posted 1 Feb 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 5
ICL's café culture
At ICL knowledge communities have emerged as a powerful means to fostering a truly collaborative environment. Graeme Mackay discusses the methods and tools the company has employed to encourage their development across the corporation.
ICL as one of Europe's leading e-business services companies has used knowledge communities as a means of encouraging a greater degree of knowledge sharing within the organisation. As we have found from our experience within ICL knowledge communities have proved to be an effective way of creating and sustaining the sort of culture needed to enable knowledge sharing to happen in practice.
Since 1996 when ICL ceased its last manufacturing operation the company has transformed into a service-led organisation which sells the skills and experience of its people. This means that knowledge has become the company's most valuable asset - knowledge about technology our customers and their business.
This transformation has made it a strategic imperative for ICL to excel at leveraging its intellectual capital. As long ago as early 1996 ICL decided to invest in a company-wide initiative - called 'valuing ICL knowledge' (VIK) - to specifically address this issue.Valuing ICL knowledge
At the outset of this project three significant areas were identified that would need to be influenced simultaneously to make a long-term difference; the working practices of ICL's people its business processes and the technology that supports knowledge sharing across the business.
Recognising the opportunity that new technologies bring to make information and knowledge visible to a global community Project VIK's first goal was to create a global information service for employees (via an intranet). Named Café VIK to reinforce the idea of connecting people its original aim was to make a quick impact on productivity by reducing the time people waste trying to find the information they need to do their jobs effectively.
However this was always seen as 'one small step on a much longer journey'. Early on ICL realised the need to actively promote this concept to staff. So Café VIK was launched via a roadshow visiting major ICL sites across western and central Europe as a means of presenting Project VIK as an initiative for employees themselves rather than solely for the organisation as a whole. This was a start in terms of spreading the message on the need for ICL to share its collective knowledge but as experience has shown it was by no means the end.
Over the five years of Project VIK it has become clear that implementing the technology has been the most straightforward part of the project. The hardest task has been to develop and sustain a real knowledge sharing culture across the organisation. However as this culture of knowledge sharing has developed it has become clear that this is the key to making knowledge sharing happen in reality.So far so good
Two years into the project Café VIK had already become an indispensable tool for ICL people with 12 000 users making regular use of the system to help them in their day-to-day work. However it was also recognised that much of the valuable knowledge within ICL still existed only in people's heads or perhaps on their hard drives or file servers. Not enough valuable knowledge was being published on Café VIK or even its existence properly sign-posted.
On reflection there were a number of reasons for this. One of these was that the culture of sharing knowledge as an everyday activity was not as widespread as it needed to be. We recognised that to support such a culture we needed to develop a greater degree of trust and ownership among groups of people while at the same time giving them the wherewithal to more easily exchange publish and manage the knowledge that was relevant to them.Knowledge communities
ICL therefore decided to implement knowledge communities across the company as a way of further encouraging ICL people to share what they know. The definition of a knowledge community is a group of individuals who are linked together by common interests needs location or organisation; with a desire to collaborate and share their information and knowledge.
The theory behind communities is that people naturally form networks of like-minded individuals who they value and trust and that they will use these networks to help them in their day-to-day activities. Such networks will often transcend organisational structures and boundaries. In other words small pockets of a self-starting and self-sustaining knowledge sharing culture will often form of their own accord. For an organisation like ICL this is exactly the type of behaviour it needs to encourage. Forming knowledge communities is a way of encouraging and legitimising these knowledge sharing networks.
The trouble with wholly informal networks is that they are often largely invisible to the wider organisation. Communities are also a way of sign-posting the fact that these pockets of expertise exist within the company. This of course is essential if the idea is to make knowledge widely available across the company. In an ICL context for example we needed to make it easy for a sales person to quickly find an expert in a particular area; for a consultant to learn from the experience of a project in another part of the organisation or in another country; or for someone who has just joined the company to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
To support these communities Café VIK was also redesigned to provide a community space for each of them so that there is a place where individuals with common interests can exchange search for and contribute their information knowledge and experience. These spaces enable community content and membership to be managed by community champions. Each community space offers the functionality to allow members to publish content manage their own content contribute to discussion groups or online meetings and poll the opinions of other members.
