The doctoral dissertations of the former Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Aalto University Schools of Technology (CHEM, ELEC, ENG, SCI) published in electronic format are available in the electronic publications archive of Aalto University - Aaltodoc.

Projects as Distributed Cognitive Actions – The Management of Two Public Building Projects

Heikki Lonka

Dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Science in Technology to be presented with due permission of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management for public examination and debate in Auditorium TU1 at Helsinki University of Technology (Espoo, Finland) on the 18th of May, 2007, at 12 noon.

Dissertation in PDF format (ISBN 978-951-22-8558-7)   [1476 KB]
Dissertation is also available in print (ISBN 978-951-22-8557-0)


This is a comparative case study of two public building projects.

This research studies projects as distributed cognitive actions. Distributed cognition studies human cognition as a shared activity, not as a property of a single individual. In distributed cognition several agents share cognitive resources of symbolic knowledge, plans, and goals, to accomplish something that one agent could not achieve alone. Many concepts of distributed cognition can be applied to studies of project management: transactive memory, communities of practice, social networks, weak links, and knowledge brokers, to mention only a few.

The aim of this study was to find out whether the problems of project knowledge management could be explained by using the distributive cognitive approach and how project success factors could be better understood and described by studying projects as distributed cognitive actions. For this aim a method was created where analysis was based on qualitative, retrospective interviews of the project participants and on the documents produced. There were three research questions:

  1. What do the documents and other artifacts produced tell about the collective activity which produced them?
  2. How can the changes during the two projects be described as dynamism of the social network?
  3. What were the factors behind the projects' success or failure?

The research was build around two different studies. The first study was a case study of a school renovation. There were qualitative interviews (N=15) and documents (N=534). The second study was a case study of a service centre renovation project using qualitative interviews (N=21) and documents (N=2367). The projects were studied phase by phase and the network links in each phase described.

It was found that the projects can be studied as distributed cognitive systems. The main findings were:

Keywords: social networks, project success factors, distributed cognition, knowledge management

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© 2007 Helsinki University of Technology

Last update 2011-05-26