posted 9 Dec 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 4
From intranet to corporate portal
Ford was an early adopter of the intranet as a tool and now boasts a company culture that is firmly established in its use. The next step was to find a better way to address employees’ personal and job needs by delivering more self-service capabilities and personalisation. Stan Kwiecien and Trish Buckley report on the development of Ford’s enterprise portal, my.ford.com.
The intranet has become both a tool and a trauma for workers in large companies. When looking for information, how many of you who work for large corporations have been told, ‘it’s on the web’? OK, but where? And when you do find the information, how do you know it is up to date and accurate?
Ford Motor Company is no different. Being a global company with more than 200,000 people accessing its intranet daily, content can quickly become a morass of knowledge. It’s all in there: good stuff, bad stuff and useless stuff. Studies (both internal and external) have indicated that staff who re-use knowledge spend up to 25 per cent of their time searching for information, finding less than ten per cent of the information they searched for. So, still being faced with a deadline, they use the ‘best’ knowledge they have or, if they don’t trust it, they make it up or start their project from scratch.
The portal – a place to start
Ford was an early adopter of the intranet, which began during its Aerospace days. In 1996, Ford launched its Hub website, which provided a global, central point of access to its intranet. The first version of the Hub was really a glorified search engine that allowed employees to find information on the intranet. While important first steps to helping employees find information, Ford was looking to progress much further, particularly given the onset of web-enabled applications.
In 2001, the Hub was revised into a series of ‘information channels’ that focused employees’ attention on key areas within the company, helping drive employee business acumen and address both company and personal needs. The new site became a series of links, grouped under headings such as Key Sites, Corporate Metrics, Competitive Information, Clip Sheets (snippets of Ford-related news and information) and other tools such as the enterprise intranet search and corporate directory search for employees. The initial reaction to the new site was that there was too much information on the page, but soon employees began to see the value of having so much information pulled together in a single, easily accessible place. Employee satisfaction ratings for the site reached 98 per cent.
These early successes meant that the intranet was firmly established in the company culture. Employees easily accepted and adopted the intranet as a way of doing business. The next step was to find a better way to address employees’ personal and job needs by delivering more self-service capabilities and personalisation.
Ford adopted an enterprise-portal strategy that placed the portal layer on top of its existing intranet websites and web-enabled applications, bringing together collections of links and parts of existing or new application functionality, together with content management and improved search capabilities. The portal was launched in May 2001 to a global audience of more than 150,000 employees. The initial deployment objective was to build a foundation for all portals at Ford, including a centralised infrastructure, governance and delivery processes to support it. The Hub website was replaced with a new view on a user’s personalisable My Page. The centralised solution was then made available to business units in January 2002 to deliver additional personalised tools, links and content as portal communities. Currently, Ford has delivered portal communities to employees in product development, manufacturing, marketing and sales, and finance.
The future solution will leverage portal technology to drive employee collaboration, increase integration with existing and packaged software solutions, and more robust role-based capabilities.
The enterprise search capabilities were launched alongside the first site in 1996. This search capability was the cornerstone in helping employees find available intranet-based content. As time evolved, and content increased, the challenge of finding the ‘best’ information also grew. The search capability had to be matched with appropriate corporate taxonomy and meta-data to allow employees to browse for quality content. Ford deployed a proprietary website registration process that significantly improved the search results by enforcing standards on what would be searchable content. The registration also put in place a control checkpoint on meta-data quality. Additionally, relevance ratings were provided to assist employees in accessing result sets.
Future challenges in search capabilities centre on expanding the breadth of searchable content into document and data-driven repositories.
Examples of intranet use for knowledge management
The enterprise portal has made a phenomenal improvement to the way Ford staff access information and knowledge. Even without customisation, headers quickly lead to areas of interest. By default, the Ford Communication Network is prominent with links to news headlines. Banners advertising company events and services rotate weekly. Tabs in the top frame link directly to websites related to major initiatives such as six sigma, corporate vision and strategies, information about brands, financials and human resources. Depending on your management status, the sensitivity and detail of the content within the various tabs varies.
