Knowledge engineering | step 6 – project planning (challenges and strategies)

Knowledge engineering can be treated like a project. In some respects, the creation of a knowledge base is a one-time collection of activities that pursue a specific end in the creation of a knowledge base. This work will take considerable time and resources. Planning and management should be part of the process.

This post covers some of the unique issues and challenges for knowledge engineering. A general discussion about project management won’t be included here.

Common knowledge engineering project management questions

Some of the questions I get asked before starting a knowledge engineering project come up again and again:

  • How long will it take?
  • What will it cost?
  • How much content will we create?

They’re good questions. It’s tough to give concise answers. Below, are some of the dependencies or variables that will influence the knowledge engineering process, along with strategies to help manage them from a project management perspective.


Domain variables:

An un-engineered domain is a black box. The cost and the amount of time required to knowledge engineer the domain will actually depend on what’s in the domain.

Knowledge engineers aren’t experts in the domain. They don’t know how complex it is and how detailed the knowledge base will be. Unless they’ve done any knowledge engineering before, subject matter experts likely won’t know long it will take or how much it will cost to knowledge engineer a domain.

Problems might lurk in the domain. They might have to do with knowledge or with the process of putting knowledge into a rule-based system that lacks common sense. Finding solutions can chew up time and resources.

Project management strategies:

  1. Allow for some proto-knowledge engineering activities to let knowledge engineers and subject matter experts get into the domain and start working on it. They should get an impression of what the domain contains.
  2. Manage scope carefully. Allow the team to scope down the work and revise expectations after work begins.
  3. Use experienced knowledge engineers to help work through any problems. Sometimes they’ll have seen similar issues and can provide potential solutions quickly for experimentation.
  4. If you get in trouble, time-box the work. Set a deadline for hitting a milestone (even if it’s arbitrarily set) and work toward it – even if it doesn’t seem right.

Specificity & granularity variables:

Knowledge content for an expert system knowledge base can vary widely in terms of specificity or granularity. Do you want 1 rule saying “beach” or 1 rule for each grain of sand on that beach?

Project management strategies:

  1. Create rough expectations on how granular the knowledge base will be. Revise if necessary as knowledge engineering progresses.
  2. Consider using templates that encourage patterns and levels of granularity to manage the volume of work.

Subject matter expert variables:

Strong subject matter experts who understand the point of knowledge engineering will make the work fast. Weak subject matter experts can make the process of translating a domain into logic based rules very slow. Obstructionists who disagree with the exercise can grind it to a halt.

Subject matter experts also need to be available for the work. They’ll often be professionals with lots of pressures and responsibilities.

Project management strategies:

  1. Find the best experts you can.
  2. Orient the subject matter experts to the process and help them “buy in”. If they don’t accept it, find new experts as soon as possible.
  3. Make sure your experts are available for the work, and make the best use of their time.

Knowledge engineer variables: 

Assuming your knowledge engineers are competent in the methodology (that’s a key assumption), their impact on the time and resources required for the project will likely come down to availability.

Project management strategies:

  1. Make sure your knowledge engineers have a sufficient number of hours and days per week available to keep the work moving at a decent pace.
  2. Encourage your knowledge engineers to be flexible: they have to accommodate last minute scheduling changes that will come from their busy subject matter experts. Rescheduled sessions are 100% more productive than cancelled sessions.
  3. Make sure knowledge engineers are working on their own or with other team members to maximize productivity between live facilitated sessions with subject matter experts.

Scheduling variables: 

Open-ended work times lead to more uncertainties around duration and frequency of knowledge engineering work sessions. Team members should at least know how often to be available.

Project management strategies:

  1. Set a minimum amount of time for team members. For example:

    Subject matter experts: ask them to be available for 2 facilitation sessions a week x 1.5 hours long.

    Knowledge engineers: they have to lead the facilitation 2 sessions a week x 1.5 hours long. They should also have at least 2 extra hours per meeting of pre-work or follow up. Team members playing supporting roles could require much more time.

  2. As noted above, allow for flexibility to move these meetings around if subject matter experts (who usually have other jobs) need to change meeting times and dates at the last minute.

Work stage variables: 

It’s easy to think only about creating knowledge base content when we think about knowledge engineering. But it’s only part of the work. Other stages include refinement, review, approval, testing, user feedback evaluation and…project planning.

Project management strategies:

  1. Create an end to end work plan covering as many of the stages as possible, starting with conceptualization and ending with ongoing maintenance.
  2. Build in some time for experimentation (“what if we try this?”, rework “let’s see if we can make this part better”, and methodology changes “this approach isn’t working for the system we want to build so we’ll have to change it – for all the content”).
  3. Be realistic. Be prepared for people who aren’t familiar with the process to tell you “how long they think it should take”.


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