Communities of course are about more than just helping people to find information easily. They also have an important role in facilitating learning and skills development which is of critical importance to an e-business services company like ICL where the rate of change in the marketplace means that individuals must constantly keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date. Experience has shown that learning (as distinct to formal training) is usually a social activity which works best in groups where people can learn from each other.
Experienced staff for example will pass on their knowledge and expertise to less experienced members of the team. Or it might be that a group of experts will regularly exchange the latest thinking on a particular subject. In the IT market even experts need to be constantly updating their skills and learning from their colleagues. Learning in a social context is also critical for project teams where the complexity of the project may require a number of individuals with different areas of expertise to collaborate closely together and learn from each other.
This social-based learning however does not always happen automatically. In the first place it usually depends on the existence of these 'invisible' networks of people who know the value they themselves get from the experience of others and who are therefore willing to take the time to share their own expertise. Knowledge exchange is a two-way process; people give in the expectation that they will get something back in return. So learning and knowledge sharing also requires trust. Trust that your own knowledge will not be misused and trust that you will get value in the future either from a reciprocal knowledge exchange or from a recognition of the value of your knowledge.
Such networks tend to originate because they meet a need. As a result over time people self-organise because while they may have a strong need to share knowledge they will only do so with other people whom they trust respect and have some regard for. And this is the essence of the knowledge sharing culture that ICL has sought to develop and sustain. Communities built around business needs which also engender a culture of trust and collaboration. As mentioned earlier effective knowledge sharing depends on having the right culture in place and the more that culture develops the more effectively knowledge sharing will happen.
Moreover as a large company operating in over 40 countries ICL really needs this learning to go beyond small groups of people and be made available to the wider ICL community. While a knowledge community exists to re-create the very natural way of learning that will happen between colleagues who work closely together they also need to extend at least some of that learning to other people regardless of location or organisational structure.
Indeed many knowledge communities are not restricted to ICL people but may include customers and alliance partners. One example would be the Knowledge Club which ICL set up with some of its major customers as a way of exchanging experiences of knowledge sharing within our respective organisations. In effect this is an example of an external community of interest. The experiences of members of this club such as the Post Office and Chartwell Land (part of the Kingfisher Group) underline the need for culture change as a core part of any knowledge sharing initiative.Self-starting
In the same way that these natural knowledge sharing networks are self-forming and self-organising so the approach ICL has taken is to encourage groups to form themselves into communities. They are then given the technology toolkit necessary to create their own community space and make that community and its knowledge visible to a wider audience. This toolkit was designed from the start to be easily replicable allowing communities to be set up on request.
While some communities are very obvious and indeed essential in order to deliver the information that ICL people need access to (examples would be Finance or HR communities) most of the knowledge communities in ICL have come about because people in various parts of the business have decided that there is value in doing so. This is extremely important because it means that there is ownership commitment and at least some level of trust. In other words communities both require and encourage the sort of behaviours needed to enable knowledge sharing.
Although the visible existence of a community is its space on the intranet (Café VIK) the model of natural knowledge exchange a community is trying to re-create is based on people collaborating and working together. We need to recognise that people share knowledge best by talking to each other not by publishing documents on an IT system. Rarely do 'virtual' communities thrive as well as those where members have opportunities to meet face-to-face. By talking and collaborating closely together people will also build the trust and understanding we have already identified as being key to creating a knowledge sharing culture.
It is important not to build knowledge communities on the expectation that people will regularly write down what they know and publish it for all to see. It is well recognised that much of the most important knowledge in any organisation exists as tacit knowledge and that only a small proportion of it will be made explicit. At ICL the stress has always been on recognising that knowledge communities are communities of people and that the easiest most effective and lowest cost way of getting people to share what they know is to get them talking to each other. Communities need to be much more about connecting people than about technology solutions.