The portal drives integration with other applications, delivering not just the ability to find information but to use gadget tools to conduct business. These tools allow information to be placed into applications and documents. So the portal is not just a tool for finding information but a ‘toolbox’ of tools and information employees need to do their jobs. Many people use it as their homepage (as intended) and have customised my.ford.com to improve their efficiencies. The homepage is usually accessed for the corporate directory or to use the text-paging feature to contact someone quickly. The portal is also easier to use and organise than bookmarks, and since the portal layout is based on your profile, it does not matter which PC in the world you log on to – your personal portal is always with you.
Whether users come in through a link, a bookmark or via the url, they first pass through web single log-in (WSL). Any site that depends on a person’s profile, including my.ford.com, makes use of the WSL to grant permissions. The beauty of WSL is that once logged in, all sites that require registration are accessed without additional verification. Some sites that contain privileged or secret information obviously have additional security.
The Enterprise Knowledge Base (EKB) is an area where anyone can add to the repository. The mission of the EKB is to provide management and protection of Ford’s informational assets while capturing knowledge and providing worldwide accessibility. Submissions are vetted according to their relevance. The validity of the content and updates are the responsibility of the submitter. Submissions must adhere to GIS – Global Information Standards and Records Retention requirements. EKB is a repository where submitters are charged a fee based upon storage size. Users may come in and search by keyword or against the taxonomies and meta-data that is a requirement for submission and approval. Frequent users may establish search profiles for re-use when visiting EKB.
Knowledge-Based Engineering (KBE) is a well-defined structured process and web application. KBE guides the design engineers who exclusively use CAD for their designs. Depending on the component or system being designed, the CAD system contains ‘rules’ and specific hard-point data and dimensions that are the result of proven designs and processes. If the engineer attempts to ‘violate’ a rule, the system makes suggestions based on proven knowledge and rules. Allowing for innovation, a rule may be violated, but it is flagged and must have executive sign-off.
Best Practice Replication (BPR) is a very specific knowledge-management process and supporting website. There is no direct link from the current portal since BPR is considered a supporting tool and process that is used primarily by members of specific communities of practice. The BPR system prompts the members (called focal points) via e-mail notification whenever there are new best practices to review or when some time limits for responses have expired. The BPR application can be accessed from the portal search engine using keywords like ‘BPR’, ‘best’ or ‘replication’. BPR has been in use for almost seven years and a significant amount of valued knowledge now exists in its repository. There is a need to make this accessible to a wider audience who may not have an ongoing need to know but on occasion could benefit from the information. In knowledge-management terms these people are referred to as ‘lurkers’ (coined by EtienneWenger). Lurkers are those who may not want to actively participate in communities of practice but do want access to the knowledge. There is a proposal to make the BPR-specific search engine available directly from the portal. As it is, content within BPR is included in the portal search.
When BPR focal points receive e-mail notification, a link in the e-mail will take them to the BPR homepage. The focal point typically clicks feedback. The page displays the person’s community, location and, by default, the list of best practices that have yet to be reviewed and responded to. Again, this display is based on the individual’s profile that was verified by WSL. The first picture sheet to be reviewed has a button that displays the feedback form. Typically, the focal point is a conduit of knowledge. They are responsible for initially reviewing the knowledge as presented, then collaborating with their colleagues to determine if the practices are replicable at their location. The focal point then re-accesses the system, providing the feedback status for their location:
- A – adopt or adapt the practice or portions of it;
- NA – not applicable;
- NEF – not economically feasible; the return is not worth the investment;
- P – previously implemented;
- C – a practice that was previously adopted has now been completed;
- INV – under investigation while collaborating. We found that practices that were INV were often subsequently adopted and completed without updating the feedback. Nagware was developed to remind the focal point of practices that have been INV for more than 60 days.
The feedback form is designed to support project management (cost, timing and responsibilities comments).
