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posted 23 Jan 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 5

Five minutes with… Shell

Brad Vigers is part of the Organisational Performance and Learning team working on knowledge sharing and virtual team-working for Shell International Exploration and Production. Jacquie Bran, project manager with the Knowledge Management events team, spoke to Brad about his experiences working with KM.

When and why did you first consider implementing knowledge management?

Knowledge management, in one form or another, has always taken place in Shell’s global business, via expatriation, internal conferences and workshops, and formal training programmes. However, as the systems and devices used were often informal in nature, with duplication and repetition across a variety of media, our knowledge-management efforts were not truly global. Furthermore, until 1996 when formal efforts began to connect and streamline these initiatives in global mechanisms, including large communities of practice, the communications infrastructure to share knowledge was limited and unable to cope with increasing volumes of information.

What have you done to encourage and promote knowledge sharing in such a diverse environment and what barriers have you faced as a result?

The philosophy behind knowledge sharing in Shell EP has always been around creating enablers that allow people to share knowledge in whichever way they find most natural. As a result, a great deal of effort has gone into creating a knowledge-sharing strategy that makes the most of what we already have in place and acknowledges what sort of knowledge actually helps people to perform their daily work more effectively. With this as a framework, promotion has revolved primarily around reminding people how much they can benefit from inviting solutions instead of re-inventing the wheel.

The key challenges that we faced, as with many organisations, included:

  • Achieving the right balance between efforts spent embedding effective behaviours and developing appropriate IT solutions;
  • Justifying the effort spent on KM by trying to tie down the moving target of measured value;
  • Managing the increasing number of disparate, home-grown KM solutions popping up all over the organisation.

How did you progress to implementing an infrastructure to support KM?

As mentioned above, the first generation of our KM infrastructure focused predominantly on linking existing initiatives, many of which were gathered beneath what are now known as the Shell EP Global Networks – a collection of large technical and business communities of practice using Sitescape software. These Global Networks now have more than 15,000 members. Value to the global business – based on success stories – is close to $300m per annum.

What was the reaction of your workforce to changing working practices?

The fundamental challenge – ensuring that the required behaviours for effective knowledge sharing are embedded in staff globally, which we have called ‘new ways of working’ – has been minimised by making sure that the tools and mechanisms developed to support global knowledge sharing are simple and, to a large extent, are an extension of what already existed:

  • ‘Old boys’ networks have developed into global communities of practice;
  • Central service teams have expanded to include clusters of expertise wherever they exist globally – the EP Centres of Excellence;
  • Project teams based in different locations have developed into virtual teams, operating for much of their time without direct face-to-face contact, benefiting from reduced travel costs and staff relocations as well as round-the-clock working, while at the same time enjoying the efficiencies of traditional face-to-face teams.

In this way, while significant support has still been required to coach people on how to work and even think in a new way, a potentially enormous change has been reduced to something significantly more manageable.

What are the main lessons you have learnt?

One lesson that stands out is the struggle to balance the two distinct views around what supports effective KM: the tools or the behaviours. While both are important, they clearly play different roles.

The tools are more tangible, more solution-oriented and are easier to grasp and measure as well as to project manage. As a result, they tend to be the first place people look when implementing a KM solution. However, KM solutions based around IT seldom work – people don’t change their behaviours to fit IT. Simple IT solutions lower the threshold to involvement and reduce the time taken for people to adopt a KM solution.

Behaviours, on the other hand, are far more subjective, harder to grasp, and more difficult to change. They are therefore often not approached pragmatically in a way that addresses the business challenges. As a result, KM solutions that focus too heavily on behaviours are also prone to failure and quickly lose credibility.

To balance these two elements effectively and maintain that balance throughout the design and roll-out of a KM solution is without doubt the most important lesson to learn. There is no absolute answer to this; what that balance looks will be unique to each organisation.

Brad Vigers works with the Organisational Performance and Learning team at Shell. He can be contacted at brad.vigers@shell.com 

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