posted 9 Dec 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 4
Building a corporate KM community
Two years ago, a number of KM practitioners based in the Netherlands decided to create a platform that would allow them to exchange ideas and experiences on an ongoing basis. Paul Louis Iske reports on the progress of the Dutch KM Open community of practice, which includes representatives from ABN Amro, Ahold, Akzo Nobel, Baan, Corus, DSM, Heineken, Philips, Shell and Unilever.
We all know that one of the most important reasons for attending knowledge-management conferences is the opportunity to meet peers and to learn about the latest developments in the field, and to gain insights into the practical aspects of our work in the area. Typically, we are all struggling with questions like:
- How do we start our KM efforts?
- How can senior management be convinced that an investment in KM is worthwhile?
- What technology should we use?
- What are the low-hanging fruits?
- How do we measure the benefits of KM?
- What are the lessons learnt?
- What are the best practices?
Typically, organisations are reluctant to share the details of their strategic projects. However, when every participant in a community is willing to share with, and learn from, others, all parties can benefit from the exchange of ideas and experiences. In fact, this is the core benefit that a community of practice (CoP) can deliver to its members.
In practice, organisations do learn from each other indirectly, via case studies in magazines like Knowledge Management, conferences, books and, most of all, through the use of consultants. The objective of this article is not to suggest that consultants should no longer be used, but we do believe that companies can learn from each other in a non-threatening, efficient, effective and economic way. Which is why we decided to create the Dutch KM Open, a community of practice (what you preach) to support our activities in the area of knowledge management.
Currently, the members of the community are large, multinational organisations with a strong Dutch background: ABN Amro Bank, Ahold, Akzo Nobel, Baan, Corus, DSM, Heineken, Philips, Shell and Unilever. Each of these companies has different strategic objectives for KM and focuses on different areas within the discipline. Furthermore, each company is at a different position on the KM maturity curve. Yet these differences, both in approach and in objectives, have turned out to be extremely important for the learning experience of the companies in the group as a whole.
The community meets on a regular basis at the site of one of the participating companies. This helps to put the case studies in their proper context, and to illustrate the differences between organisations. The settings vary from a visit to the Steel-production unit of Corus to a meeting room with a view over ABN Amro’s dealing room. After a number of visits and an increasing number of bilateral contacts, we decided to develop a virtual meeting place, which is being facilitated by Philips. So far, the face-to-face meetings have proven themselves to be the most valuable, although this is well documented in KM literature. ICT tools can act as enabler and to support communication between the members of communities, but the ‘bandwidth’ available during physical meetings cannot be matched by any existing form of online communication.
CASE STUDY: UNILEVER
To help Unilever to become a learning organisation, the company has developed a number of initiatives. To identify what is known and not known, knowledge workshops are held in all key areas of the business. Debriefings follow all critical projects, and are used to capture and share learnings. Communities of practice empower experts and practitioners to develop and roll out best practices and innovation. In recent years over 75 workshops have been held, involving more than 1,000 key employees. In addition, a number of strategic communities of practice are active globally. The ‘learning organisation’ is a key concept in the integration of business units, and in Unilever’s ongoing strategy to continue as a focused, efficient and entrepreneurial ‘multi-local’ multinational.
Knowledge management has been regarded as a mature discipline since May 2001, and the Unilever Knowledge Management Group provides KM consultancy and solutions to Unilever worldwide.
Topics that we have discussed within the community so far include:
- People finders/Yellow-Pages systems for the identification of experts within the organisation – It turns out that most of the companies involved in the community have had some experience with this type of tool. We have found that such tools require a lot of work and excellent communication to make them work. The real challenge is to motivate people to develop and maintain their own personal profiles. We concluded that common reasons for failure include:
- Not being able to answer the question, what’s in it for me?
- It is difficult for people to tell others what they know;
- People don’t use the tool (because they don’t know how to, because the information it contains is incorrect, etc);
- The system is not user friendly;
- There is not enough support from senior management;
We have also shared a number of more favourable experiences, however. It is clear from our collective experience that good communication, a good strategy, a user-friendly tool and user support are key success factors. Some companies are in the process of implementing more advanced systems, for instance those that are more closely integrated with other company systems, such as e-mail, online collaboration, search engines, and so on. Furthermore, a number of more interactive applications are being studied, where the expert receives more feedback on the knowledge that they share.
CASE STUDY: PHILIPS
Philips has developed a Yellow-Pages application that enables people to locate colleagues who have the right experience to help them with a problem. The system is built on the principle that you can find any information and any experience with the help of your colleagues. It allows for sharing pockets of knowledge (contributions) in the form of best practices and links. For those who are not able to find information directly, there is the option of posing an open question. Other members can then respond directly. Members can subscribe to all open questions from various categories. The application is highly personalised (with a personal homepage) and information is included according to an individual’s needs. All contributions are linked to a two-level taxonomy, which reflects the company’s main areas of activity. Members are able to forward, rate and comment on any contribution in the system. The system has over 13,000 members and has 3,500 hits per week.
- The link between strategy and KM. In some organisations, KM is used to support merger-and-acquisition processes. By facilitating the exchange of knowledge between the various parts of the organisation, synergies can be identified and economies of scale realised. Of course, this is not only true for companies that have just merged, but is also important for all companies that consist of different entities, especially in a multinational context.
Another strategic issue that most companies face is the need to become more customer-oriented. This often means a transition from a product-oriented approach to a customer-driven one. To help achieve this change, knowledge exchange between commercial units and product units is of vital importance. The community as a whole has also discussed the use of customer-relationship-management tools to capture and leverage knowledge from and about customers.
