posted 25 May 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 8
Case study: Nationwide
Coffee, camcorders, conversation and PowerPoint. A practical approach to learning and capturing knowledge in Nationwide’s Property Services Department.
By Chris Collison and Lynne Keech
Nationwide is the UK’s largest building society – a mutual organisation that focuses on savings and loans – and one of the UK’s
largest mortgage lenders. In the UK, it has a property portfolio of more than 650 high-street branches and dozens of area offices to maintain, refresh and upgrade, plus eight administrative/support offices – supporting 16,000 employees in total.
To remain successful, and to keep its big competitors among the commercial high-street banks at bay, Nationwide needs to excel at managing not only its extensive property assets, but also its human assets – its employees, their knowledge, experience, insights and relationships. Property Services Department (PSD) is the head office department where these two responsibilities converge, and the management team recently decided to apply knowledge management (KM) tools and techniques to address these challenges.
How could they ensure that every office move or branch refurbishment went better than the last one and that they were learning, really learning what it takes to deliver excellent customer service to their employees?
As part of the formal process, every office move, refurbishment or new build would conclude with a detailed customer-satisfaction survey, completed by the client for the office move, or the manager of a high-street branch in the refurbishment programme. The survey comprised a number of questions, designed to elicit satisfaction scores for all aspects of the activity.
PSD was building up a large database of satisfaction scores from which it could draw trend information. These flagged repeat issues with doors, floors or specific fixtures, as well as processes such as communication and project planning. However, somewhere in the plethora of measurements, the subtle learning points were remaining undiscovered.
The question was, what was it that caused an office move for a senior manager to be perceived as success or failure, regardless of the procedures and processes which were followed? And, what were the tips that a project manager could use to quickly create rapport with the manager of a Nationwide high-street branch in the middle of a disruptive refurbishment?
These are not the kind of tips that you would find in a process model or template project plan; they tend to remain as tacit knowledge, untold stories and private mental notes unless something is done to ‘surface’ and share them. For this reason, Nationwide chose to invest in a programme of ‘knowing what it knows’ – managing its own internal knowledge by focusing on how it could learn from its own employees, and then capturing and sharing their stories around their departments. Lynne Keech, internal knowledge consultant at Nationwide, tells the story:
We felt that it would be helpful to bring in a fresh pair of eyes and an external perspective to this challenge, so we hired KM consultant Chris Collison to work with us on this project. His role was to help us create a KM strategy to support and improve customer-relationship management (CRM) in the department.
We started by analysing the feedback that we were getting from our internal customers and, especially, the forms we were using to generate that feedback. It quickly became clear that we were too closed in our approach – too many of the questions concluded with yes/no choices or marks out of ten and, hence, generated only quantitative feedback.
It was also clear that the space on the form labelled ‘any other comments’ was unlikely to generate particularly insightful comments from our customers, yet those were exactly the insights that we were looking for. We wanted to discover the stories of PSD staff who had delighted a customer, the branch refits that surpassed expectations, as well as examples and stories from the times when things did not quite go to plan. But we weren’t learning, because we weren’t asking!
We found that simply adding one or two open questions would encourage our customers to think more deeply and thereby provide lessons and new ideas for the department. Examples included:
- ‘Is there anyone in PSD who provided a particularly good service for you? What did they do?’
- ‘Are there any ways in which we could improve the refurbishment experience in the future?’
Once people were asked to think about a personal encounter, they were far more likely to remember an incident and examples that could then be shared in the department. In addition, we also interviewed members of our department, asking them for their memorable stories and examples of where and when PSD had delivered great customer service.
Sometimes it was hard to stop people talking – it was as if we had tapped into a rich vein of important learning just by taking the time to ask a few questions and buy a few coffees. As the stories started to flow, we noted them and then arranged a brief follow up to capture them on video, all very informally – you could even see the coffee cups in some of the clips.
Having secured a flow of stories, the next challenge was for us was to ensure that they remained attractive and accessible to other employees. A folder full of transcripts or even a DVD full of video clips was unlikely to be called-on in a the moment of need. People are normally too busy to search for tips and guidance unless it is presented in a form which meets their needs very quickly.
