posted 16 Jun 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 9
Striking a balance
A knowledge-management programme that emphasises the value of developing cultural and technological approaches to collaboration in tandem. By Don Cohen
Oracle has over 14,000 employees in over 50 offices across 36 countries in Europe, the
Today, however, many Oracle EMEA employees use a suite of collaboration tools to exchange information and collaborate across borders. Over 80 professional communities bring together people working on the same products, technical issues and professional practices to learn and share what they know. Collaboration and re-use of existing knowledge have improved efficiency and effectiveness – two of the chief benefits of increased knowledge-worker productivity. Juan Rada, senior vice president of industry and applications sales, notes, for example, that a new marketing initiative that would have taken six months a few years ago can now be completed in a month and a half. Employees tell stories of international co-operation helping to win new business. For instance, one community organised two days of intensive training in the US on Oracle product solutions for the airline-maintenance industry and sent some European community members to the meeting. Those attendees then held a workshop for community members located in EMEA. One took what he learned back to
These instances exemplify the increased productivity of knowledge workers at Oracle, thanks to their improved ability to acquire, share and use vital information and knowledge more quickly and comprehensively than in the past. Improved collaboration technology combined with a developing social infrastructure for connection and co-operation have made the difference. The changes have been so striking that, according to Ibrahim Gogus, senior director of knowledge management, “People who left Oracle and came back couldn’t believe it was the same company.”
Desperation is the mother of collaboration
How did such a dramatic change come about? Part of the answer is, it happened because it had to. As Andrew Sutherland, vice president for EMEA technology sales, puts it, “Desperation is the mother of collaboration.” In the global economy, multi-national corporations demand not only consistent products and pricing from their suppliers, but reliable, extensive expertise. As the company’s offerings continue to change and grow, Oracle people need to know more about the products they sell.
More important, customer complexity has increased. Oracle’s customers manage ever-greater flows of data and information that must be readily available to meet regulatory and competitive demands in often unpredictable business environments. No single person can fully understand a customer’s business, but intimate knowledge of changing customer needs is the key to successful sales and product development. So Oracle employees must learn from each other to do their work.
Franc Van Berkel, a consultant with the company for more than 11 years, says that, in the past, when his “personal knowledge lasted longer”, training was able to supply a lot of what he needed to know. Now the short lifetime of knowledge makes “just-in-time knowledge” necessary. “You go out and get it when you need it,” he says.
Desperation, or at least a pressing need for knowledge sharing, is a powerful driver. Knowledge management works best when people see its immediate, important benefits. This may be especially true in a company like Oracle, which is so clearly sales driven and results oriented, and where people have little patience for intellectualising about knowledge practice and focus instead on what they can actually use. (Not surprisingly, the knowledge-management team talks more about business aims and the tools and techniques that serve them than about knowledge management per se. KM team member Luc Glasbeek says, “Someone who may not be interested in ‘after-action reviews’ will be interested in ‘win rate’.” This is something team members learnt from experience. Glasbeek adds, “By changing the language that we speak we can have a different effect.”)
But need alone does not explain the improvements in collaboration. Company cultures tend to be stubbornly enduring, whatever the acknowledged benefits of new behaviours may be. Altering ways of thinking about an organisation and established work habits is hard. Technology alone does not transform culture. As many companies have learnt to their cost, installing collaboration tools does not make collaboration happen in organisations that lack the habit of co-operative work, and the trust and social networks that support it. The tools that help people connect are important, but only in the context of a culture that supports connection. Hence the reason some commentators talk not about technology or culture, but about socio-technical networks – a term that recognises the combination of social and technical infrastructures as one thing.
Technology and culture
From its beginning in 1999, the Oracle EMEA knowledge-management initiative has balanced the attention it has given to both technology and culture. Backed by the vigorous support of Sergio Giacoletto, executive vice president of Oracle EMEA, and his senior staff, a seven-member KM team devised plans for content-management and collaboration tools, launched an employee portal, and, at the same time, began to develop knowledge-sharing roles and processes, and a network of content owners and knowledge-management practitioners in offices in various countries. Fundamental to this social infrastructure were KM leads in each country: individuals deeply embedded in the workings of local offices who gave part of their time to knowledge work and acted as liaisons between local knowledge needs and the wider perspective of the KM team.
