Cultivating Learning Within Projects

Steve Leybourne (Plymouth Business School, Plymouth, UK)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 20 June 2008



Leybourne, S. (2008), "Cultivating Learning Within Projects", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 446-447.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This modest looking book (of seven chapters and less than 200 pages) addresses an area of vital importance, and Andrew Sense has drawn on his considerable experience and research to produce a classic research monograph that academics will find of immense value. The content is well researched, empirically supported, and comprehensively documented, and is likely to provide one of the definitive resources for the consideration of learning within the project domain.

This is timely publication, as the paradigm shift over the last few years from “tools and techniques” to “behaviours” and “softer” elements within project management is well documented. Also, the acceptance of organisations as complex adaptive systems (see the work of Ralph Stacey for an excellent exposition of CAS's), and the management challenges of ambiguity and uncertainty have led to the realisation that although projects are the main way of administering or managing change within those constantly adapting organisations, historic models of project management are becoming to some extent outdated. This has moved learning from project‐based action higher up the managerial agenda.

The book starts by conceptualising learning within the project domain, introducing the reader to a number of alternative perspectives or “lenses”. Some of this material is familiar to academics with an interest in the area, but this section ‘grounds’ the reader and prepares for the journey to come. The next chapter takes a more sociological stance, before turning to what – for many readers – will be the “meat” of this particular text.

Andrew's entirely reasonable – and empirically supported – proposition is that situated learning activity (i.e. “learning through doing”) within project‐based work is supported or stifled by five constraints or enablers. These elements are identified as: cognitive style; learning relationships; the pyramid of authority; knowledge management; and the situational context. The following three chapters deal in turn with these elements in considerable detail, offering up examples to contextualise and support the assertions made.

Chapter 4 deals specifically with matters relating to cognitive style, and introduces us to the theoretical underpinnings of cognition. The focus then shifts to the distinction between cognitive styles and learning styles, and demonstrates the importance of this material within projects by introducing examples and data from the case study that supports this research. Evidence of the way in which individuals with specific pre‐identified cognitive styles engaged with their situated learning is then offered, and the suggestion is that this can happen both individually and collectively.

Chapter 5 deals with the second and third elements: learning relationships, and the pyramid of authority that subsists within an individual project. Learning relationships are the relationships between project personnel that allow the (two way) transfer of knowledge for the benefit of the project, leading to more effective project action. The importance of this learning is emphasised, and this chapter also offers examples from the data to reinforce the reader's learning. Pyramids of authority are dealt with next, at an individual and at a collective level. The link with political action is made explicit, and underpinned with examples.

Chapter 6 considers knowledge management, and situational context, which are described as infrastructural constraints or enablers. The first section of the chapter deals with knowledge generation, knowledge flows, and the exposure and sharing of tacit knowledge held by project team members. This is an area of considerable topical interest, and the author challenges some commonly held beliefs. The second section identifies a number of situational factors that may assist or inhibit project performance, including behavioural and temporal concerns.

The final chapter draws a number of these issues together, discusses the limitations of the research, and looks forward to future research in the area, posing a number of questions that will inevitable stimulate thought (and maybe action) on the part of the reader. My view as a reviewer is that there are some very important and timely messages in this text, underpinned by rigorous research activity, and that they are articulated in a precise and meticulous manner by an author who is an undoubted leader in his subject.

Notwithstanding this, and although I have so far been unstinting in my praise of this text, I do however have a reservation about this excellent publication. The author suggests (in Section 1.4) that the intention is to make the material here accessible to both academic and practitioner audiences. I applaud that intention, but my own opinion is that the “average” project practitioner (and I acknowledge that there are many who are far from average) will find the style and level of this work difficult to engage with. Notwithstanding this, I would unreservedly commend this book to all academics with an interest in the area, and to the practitioners out there – give this a try. If you can persevere with it, it will reward you, and you will find no better source of knowledge on Cultivating Learning Within Projects.

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