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posted 1 Aug 1997 in Volume 1 Issue 1

Greater than the sum of its parts: Knowledge Management in British Petroleum

"By the end of 1997, we want to deliver a demonstrable increase in our ability to manage knowledge. We want to enhance our knowledge assets, assess our ability to manage these assets, and to look at what the critical areas of knowledge are for us." Chris Collison , BP Knowledge Management looks at making the vision a reality.

The biggest single source of sustainable competitive advantage in the future will be our ability to create and mobilize knowledge in the interest of new products and services."

The words of Kent Greenes, who leads BP's Knowledge Management effort with a dedicated team of ten staff. His multi-disciplinary team, drawn from across the range of BP's business activities, is supporting a range of knowledge management initiatives underway in business units, as well as developing new tools and processes to support the approach.

The establishment of such a team underwrites a commitment to knowledge management made by BP's CEO, John Browne, who sees it as key to helping the multinational "separate itself from the pack".

BP's flat organizational structure revolves around a "federation" of 87 business units. Each has a high degree of autonomy, yet they all share a growing sense of interdependence and awareness that in order to meet their aggressive performance targets they will need to learn both from and with each-other. In short, the focus is on working smarter - to quote the vision from the Knowledge Management team:

"BP knows what it knows, learns what it needs to learn, and uses its knowledge more productively than any other company."
Making the Vision a Reality

"By the end of 1997, we want to deliver a demonstrable increase in our ability to manage knowledge. We want to enhance our knowledge assets, assess our ability to manage these assets, and to look at what the critical areas of knowledge are for us."1

The team has three broad areas of focus for their approach to helping BP become that smarter company.

Towards a smarter company - the three broad areas of knowledge focus at BP

1. Getting the Organization Ready

The Knowledge Management team plan to talk with every BP business unit world-wide during 1997 to carry out what they describe as "engagement" - to create awareness and develop expec tations across the company. An engagement typically consists of a powerful presentation and discussion with key staff, focusing on the importance of knowledge as a strategic asset and highlighting where knowledge management is already being successfully applied in the organization. The intent is that 80% of those engaged do something more than they are already doing to manage their knowledge.

After each engagement, the Knowledge Management team uses the feedback and ideas generated to evolve the way forward for BP's Knowledge Management strategy and implementation.

To support this awareness activity, BP is building up a "showcase" of examples of knowledge management in action, drawing on best practice case histories.

To further embed this thinking into the organization, the team are working with BP's Organizational Development staff to build aspects of knowledge management into the formal graduate induction and leadership development programs, so that delegates experience accessing BP's knowledge infrastructure, and broaden their networks to access key expertise from diverse parts of the company.

More ambitiously, Greenes is passionate about developing the appropriate leadership and knowledge management competencies in all staff, and further legitimizing sharing and learning processes in the company.

Larry Prusak (IBM Consulting), who has regularly helped stimulate BP's thinking on knowledge management, summarized well the challenge that BP, or any other company, faces in a recent article:

"I call my field 'knowledge management' but you can't manage knowledge. Nobody can. What you do - what a company does - is manage the environment that optimizes knowledge."2

Virtual Teamworking in British Petroleum

One thousand staff in BP, together with over 30 of its key partners and suppliers, share extensive desktop collaboration, video-conferencing and information sharing tools, as part of a major program to support the creation of virtual teams. The technology element is augmented by the provision of coaching in new ways of working, aiming for sustainable changes in work patterns and behaviours.

In addition to stimulating totally new ways of working, this capability enables a degree of tacit knowledge transfer between key staff throughout BP's federation of business units, and has already contributed tens of millions of dollars of value to the company.

2. Managing our Knowledge Assets

Managing knowledge assets involves making knowledge visible and accessible where it already exists - whether in the form of "packaged knowledge" on the Intranet, or as knowledge resident in people, accessible via a corporate yellow pages. It also involves understanding what BP's critical knowledge assets are, both for the present and the future. Once this is known, a programatic approach to "fill in the gaps" and seek new knowledge can be put into action.

BP's current track record in the oil industry is an indication of its ability to mobilize knowledge in real time - to bring key expertise to bear on a particular business problem or opportunity. Now the focus is on how this mobility can be supplemented with a systematic approach to the capture and transfer of knowledge.