Taking Giacoletto’s advice to show country groups something tangible every 8–10 weeks – “small but quick steps” – the team rolled out a collaboration system in waves, providing something new about every two months, so people would believe that the KM effort was real and could be useful. The first projects were very specific, with templates and milestones provided by the KM team. Over time, though, more of the detailed decisions about knowledge-management efforts shifted to the local level. In fact, central co-ordination and local ownership has been an essential principle guiding the work. Senior management provided the initial push and continues to encourage collaboration, and the KM team provides the vision, tools and standards; but control of knowledge efforts is local, in the hands of the KM leads and members of Oracle EMEA’s professional communities. Gogus remarks, “This is a consensus-building job; it’s diplomacy, being flexible while guiding people in the same direction.” The approach is consistent with an Oracle culture that values independence. “When we tried to dictate,” Gogus says, “we had arguments. Now we have discovery sessions: ‘this is the standard set of tools; use it as you like’.” This global/local model implies a willingness to accept different levels and kinds of participation from different elements of the organisation. The occasional frustration of limited involvement in some quarters is more than offset by the tremendous benefit of generating the commitment that comes from local ownership. Local control also reflects the fact that people understand their own knowledge needs better than a central authority ever could.
Recognising the importance of social connections to knowledge exchange, Giacoletto and Wayne Watters (director of EMEA consulting programmes) decided in mid-2000 to formalise the development of communities of practice, which provide the relationships and channels of communication through which knowledge can be shared. Unlike naturally occurring, informal communities in some organisations, Oracle EMEA’s professional communities are intentionally created around leaders appointed by sponsors – usually the division head of the line of business relevant to the community’s focus. There are four categories of communities:
Industry communities for salespeople and consultants with experience in financial services, healthcare, public-sector organisations and other areas;
Product communities that focus on specific Oracle products;
Technology communities that focus on technical areas such as Java or security;
Competency-based communities for people working in project management, risk management, knowledge management and other roles.
A professional-communities steering board approves and supports communities, and decides whether newly formed groups should become part of existing communities or stand on their own. But unlike formal so-called communities in some organisations (which are often undistinguishable from teams), these communities depend on voluntary membership, with employees free to join any group that interests them and to withdraw at will. Watters describes them as “informal but focused”. John Renton, who devotes all of his time to leading three communities, emphasises the importance of finding the appropriate balance between the formal and the informal. “If you over-organise a community,” he says, “it becomes just another hierarchical reporting structure. But purely informal communities only work in smaller organisations.” Renton sees a community leader’s lack of management authority as an advantage. “If you have line-management power, people tell you what you want to hear,” he says, while in a community they are more likely to reveal what they really think. Loic le Guisquet, senior vice president of EMEA consulting, notes that the communities’ independence from more formal structures means that organisational changes will not break the connections between people. Similarly, communities can serve as people’s ‘tribes’ or ‘homes’, providing stability and a sense of connection as the organisation changes. The focus on communities reflects an understanding that collaboration tools will have only limited use, especially across borders, without social structures that create the trust and mutuality on which collaboration depends. Most communities hold face-to-face meetings, some as frequently as once a quarter, to foster these relational ties.
The professional communities and the collaboration tools they use developed together, a clear example of the blending of social and technical. Gogus says, “Communities gave us the direction to take – how to deploy tools and which tools to use more than others.” The tools used include: Global Xchange, the employee portal based on Oracle’s Application Server Portal product; e-mail; instant messaging; web conferencing; calendar and scheduling; and, a central file repository – all of which are part of Oracle Collaboration Suite. Along with a quick-survey tool and a community-membership management system developed in-house, these tools provide a powerful collaboration platform. Users have enthusiastically adopted instant messaging to get quick responses to questions. Oracle Files, the document repository, has dramatically reduced e-mail attachments sent to groups of recipients; web conferencing supports virtual meetings and joint creation of documents; and, the sophisticated calendar application has streamlined the process of organising meetings.
