How lessons learned can be shared effectively and efficiently

How to share lessons learned in organizations and teams efficiently and effectively? A question on which entire libraries are filled. A question which, in the terms of „knowledge management“, justifies an entire research and practice strand. Not surprisingly, many interesting things have been written for this purpose. But in the same way, literature also contains a lot of material that is far from practice or even destructive. Whether a recommendation for action belongs to the former or rather to the latter is not so easy to distinguish. This showed me vividly when I was supposed to support a team in improving the sharing of lessons learned. After all, the team has already tried out many hints from literature and then discarded them.

The disproportionate time and effort involved as an obstacle to sharing

The setup of a „wiki“ is just one example – but a very illustrative one. As in many companies already possible, this team also started a wiki. This refers to a platform for documenting „crowd-based“ and „self-organized“ knowledge. The best-known example of such a knowledge platform is probably the online encyclopedia „Wikipedia“. But while the name „Wiki“ comes from the Hawaiian language and stands for „fast“, the team’s setup was anything but within a reasonable timeframe. In addition, the team’s environment changed so quickly that the wiki was never complete and most of the time outdated. This basic problem was then also evident throughout with other instruments: The expenditure for the documentation of knowledge has never been in an adequate relation to the benefit. And so the team went with every instrument like most of us with New Year’s resolutions: Started with good intentions and shortly after found out that it is the same again as before.

Back to field 1: Why does the team want to share knowledge at all?

The obvious hypothesis could be that, as with our New Year’s resolutions, the willingness to change was inadequate or the power of habit was too strong. This may be true in other cases, but the intrinsic urge to improve knowledge sharing was eminent in this team. I was therefore convinced that the reason for this was rather that we had not yet found an approach that would bring real added value. That’s why we have been rethinking the purpose of exchanging lessons learned. In this discussion, it became evident that the team members were mainly interested in learning from each other how they managed their projects and what they learned from them. However, since the projects of the members are so heterogeneous, previous documentations on project content, project progress etc. were too comprehensive and lacking in impact and learning relevance.

Lessons Learned includes a didactic and an operative perspective

On the basis of this problem analysis, we then differentiated between two perspectives when dividing lessons learned:

  • The didactic perspective: How do we secure and formulate our learning so that we can all benefit from it?
  • The operative perspective: What kind of „tool“ do we use to secure and share these learnings?

Didactic perspective: How can the defined added value be achieved?

With regard to the didactic perspective, we then orientated ourselves on design research, in which so-called „context-sensitive design principles“ are developed to secure knowledge (Krapf and Seufert 2017, p. 14). Design elements that have been successful in a specific context are abstracted so that they can be transferred to another context. In this example we have adapted the logic of van Aken et al. (2016, p. 4) (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Basic didactic structure for sharing lessons learned


Operational Perspective: How can knowledge sharing be organized efficiently?

In order to shape the operative perspective, the team addressed three central questions:

  • When and how do we reflect?
  • When and how do we record our learnings?
  • When and how do we share our learnings with the team?

The result on these questions was then a team-internal compromise in that a time window was reserved at the bi-weekly team meeting. The team members could use this to go through the above-mentioned three steps of the didactic perspective together or to directly share the personally developed design principles. The team has thus explicitly decided against a written platform, because their world is too dynamic and at the same time a performance review is already carried out and documented for each larger project. What is right for this team does not necessarily have to be the right thing for other teams. That is why I consider the three above-mentioned reflection questions to be more instructive than the specific solution of the team.

Lessons Learned for the effective and efficient sharing of knowledge

How the basic didactic structure (cf. Figure 1) can be applied in concrete terms is described in the case sketched above. With this, a conclusion can be drawn:

1) Statements:

The team tried in vain to find an instrument to share the lessons learned efficiently and effectively. With each approach, the low added value did not justify the high administrative effort.

2) Learnings:

First, clarify the problem or need. Then consider how this problem can be solved and only in the third step decide what concrete action will be taken. In the spirit of Simon Sinek’s „Golden Circle“ („Why?“,“How?“,“What?“). So don’t choose an instrument directly because it is used by everyone.

3) Design principles:

[Context] When a team wants to improve the sharing of lessons learned,

[Action] Then the „why“ must be clarified first. Subsequently, the didactic perspective has to be aligned with this „why?“, whereby the present basic structure can be an inspiration, but does not have to be (see Figure 1). Once the didactic perspective has been determined, the team must agree on how to implement this „how?“ in concrete terms (operational perspective or „what?“). This can, but does not have to be done in a team meeting.

[Mechanisms] Lessons learned are shared when it creates added value. This has to be recognized first, so that team-internal solutions can be worked out, which contribute to it.

[Results] If these principles are followed, lessons learned will be shared on a sustainable basis because the operational implementation is aligned with the (didactic) added value.

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Krapf, J. & Seufert, S. (2017). Lernkulturentwicklung als Ansatz zur Steigerung der Agilität von Teams – Reflexion einer gestaltungsorientierten Forschung. bwp@ 33.

van Aken, J. E., Chandrasekaran, A. & Halman, J. (2016). Conducting and publishing design science research. Inaugural essay of the design science department of the Journal of Operations Management. Journal of Operations Management (47-48), 1–8.

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