As a result of exposure to research by Prof. John Henderson (Boston University) on the US Army's Center for Army Lessons Learned3, BP is learning to apply a learning process known as an After Action Review. This team-based process is applicable to any event where there is a desire to capture and apply lessons learned, whether to refinery maintenance, drilling optimization or even to senior management meetings. To gain first-hand exposure to the technique, BP has even flown in retired ex-US Army Col. Ed Guthrie to coach the staff in several of its operations.

As the capture of knowledge becomes a mainstream activity in BP, new roles are emerging in business units - the role of a "knowledge guardian", who proactively seeks out and codifies lessons and better practices from their part of the company. Often this "packaged knowledge" takes the form of a multimedia-rich resource on BP's rapidly growing intranet, where it can be easily showcased and linked to related people and information.

In managing its own knowledge assets, the company regularly looks to others as a source of best practice and creative ideas. BP, along with other organizations such as Ford, GlaxoWellcome, GM, Xerox, Kraft, the US Army and Coca Cola is currently a member of two cross-industry working groups, facilitated by the APQC and Boston University respectively.

"We certainly don't have all the answers", says Greenes "we have a tremendous amount to learn from others in this field, and find great value in sharing both our strengths and weaknesses with fellow-travellers."

After Action Reviews (AARs)

Developed by the U.S. Army to enable its transformation from a late "Industrial Age" Army to an "Information Age" Army for the 21st Century, the After Action Review is a simple mechanism for individuals and teams to learn and capture knowledge immediately from successes and failures with just four questions:
1. What was supposed to happen?
2. What actually happened?
3. Why were there differences?
4. What can we learn?
The AAR process has been adopted by companies such as Motorola and General Electric - and now British Petroleum.

3. Leveraging our Expertise

Striving to make better use of the expertise already resident in the organization has lead BP into some pioneering work with new tools and technologies. The Virtual Teamwork Program is a good example of a holistic approach to the support of tacit knowledge transfer. Initiated in 1995 as a visionary experiment, but now accepted as "business as usual", the program brought together desktop video-conferencing and collaboration technologies with behavior change "coaching". Almost 1,000 staff in BP, over 30 of its key partners and suppliers now regularly use this capability to transfer knowledge face-to-face.

The Peer Assist process is a less ad hoc approach to knowledge transfer and creative problem solving. Business units are encouraged to request assistance from their peers to address key problems or opportunities. The Peer Assist process also legitimizes the time and cost required to bring together a diverse group of professionals from around the world, who will spend several days working together as a transient team to identify new approaches, thereby stimulating existing and new networks across the company. It is accepted practice that Peer Assists are uncharged activities and, moreover, they illustrate the sort of federal behavior that BP is pursuing to complement its organization.

To enable people to leverage the expertise across the group, several different learning projects and pilots are underway, adopting a variety of approaches: exploiting multimedia and video technology; creating electronic yellow pages that can be searched in a variety of ways; and encouraging people to list their interests, expertise and experiences that they are willing to share with anyone wishing to contact them, via face-to-face or even virtual meetings.

In summary, BP's overall approach can be characterized by these three threads - Getting the organization ready, Managing its knowledge assets and Leveraging its expertise - together with a holistic consideration of people, process and technology-related issues.

Finally, Kent Greenes is in no doubt as to the lasting relevance of knowledge management within BP:

"Knowledge Management is not a fad for BP - it is high on the operational and strategic agenda of the company. The question is not 'is Knowledge Management critical to our success?', but rather, 'how do we make it happen in a way that it becomes part of our day-to-day business?'"

Chris Collison works in the Knowledge Management group at BP. He can be contacted at:


1 Kent Greenes, 'BP Review', Internal Research and Engineering Journal, March 1997.
2 Larry Prusak, 'Knowledge Management calls for a new way of thinking', July 1997. [http://www.ibm.com/services/articles/knowman2.html].
3 Transforming the US Army: The Need for Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning (A) and 'Transforming the US Army - the Center for Army Lessons Learned' by Stephanie Watts and John C. Henderson, Teaching Case series NSF-TQM-1 and NSF-TQM-2, 1997.

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