Focal points also have permission to submit proven best practices on behalf of their location. These are the substance of the best-practice repository. Each community of practice establishes its criteria for content; its own taxonomies and establishes metrics that depict the value of the practice. These values or benefits can be expressed in dollars but are more often in terms relevant to the business of the community, the all-important ‘what’s in it for me?’ Examples of non-monetary benefits are cycle time (for manufacturing), millions of BTUs/year for energy quality and customer-satisfaction-improvement indices (not just for automotive product, but for services provided to both external and internal customers). The communities have identified more than 180 such value measures, and we are careful to call it value or benefits rather than savings. The term ‘savings’ sets off intense efforts to prove and disprove rather than the simpler approach of valuing your colleagues’ judgements and the more tacit rather than the tangible.
Next, a community leader reviews draft practices (we call these people gatekeepers) and collaborates with subject-matter experts regarding the process improvement that the best-practice submission describes. This is the phase where content and the values are verified and validated. The gatekeeper then changes the practice status from draft to approved. This act instructs the system to send the e-mail notifications to members of the community.
You may wonder why people use this system with its very structured process and defined roles. The simple answer is that the users designed it and since the initial users were in manufacturing, a disciplined approach to process and roles is a way of life. The system is capable of generating literally thousands of reports and data dumps. These are close to being ad hoc and allow any level of user to view activity and value from a broad macro view to nitty-gritty details of when replication is planned, how much it will deliver, how much it will cost and who is responsible. These reports are reviewed at operating committee meetings on a routine basis, from the local-area management teams to the director level of the various divisions.
Currently we have more than 50 communities of practice, fewer than 20 are specific to manufacturing, the majority represent the support activities of the enterprise, including logistics, product development, Ford financial, human resources, the environmental office, Ford land, information technology, even the recruiting office. There are in excess of 2,500 focal points representing more than 250,000 employees. We consider all of our employees to be knowledge workers.
Lurkers who have learnt to set a notification profile based upon topics (taxonomies) or keywords that they have an interest in receive e-mails with links directly to best practices that satisfy their profile of interest.
Best Practice Replication was the first transactional web-based application at Ford. Since its inception in 1996, more than $1.3bn of value add has been identified. This is considered to be very conservative since not all value is in terms of hard savings – indeed, most of the value measured is in terms that relate to metrics used by the practitioners, examples are manufacturing through-put, cycle time savings, energy saved in terms of millions of BTUs/year, quality indices, etc. With effort, all of these can be converted to a monetary value. But users value and relate to their own specific metrics more than they do money. A number of corporations have benchmarked our process and some, including Shell, Nabisco and Kraft Foods, have licensed the use of our process and our knowledge regarding communities of practice.
These are only three examples of intranet applications at Ford that are used to collect and disseminate knowledge. There are of course many more, but as mentioned earlier, those that are successful and valued have content management, reliable search techniques and, above all, are pertinent and add value to the business.
The re-use of knowledge does reduce risk and properly applied it can also drive innovation. If people know what’s been done they will apply their efforts to improve or make new rather than thinking they have a new idea and end up re-inventing the wheel.
A powerful tool
Ford is fortunate to have had visionaries who at the beginning could see how the internet held the future of maintaining, protecting and disseminating our knowledge. Indeed it did provide an opportunity; it also offered the risk of losing the knowledge in an uncontrolled environment. The visionaries understood and supported the development by delegating the responsibility internally to people who understood and knew the business. The web is a tool, a powerful tool. Like any effective tool, it must be easy to use, it must be intuitive and easy to learn, it must be safe and, above all, use of the tool must result in a finished product. Extraction of useful knowledge is an example of productive use of the tool. Submission of knowledge for the benefit of others is an example of honing, maintaining and improving the tool.
Stan Kwiecien is Best Practice Replication deployment manager at Ford. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Trish Buckley is program manager, collaborative services, enterprise portal, search and knowledge sharing at Ford. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org