A certain amount of trial and error has helped users learn how to get the most from their collaboration tools. In Norway, for instance, people initially tried to use the Global Xchange portal to share knowledge that was too complex for that setting. They soon realised that web or phone conferences were the proper media for such exchanges. Similarly, people have come to understand that instant messaging is appropriate for concise, time-sensitive questions and answers, and that less pressing and more complicated exchanges should take place via e-mail.
The KM team has intentionally kept a low profile, using the viral marketing of word of mouth and shared stories rather than formal campaigns to fuel interest in knowledge sharing. In any organisation, stories of success are more powerful persuaders than charts, diagrams and reports. In the practical, give-me-something-I-can-use culture of Oracle, this is doubly true. The relatively low-key approach of the KM team also avoids the perception that a central group is trying to mandate sharing behaviours. Here, too, a balance must be struck. Too low-key an approach might inhibit the communication of stories of knowledge success and may not do enough to win converts among those still sceptical about the value of knowledge sharing or those for whom the pressures of their own task-oriented jobs leave little time for sharing expertise.
Thanks to these efforts over the past six years, knowledge sharing is becoming common practice at Oracle EMEA. The general perception that behaviours have changed is backed up by statistics. As of 2005, more than 43 per cent of employees belong to at least one professional community (up from just over 25 per cent two years earlier). Sixty-seven per cent of employees surveyed think professional communities are important or very important to their work, and 96 per cent say that their colleagues are willing to help them most or all of the time. The number of people who use Global Xchange more than once a day has doubled in a year and 92 per cent of respondents say they can rely on Global Xchange content most or all of the time. Even more important, employees describe ways in which collaboration tools and practices have made their work more efficient and effective.
This brief description of Oracle EMEA’s knowledge-management initiative suggests a number of principal sources of success. A balance between technical and social issues, exemplified by a focus on roles and communities as well as tools, is a critical one. Central co-ordination and local ownership, and the flexibility that results from this approach, have also been critical. Likewise, using stories of business success rather than abstractions or exhortations to encourage participation has been particularly effective. A couple of other factors, however, deserve added attention.
Strong senior-management support is essential to success, especially for knowledge initiatives that cross the boundaries of departments, lines of business or divisions. This support should, of course, include financial backing for knowledge-management infrastructure and personnel, but it also means consistent and persistent championing of collaborative efforts and goals. Persistence is vital, not only because creating a knowledge-sharing culture takes time, but because it counters the scepticism that greets most new change initiatives in organisations: the suspicion that management’s latest enthusiasm will give way to something else in six months, before anyone has to do much about it.
At Oracle, Giacoletto and his senior staff have been instrumental in promoting collaboration. “Selling is not your only job,” Giacoletto tells this sales-oriented company. He emphasises the need to meet short-term expectations while taking on the long-term task of developing people, processes and standard platforms for communication and collaboration. Giacoletto has shown his determination to bridge the gap between countries in actions as well as words. For instance, before he took over as head of Oracle EMEA, the EMEA management team was usually drawn almost entirely from the senior leader’s home country, reinforcing country divisions. Giacoletto’s team consists of managers of many nationalities. (The KM team, too, is international, with no two of the seven team members from the same country. This diversity demonstrates cross-country co-operation and strengthens KM ties with offices in team members’ countries of origin.) Meeting with senior heads of consulting groups early in his tenure, Giacoletto asked, “Do you talk to each other outside of our scheduled meetings?” Surprised and concerned at how little contact they had, he encouraged the connections that now have senior heads in contact all the time, and began to push for broader collaboration throughout Oracle EMEA. Over the past six years, Giacoletto and his staff have continued to emphasise their belief in the importance of knowledge management, community development and knowledge sharing.
Another (and a powerful) instance of management support is senior management’s willingness to back the initiative without requiring hard numbers to show that the company is getting a clear return on its investment in knowledge management.
Solving the measurement problem
Developing valid measures of the value of knowledge work is a long-standing, unresolved knowledge-management issue. Attempts to measure knowledge itself have been flawed and probably would have little meaning even if more convincing methods were invented: what matters is the productive use of knowledge, not how much knowledge you possess. Measurements of knowledge-management activity (such as documents re-used or number of community members) usefully show whether people are adopting knowledge-sharing behaviours, but say nothing about the value generated by knowledge. Measuring knowledge outcomes – the business effects of improved knowledge sharing or better innovation – would be tremendously valuable, but how do you do it? It is easy to find correlation but not causality. For instance, showing that sales and profits increased after a KM programme has been put in place does not prove that knowledge-sharing brought about the improvements. The many factors contributing to a successful sale or profitable innovation make it impossible to tease out a single cause.
