that although the artefact contains
organisationally useful knowledge, it only becomes an LL once embedded into
organisational practice. The point of LL processes is to improve collective action/
know-howto increase value creation (Carrillo et al., 2013).
This is challenging: First, the originating knowledge in the lesson undergoes several
transformations (Nonaka, 1994;Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995): tacit knowledge has to be
made explicit for others to recognise/act on it. Learners have to reconcile it with other
actionable knowledge, apply it and embed it in praxis (Leonard & Swap, 2005). To be
institutionalised (Crossan et al., 1999 Nonaka and Takeuchi,1995) as a collectively tacit
operational norm (Nonaka & Toyama, 2003), relevant groups must interpret what the
original learners understood and embed the change (Crossan et al., 1999) surmounting
political/procedural complexity (Lawrence et al., 2005)en route. Each transformation
requires different conditions (Nonaka et al., 2000) to connect knowers and learners and
facilitate recognition/acceptance of knowledge utility. Explicit knowledge transfers
easily across syntactic boundaries, but moving it between semantic groups requires
linguistic translation, and where signicant pragmatic and political boundaries exist,
knowledge is transformed through negotiation and dialogue, so people grasp its
implications for their different contexts (Carlile, 2004). Trust in the knowledge source
and concern for shared practice also matter (Wenger, 1998). Some organisations use
communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) and peer assists (Collison & Parcell, 2001)to
contextualise, translate and transform and make potential learning meaningful.
Unfortunately, establishing effective conditions to diffuse lesson knowledge is rarely
systematic (Hartmann & Dorée, 2015;Rhodes & Dawson, 2013). Without them,
knowledge is sticky (Szulanski, 2003).
Building on structuration theory/actor network theory, Orlikowski and Scott (2008)
argue that material artefacts and human interaction are analytically/practically
entangled. The form of the artefact will shape the social process involved in learning
and vice versa. This paper suggests that precision, simplicity and consistency in the
form of lesson artefact is a crucial beginning to increase individual/collective learning
from knowledge in lessons. For post project and after-action reviews (Baird, 1999;
Rezania & Lingham, 2009) to generate artefacts that inuence others, the captured,
categorised and stored content must accurately reect critical situation dynamics
shaping the original experience (Bickford, 2000a, in Weber et al., 2001;Boisot et al.,
2011) and be framed as clear rules in standardised form so learners quickly see a
lessons utility and implications. Combining theoretical foundations with practitioner
expertise, we elaborate on Webers information model to comprehensively capture
essential learning information in a format that facilitates reuse and supports
translation/transformation of lesson knowledge into new domains.
1.1 Webers information model
Representations of lessons are typically inadequate(Weber et al., 2001 p. 20) because
of free text elds and lack of formal process. But there is little research on what
constitutes effective format and content. Weber et al. (2001) outline elements of an
experience; an originating action (why the learning arose), conditions (the

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