CASE STUDY: AHOLD
Ahold’s long-term success depends on the company’s ability to capture opportunities for horizontal value creation on a global and regional scale. Ahold Networking is an initiative targeted at enabling precisely this. The primary objective is to identify, share and apply best practices. To achieve this, 14 key knowledge areas have been identified (such as logistics, category management, real estate, IT, and so on) which are controlled by individual managers and facilitated by co-ordinators. Within the knowledge areas, networking groups are formed that work on clearly set objectives (‘orchestrated’ networking). Furthermore ‘spontaneous’ networking is stimulated, so that people proactively seek and share knowledge on a person-to-person basis. A tool has been developed that supports the various Ahold Networking-related activities, including team rooms, a knowledge library and a people database with profiles of the Ahold Networking participants (in total about 6,000 people).
- The importance of culture and leadership. Though the companies involved are operating in very different sectors and have varying organisational profiles, we can learn a lot from each other in the area of change management, (KM) leadership and culture. The consensus is that, at least in the Netherlands, a combination of a bottom-up and a top-down approach works best. We have exchanged best practices and lessons learnt in this area, in particular how to get buy-in from the various levels within the organisation. We all shared the realisation that, while broad objectives are fine, it is important to start with relatively small but successful projects that generate interest and enthusiasm, and on which one can build.
CASE STUDY: CORUS
Corus was formed in October 1999 through the merger of British Steel and Hoogovens, both leading companies in the metals industry. This sector has always been capital intensive and dependent on a skilled and experienced labour force. It is an environment in which the transfer of good practice can lead to considerable benefits. At Corus, the KM team is working to make this happen. Knowledge communities were introduced as a way of working to share best practices in the company. An expert finder, ‘Trace’, helps to identify knowledgeable colleagues, facilitating peer-to-peer learning. New business needs drive the development of new KM instruments, always with an integrated approach to content, process, tools, organisation and culture.
- Measuring the benefits of KM. To justify continued investment in knowledge management, it is important that some kind of return on investment can be demonstrated. Within the community, we have discussed various approaches that are being, or could be, used to measure the value of KM implementation. We have reached the conclusion that, although some interesting efforts in this area have been made, it is extremely difficult to identify an approach that delivers quantifiable and unambiguous results that can be used to convince sceptical decision makers. For communication and marketing purposes, it is important to at least collect anecdotal evidence of the added value that KM brings. Key performance indicators that link KM efforts to business results are also useful in this respect.
CASE STUDY: ABN AMRO CORPORATE FINANCE
ABN Amro has decided to become an important player in the international corporate-finance business. In order to achieve this, the franchise needs to build, capture, share and leverage knowledge. A knowledge map was created and a knowledge base developed. Knowledge owners (corporate-finance professionals) identify and capture best practices in the form of transaction manuals and valuations models. They also develop and maintain supporting content, such as checklists, standard presentation templates, and so on. Furthermore, so-called exposure plans are being made to support the personal and professional development of staff. Other tools, such as various forms of knowledge sessions, job rotation, coaching and after-action reviews, are being deployed to stimulate learning and create the conditions necessary for the firm to become a top player in a highly competitive and knowledge-intensive area of the banking business.
Other topics discussed include:
- New technology, such as portals, search engines and e-learning;
- The development and facilitation of knowledge communities;
- Issues around sharing of knowledge and information (such as privacy and anti-terrorism);
- The organisation of KM (do you need a separate department or a CKO?)
- The relationship between KM, HR and training and development;
- The relationship between KM and e-business.
CASE STUDY: AKZO NOBEL
The sharing of knowledge between the strongly autonomous units of Akzo Nobel is crucial. As CEO Cees van Lede says, “The real added value of Akzo Nobel as a focused hybrid lies in the optimum use of our collective know-how.”
To facilitate this, the Coatings Group and the Chemicals Group jointly developed a people-finder system. This intranet-based ‘who’s who’ is used around 200 times a month to pose questions to people with specific expertise. Furthermore, thousands of people use the system each month as a directory.
Multi-disciplinary ‘best-practice’ workshops represent a second tool to stimulate the exchange of knowledge between business units. These are organised around specific themes. For example, a workshop was organised recently around working capital (stock) control. The ultimate aim is that successful workshops evolve into their own communities of practice.
The foundations for future collaboration
We believe that the Dutch KM Open is a valuable platform for the KM professionals involved and the companies they represent. We have shown that it is possible to build inter-company relationships, which over time have evolved into relationships of trust and friendship. Based on these associations and the genuine desire to openly share knowledge for mutual advantage, we have been able to take part in value-adding discussions that have allowed us to benchmark ourselves against our peers and to pick up new ideas. This community of practice offers us both an efficient and an enjoyable way of improving our individual and organisational skills in the area of knowledge management. We believe that the Dutch culture, which is open but business-focused, has been a significant enabler for the spontaneous development of the community, and we fully expect that the relationships that have been forged between those involved will continue to grow in the future.
The author would like to express his gratitude to his Dutch KM Open peers: Kees Wittebrood (Corus), Gerard van der Molen (Baan), Ewald Liedenbaum (Ahold), Aad Streng (Philips), Hans Leijen (DSM), Ernst de Bruijn (Shell), Manfred Aben (Unilever) and Gert van den Berg (Akzo Nobel) for their willingness to share their knowledge and for their support with this article.
Paul Louis Iske is chief knowledge officer at ABN Amro Corporate Finance. He can be contacted at email@example.com