Oracle EMEA management does not demand proof that the company’s investment in knowledge management pays off. When Gogus took on the knowledge-management job, he asked if he should come up with a way to measure progress every six months. Giacoletto wisely declined the offer, saying, “KM is like a growing tree; you cannot pull it out of the ground every once in a while to see how much is has grown.” Giacoletto and members of his senior staff talk about having faith in the value of collaboration, and judge success in terms of anecdotes of value achieved and from the fact that people have come to depend on the tools and communities that allow them to work together. David Pryor, vice president for business-intelligence sales and consulting, says, “We measure what we can – number of members and documents contributed – but value is best measured through extrapolation from stories and anecdotes.”
That does not mean being casual about results, however. Wayne Watters, who has played a central role in the development of professional communities at Oracle EMEA, says that community goals should be specific and measurable. Accordingly, community activity at Oracle is rigorously monitored. Some of the measures relate to knowledge activity. Community participation, numbers of documents contributed and downloaded, the ratio of old to new online content, rates of participation in community events, and other activities are carefully tracked and compared to earlier results. Surveys of community members produce more subjective, qualitative results, such as member perceptions of the quality of shared content, the importance of communities to their work and the willingness of colleagues to share knowledge in community events. A few measures – for instance, solutions developed and problems resolved – are clear-cut examples of community-based knowledge productivity.
Management’s willingness to trust this blend of measures is important for several reasons. First, it shows a fundamental belief in the value of knowledge work to Oracle, one that does not need to be continuously renewed or reinforced by spreadsheet displays of return on investment. Second, it demonstrates an understanding that knowledge sharing and collaboration do not lend themselves to traditional balance-sheet accounting. Third, since definitive numbers may be unobtainable, flexibility on this subject means that the KM team does not have to waste time and energy devising numbers whose only real purpose is to soothe management doubts. Freed from purely quantitative scrutiny, they can devote themselves to substantive knowledge work and rely on more appropriate, broader indicators to guide and justify their efforts.
A work in progress
For all the impressive accomplishments in knowledge sharing and collaboration achieved at Oracle EMEA, challenges remain. Community participation varies widely among employees with different roles. For instance, people involved in knowledge work agree that, with some notable exceptions, sales people have not embraced communities or developed knowledge-sharing practices as readily as other groups. The reasons seem to be largely cultural. At Oracle, as in many organisations, the sales culture is traditionally oriented to individual action and achievement, and sales people are therefore reluctant to share what they know. As Ian Robertson, senior director of business strategy and planning, puts it, “Knowledge-sharing is not part of the genetic code of sales culture.” He says that a “huge disparity” exists between groups, like consulting, that share knowledge readily, and sales people, many of whom are still reluctant to document and share their understanding of accounts and customer information. Robertson disputes the idea that sales complexity has driven many sales people to exchange knowledge. Urging this individualistic culture towards collaboration by continuing to demonstrate the value of sharing customer and sales information will be an important ongoing effort.
Participation in KM activities also varies along national lines. Some countries with a larger Oracle presence have been slow to take part in cross-country communities, primarily because they consider themselves relatively self-sufficient. This is changing, in part because management has made it clear that larger countries have a responsibility to help others. For instance, Oracle people from the UK – traditionally one of the laggards – are now leading communities, and UK leaders increasingly speak at community events. Here too, however, more progress is possible.