What technology can do is connect people together through the virtual community space in order to build trust and encourage the exchange of tacit knowledge. Also by making it as simple as possible for anyone to publish knowledge if necessary restricted to the immediate community group we are trying to create an environment where people will more naturally exchange knowledge with trusted colleagues and hopefully also feel motivated to publish some of that knowledge to a wider audience.Indicators of success
Having established the first knowledge communities over 18 months ago the success of knowledge communities has far exceeded initial expectations. In addition ICL has learned a number of valuable lessons in terms of what makes a community tick.
There are currently around 350 knowledge communities in ICL. Most of these have come about because people in the business have been motivated to form a community - i.e. a 'bottom up' approach. Very few have been created in a 'top down' sense where the company might decide that there should be a community on a given topic.
This seems to indicate two things about creating and sustaining a knowledge sharing culture. The first is that the message that knowledge sharing is an important business discipline for ICL and one that needs to become part of normal working practice for ICL employees has obviously got through. Enough people have taken the time and trouble to want to create launch and contribute to one or more knowledge communities such that a large number of diverse communities are now in operation.
The second point is that the concept of communities as a means of encouraging greater knowledge sharing seems to work well. Many more topics relevant to ICL's business are now represented on Café VIK than before. Many more people are involved in publishing and managing content that is important from a cultural point of view because it indicates a much greater level of ownership and involvement from the business. It seems to show that the intranet has become a tool that is part of everyday business not just an occasionally used information retrieval tool.
A few statistics seem to prove this point:
- Up to 400 pieces of content are published a day
- 150 000 pieces of content are accessed on average each week
- 3.5 times more content is accessed now than at the same time last year
- Daily requests are received for new communities to be established.
This is backed-up by anecdotal feedback from people running some of these knowledge communities. One administrator commented: "Our new community is providing a central repository for all sorts of information that used to be held in personal files and peoples heads while another said: As a group our collective knowledge is really increasing. Several of our members are regularly publishing into it and many more are starting to use the discussion groups to collaborate and solve real business problems."
From the point of view of ingraining knowledge sharing into the company culture two other statistics are important indicators of success. Café VIK users have the option to register for a personalised version of Café VIK - 'My Café VIK'. This allows user to tailor elements of the interface and navigation to suit their personal needs. Well over 10 000 staff have registered on 'My Cafe VIK' and in doing so have subtly changed the 'corporate' intranet into their 'own' intranet.
The other voluntary facility available is Connect where staff have the option to fill in their own skills profile including work experience personal interests and a photograph. So far this is purely a voluntary activity but in just over a year almost 8 000 staff have published their own Connect records another important indicator of ownership. People can search this for a skill set or for a fellow expert in their area all of which further 'wires up' the company through knowledge and skills rather than via organisation charts.No substitute for effort and commitment
Not all communities are of course working as well as they could be. While some have blossomed others have withered and died on the vine. We have learned that different types of community work in different ways. However there does seem to be a number of common prerequisites for a successful community and perhaps not surprisingly these are mostly related to creating the right culture.
Most successful communities are self-organising but to be self organising they still need clear leadership and support from a community authority (the individual required to take ownership of a community before it can be established). The authority needs to lead by example and to encourage others to participate in the community.
The other important role is to have a proactive and enthusiastic community administrator (the only other mandatory role required to establish a community). The administrator - or more often administrators - looks after the community content on a day-to-day basis although individuals manage their own content. This is not a full time role as it is best done by someone who has expertise in the relevant area; it is also very definitely a non-technical role. Even with the best will in the world people who are supportive of a community in principle may never quite get around to participating in practice - 'just too busy right now' is a common cry. So an administrator who can motivate encourage and cajole is a valuable asset.
Successful communities require perseverance and passion from their champions as well as dynamic and regularly changing content. Regular community news can help as can regular contributions from the most respected 'experts' in the area which can then be 'pushed' to community members to further encourage participation and awareness.
Knowledge communities have proved to be a valuable way of developing and sustaining a knowledge sharing culture within ICL. They have proved equally valuable when replicated with several of our customers. Creating the right culture is probably the biggest challenge most organisations face in terms of getting business value from their knowledge assets. Communities are not a panacea for all ills but they can be a powerful way of involving many more people in the process of creating and sharing knowledge and by doing so spreading the right sort of culture more widely.
Graeme Mackay is a principal consultant at ICL. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org