Published here December 2015.


Musings Index

Word Hierarchies in Project Management — Part 2

As I mentioned last month, about seven years ago I had trouble deciding which comes first: Tools or Techniques? Activities or Tasks? Goals or Objectives? And similar sets of related terms. I solved that problem, at least in my mind, by deliberately defining each term in a set such that its level in the hierarchy is self-evident. In systems speak, that means establishing the level of "granularity" for the term in question.

So, the following pages show hierarchical lists of related words popularly used in project management, from top to bottom, or degree of granularity, large to small — as I see them in the majority of current literature! Note that the term "Project Management" used here implies all levels from Portfolio on down.

But first, let's take a look at the one hierarchy that underpins all the rest.

Data-Wisdom hierarchy (DIKW)

Level 1: Data. At the lowest level these are just discrete bits, similar to the digits in a telephone number. Of themselves they mean very little, and only represent potential.

Level 2: Information. This is akin to the assembly of the digits into a string of digits that represents my telephone number. This information has real use because it can enable direct contact with me personally.

Phase transition to understanding

This transition involves establishing a mental state capable of acquiring information and grasping its significance, i.e., creating an ability to understand. It is key to being able to make use of the information through storage as "knowledge", e.g., how you can use the information of a telephone number and apply it to an instrument to actually facilitate contact with someone.

Level 3: Knowledge. This is the information that you can acquire and retain in your memory for future recall when you have need. In the case of the telephone number, as knowledge, you can use it without reference to a lookup source, and apply it any time to make contact with the owner of the number.

Level 4: Wisdom. This is perhaps the highest level when you not only retain information in memory, but also know how best to use it, when and in what circumstances. Generally, wisdom seems only to be acquired through experience. For example, don't telephone me after lunch because I am probably having a nap and will not be sympathetic.

If all of this is true, then it should be noted that all communication takes place at Level 2 and it is a mistake to refer to papers, articles, statements, standards and the like as anything but "Information", although some "content" may be a description about someone else's "knowledge" or "wisdom".

Note also that between Level 2 and Level 3, what we see is a significant or major transformation in which information is "internalized" to become knowledge. This is not unlike the major transformation that takes place in the life span of a project wherein conceptual "Planning" is transformed into action that produces desired "Products".

With this kind of thing in mind, here are a few hierarchies that I think are useful to remember. They are all listed from top (coarsest granularity) to bottom (fineness granularity).

Professional Knowledge hierarchy
Application as seen by the public

  • Profession
  • Domain
  • Discipline
  • Function
  • Process
  • Procedure
  • Steps

Management responsibility
Typical Documentation

  • Governance
  • Purpose
  • Principles
  • Practice
  • Policies
  • Procedures
  • Processes
  • Guidelines
  • Recommendations
  • Explanations or Notes

Management time lines

  • Portfolios
  • Programs
  • Projects
  • Periods or macro phases
  • Phases
  • Stages
  • Milestones
  • Activities
  • Tasks

Program and project planning
Aims and objectives

  • Philosophy
  • Vision
  • Mission
  • Goals
  • Objectives
  • Action plans
  • Performance Standards

Program and project execution
Management approach

  • Organization
  • Strategy
  • Tactics
  • Roles
  • Responsibilities
  • Style
  • Systems
  • Resources
  • Application
  • Techniques
  • Tools
  • Results

Product Life Span management
Scope elaboration through the life span

  • White paper
  • Opportunity Paper
  • Decision Case (Programs)
  • Business Case (Projects)
  • Project Charter, Project Brief
  • Project Implementation Plan
  • Work Breakdown Structure
  • Detailed Design Briefs
  • Production Contracts
  • Change Orders
  • Product Delivery acceptances
  • Usage and Benefit Delivery Reports
  • Retirement and disposal

No doubt, dear reader, you will not agree with all of the terms I have included, nor the sequences I have shown. Moreover, there are probably other sets that are useful in project management that I have not even thought of. If so, please feel free to write to me at — and set me straight!

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