Knowledge needs to be distilled into common themes and expressed as guidelines. From a guideline, one click can navigate to an illustrative story, and one further click takes the reader to the tools and templates that sit behind that story and a link to the individual concerned. This structure, through which the reader determines their own learning-path, bridges the gap between content management and e-learning resources, and is often given the term ‘knowledge asset’.
Building a knowledge asset
The knowledge-asset approach adopted by Nationwide was based on a model first developed within oil company BP and described in detail in the book, Learning to Fly – Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations. According to the BP model, a knowledge asset will typically fall into three distinct sections:
Common principles expressed as advice, each one relating to the other two points;
- Stories and examples
The verbatim transcript of a story and a brief video-clip or audio-clips to bring the stories to life. Each story should be headlined, ideally using a humorous or memorable title, where possible, to attract interest and retention (and, hence, re-telling to other employees);
- Links, tools and people
This section includes links to related resources, books, websites and contact details for the staff whose stories have been included.
For Nationwide, an example of one such story, entitled ‘Spotting the dogs’ came from Susan Phillips, who coordinated office moves in Nationwide’s head office in Swindon, Wiltshire.
“Well here’s a story about how I built a rapport with somebody. I had to go to see
a senior manager – a lady who I hadn’t met before. I hadn’t actually been doing the job for that long so I was a bit nervous anyway. As I walked in the office, I have this habit of scanning around the office for clues of what this person could be like – sometimes their children and animals, things like that.
I noticed that she had two pictures, photographs of dogs on the table, on her desk. I said ‘Ooh, are these your dogs?’ and she said ‘yes’. They were Newfoundlands. I think she was impressed that I actually knew what type of dogs they were – (being a dog person myself).
Then, when she was telling me about the dogs, she said that, unfortunately, one of them had just passed away – just died. Well at that particular time, I used to have a Springer spaniel and he’d just passed away as well. We sat there, and both our bottom lips were quivering, we were both upset about our dogs. And in an instant we had built a rapport with each other.
We are actually very friendly to this day, six years on, so, like I say, it was one of those moments where you first meet somebody and I picked the right thing at that particular time – it was great.”
It turned out that Sue had worked as a professional hairdresser in the past and had developed her rapport-building skills as a natural part of that role. Transferred to a business context, these skills came into their own. Something to consider the next time you find yourself staring at your reflection in the hairdresser’s, answering questions about your holiday plans.
Reading Susan’s story should give you an idea of her experience. Perhaps it even raised a smile.
However, watching the 60 seconds of video, complete with smiles, grimaces and gesticulations is a far more engaging and memorable experience. There is so much more ‘bandwidth’ in a video clip than in the text, yet so much of work in business storytelling and capture has a textual end-product.
In his book Silent Messages, psychologist Albert Mehrabian suggests that in any communication, only about seven per cent of the message is in the words; 38 per cent is in the tone of the voice; while the remaining 55 per cent of the message is communicated in body language. If this suggestion bears out, then we lose 93 per cent of the message – the context – when we reduce a story to a simple textual document.
So what was Nationwide’s answer to the ‘simple textual document’ dilemma? Keeping it simple – no dependence on clever technology.
One of the prerequisites for Nationwide was that any system to store the examples and stories was not dependent upon leading-edge technology, but could be made available to internal staff and members of the supply chain who have access to an extranet area.
Having reviewed the options, it was decided that PSD’s CRM ‘knowledge asset’, which was branded as CRM ‘WoW’ – words of wisdom – would be created using Microsoft PowerPoint, incorporating links between the slides and hyperlinks to information on the Nationwide intranet. Using PowerPoint had a number of advantages, namely:
- Zero cost;
- Rapid creation and maintenance with no special skills required;
- Easy to prototype and change – new slides can be added to illustrate additional themes;
- Easy to link to other documents and multimedia clips;
- No design limitations – easy to create a Nationwide look and feel;
- No server required – just a shared file area;
- Easily packaged and shared with others (for example, as a Microsoft PowerPoint show on a CD).