There is always more work to be done in fostering the personal networks through which important collaboration and sharing of deep expertise and advice travel. The professional groups do some of this network building, but their semi-formal structures may limit their success, as they depend much more on the quality of leadership than communities that form naturally and are fuelled by the shared passion of members. In some Oracle communities, nearly all communication goes through the leader: the rich, informal networks of knowledge exchange and trust building among members – a central aim of community development – fail to form. But in any case, communities are only one among several sources of social networks in organisations. Ron Weijmer, vice president of consulting for new EU member states, and a firm believer in the importance of personal networks, takes new consulting managers he hires around relevant parts of the organisation so that they can meet people face to face. This process is not institutionalised, however. “We expect people to find their own way, but that’s become more and more difficult,” says Weijmer. As a manager of managers, Weijmer travels more than 140 days a year because he is convinced of the importance of being, in his words, “hands-on with people”. He says that his quarterly two-day, in-person meetings with managers who work for him are essential. Jasper Larsen, a principle sales consultant who is relatively new to Oracle, agrees. He believes that access to information is not a problem, but access to the judgement and expertise of others is hard for a relative newcomer to the organisation to come by. Although the organisation needs to be careful not to over-engineer a relationship-building process that thrives on informality, it can encourage personal-network formation, providing more opportunities for people to meet face to face and acknowledging that those meetings are important, even in a world of virtual teams and advanced communication technologies.
Complaints about the technological tools that have been put in place are few, but seem to cluster around the fact that there is still room for improvement in ease of access and how content is structured. Some call for improvements that would make it possible, for instance, to get all the important information about a customer or product in one place. Improved search capabilities, better expertise location and more attention to evaluating the quality and currency of system content should probably be on the KM agenda, but not necessarily at the top of it: too many knowledge-management initiatives fall into the trap of devoting most of their attention to small system improvements instead of to more critical organisational and cultural issues. A more important effort, at this point, will be to expand efforts to tell vivid stories of collaboration success, to share techniques and to continue to convince people of the value and importance of collaboration. With knowledge sharing and knowledge seeking becoming an integral part of how people work at Oracle, that case is increasingly easy to make.
Don Cohen is co-author (with Laurence Prusak) of In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organisations Work. He is a Research Associate with the Babson College Working Knowledge Research Programme, and can be contacted at email@example.com.
Some lessons learnt
Successful knowledge-management work never follows precisely the same path in any two organisations, because it must build on and respond to the specific context in which it is carried out: the culture, needs, resources, barriers and organisational structures of the business. But there are a number of valid, general principles that can help guide KM efforts wherever they are undertaken. The principle learnings from the Oracle EMEA experience that can and should be applied elsewhere are:
Provide consistent and persistent senior-management support – Building the technical and social infrastructures that make knowledge-sharing possible across the boundaries of departments, offices and lines of business requires vigorous, vocal, long-term support from leaders whose authority extends over those various parts of the organisation;
Link knowledge and collaboration efforts to specific business needs – Individuals will only participate in knowledge-sharing efforts that clearly help them do their work better, faster or more creatively; the organisation as a whole will and should only support efforts that demonstrably contribute to knowledge-worker productivity that helps serve customers more effectively;
Build habits and social structures of collaboration, not just collaboration technology – Knowledge sharing depends on trust and mutual understanding, and on cultural norms of co-operation. Knowledge-management efforts that focus mainly on technology almost always fail; a socio-technical approach is essential;
Build on the values and vocabulary of the existing organisational culture – Organisational cultures resist change. Successful knowledge-management initiatives influence culture and achieve results by using, rather than opposing, existing ways of working and thinking about work;
Find the right balance between central direction and local ownership – Unified planning and support for knowledge-management tools and techniques is important in large organisations, but local control of knowledge work builds local commitment and enthusiasm, and allows groups to adapt tools and techniques to their specific business needs;
Find the right balance between standards and flexibility, between formality and informality – To allow for local initiative and adaptation, standards should be limited to those necessary to support knowledge sharing across functions and departments. Similarly, room should be left for the informal activities and associations that strengthen trust, passion and commitment;
Use stories and anecdotes to communicate success – Stories have a unique ability to foster collaboration for several reasons: they inspire identification and action; they link cause and effect; and, they communicate context, subtlety and emotion that makes them convincing and compelling. More abstract arguments and presentations seldom do any of these things;
Establish meaningful success indicators – Valid and valuable quantitative measurements of knowledge itself or return on knowledge investment are probably unobtainable, but systematic evaluation is important to guide and justify knowledge efforts. A portfolio of indicators that includes trends in knowledge-sharing activity and anecdotal and survey-based evidence of knowledge-sharing value probably provides the most accurate and useful assessment.