A set of features which would surely delight even the most intransigent IS department.
Sustaining the knowledge asset
Part of my role now is to act as a ‘conscience’ for PSD. Having commissioned the original consultancy and helped to develop the initial knowledge asset, my first activity was to promote it widely within the department and supply chain. I make a point of stressing the value of it as a learning tool and the department’s shared responsibility for providing new stories to keep it fresh. With only the occasional nudge, PSD acts as a community of practice – professionals who value, use and update the knowledge asset.
The initiative has helped to breathe new life into KM in the department. At one point, things were going a bit stale, but this work has shown that looking at things a different way with fresh eyes can pay dividends. Bringing in someone from outside, with much real practical knowledge from working with other organisations, demonstrated that the ideas are transferable and easy to apply.
The WoW system was Collison’s idea. It was easy to set up and is very cost effective – the important thing is to keep it fresh and now I can do this with just a video camera, PowerPoint and a few willing volunteers.
I now look for stories and new themes emerging in customer feedback and challenge project teams to refer to CRM WoW when beginning new work activities. It is important that the knowledge contained within it is accessed at the right point in time – early enough to make a difference.
The knowledge asset also forms part of the customer service training that staff receive.
Identifying the next topic
Delivering good customer service is just one of the factors that PSD regards as important. Following on from the PSD project, Nationwide is now turning its attention to other areas that would benefit from the creation of knowledge assets. Possible targets include supply-chain partnerships and flexible working.
What matters most is that we have now established KM as an approach that can directly support departmental strategy and shown very practically how it can make a difference.
What topics would your senior management team see as the key capabilities for your organisation? Perhaps it’s time to dust off your camcorder, buy some coffees and begin the conversations?
Chris Collison is founder of Knowledgeable Ltd (www.knowledgeableltd.com), a consultancy specialising in knowledge management and organisational change. He can be contacted by e-mailing email@example.com.
Lynne Keech works as in internal knowledge consultant in Nationwide, and can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guidelines for building a knowledge asset
1. Identify a customer for this knowledge
Have a clear customer – current or future – in mind when considering the creation of a knowledge asset;
2. Be clear what your knowledge asset is really about
What is the scope of your knowledge asset? A knowledge asset needs to cover a specific area of business activity;
3. Identify a community of practice relating to this subject
The community will be the source of the knowledge initially, the users of the knowledge in the immediate term and the people who have an ongoing responsibility for validating the future contents of in the knowledge asset. This is key or there is a real risk that you will end up with an electronic time capsule – a snapshot in time of the way things used to be done – rather than the current, prized know-how in your organisation;
4. Collate any existing material upon which you can base your knowledge asset and look for general guidelines
Provide some context so that people can understand the purpose and relevance of the knowledge asset. Are there general guidelines that you can distil out of this material?
5. Build a checklist illustrated with examples and stories
The checklist should tell the user of the knowledge asset:
‘What are the questions I need to ask myself?’
‘What are the steps that I need to take?’
Illustrate it with examples, stories, pictures, digital photographs, models, quotes, video and audio clips if possible;
6. Include links to people
Create a hyperlink to the person’s personal homepage or e-mail address wherever you mention them in the text. Include a list of all the people with any relationship with the content. Use thumbnail photographs (with permission) if you have them available;
7. Validate the guidelines
Circulate the guidelines around the community again and ask, ‘Do the guidelines accurately reflect your knowledge and experience?’ and, ‘Do you have anything to add?’
8. Publish the knowledge asset
Store the knowledge in a space where it can be accessed by its community. Often this will mean the company intranet;
9. Initiate a feedback and ownership process
Encourage feedback from users, so that they pick up and eliminate any invalid recommendations. Instil a sense of obligation that, ‘if you use it, then you should add to it’.
Over time, you’ll build up a series of knowledge assets which relate to the key practices in your organisation – the areas that can bring competitive advantage. The creation of these tangible knowledge assets provides a focus for the communities of practice associated with each one and, ultimately, will give credibility to your knowledge management efforts.
Source: ‘Learning to Fly – Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations’; Collison and Parcell, Wiley, 2004.