posted 25 Sep 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 2
Bridging the knowledge gap
In the past two years, the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System has faced multiple challenges, including the need to keep pace with developing technologies, adapt business unit procedures to comply with new rules and processes, respond to time-sensitive legislation, and capture the knowledge of skilled employees for succession planning. Knowledge Management talks to John Brosius about how the development of a KM programme through a newly implemented website helped the enterprise overcome the challenges it faced.
The Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) administers a defined benefit retirement plan that is ranked among the top pension plans in the world. Approximately 200 employees, located in Harrisburg, PA, and seven field offices, carry out the administrative tasks associated with managing the plan. These responsibilities include member education, retirement counselling, benefits administration and general customer service. In the past, staff has relied on an e-mail system, telephone systems and face-to-face meetings to carry out their jobs, but the agency’s need to continue providing effective customer service in the wake of legislative changes prompted the organisation to launch a website that is changing how the organisation works.
Last spring, the SERS was charged with implementing Act 2001-9, one of the most comprehensive and sweeping retirement system reforms in its 75-year history. As part of Act 9, active members were given the opportunity to change their membership classes, which would alter their retirement contributions and benefits. The SERS needed to provide information regarding the various options to all employees and elected officials as quickly as possible, as there were also cut-off dates for members to select their preferred options. In order to educate these members, SERS staff had to gain knowledge about the new rules, processes and options.
To further complicate the situation, the SERS itself stood to be affected by the window of retirement opportunity offered through Act 2001-9. Should those employees eligible to retire choose to do so, the SERS could lose experienced workers more quickly than it could train new hires to brdige the knowledge gap they would leave behind. The potential of a negative effect on customer service prompted the SERS to action.
The challenge for the SERS was set. It had to effectively and rapidly communicate the new retirement options to each member, document the information pertaining to the new plan provisions and archive its current corporate memory in anticipation of SERS employees who could potentially take advantage of the new retirement options. And as the retirement system executive director and the SERS knowledge management executive sponsor, it was to John Brosius that this responsibility fell.
KM: You have been developing your knowledge management strategy for some time. Could you tell us a little bit about the history of KM within the SERS?
John Brosius: Our KM organisation has been operating for about two years, after its initial conception four years ago. In April 2000, we defined the role of KM and the role of the individuals who would champion the discipline. These individuals were responsible for educating, facilitating and coaching the business users on the benefits of knowledge management.
Our first task was to define what KM meant to our organisation. There were numerous definitions to choose from, but for SERS, we felt most comfortable with defining KM as “the concept of converting data, organisational insight, experience and expertise into re-usable and useful knowledge that in turn is distributed and shared with the people who need it to do their jobs.”
Employees were asked to participate in focus group meetings for the purpose of defining the components of the KM system. Feedback from the focus group meetings and individual employee assessments provided us with valuable information, which was used to build our KM system. Employees made us aware of essential and relevant information needed in the performance of their daily jobs – providing a service to our customers and members. With that in mind, we began to develop our KM conceptual plan.
The KM conceptual plan and the collated employee assessments identified the areas in which we should concentrate our efforts in developing a system that would have real value for our members and our employees. The KM conceptual plan has been our guiding light, keeping us focused throughout our journey. We are now just beginning to realise the benefits of the system that we started building several years ago.
Part of our KM programme involved bringing Accenture in to help us develop specific content delivery capabilities. Accenture’s expertise helped us quickly achieve our primary objectives. The firm provided the key assistance that united all of our efforts into an overall system. This made it easier to evaluate how the different components interacted. In particular, Accenture’s expertise in project management became crucial when the legislature changed the retirement code during this phase of the KM project.
The consulting firm quickly developed an information architecture model and framework that addressed our need to brief staff and members on the changes to the retirement system. It also developed Pocket SERS, a tool that allows us to download website content to a laptop for easy access on the move when an internet connection isn’t available. In addition, the firm developed a publishing tool that allowed us to print content from our website, in turn extending our content management strategy and making the website the source of all our content, whether digital or paper-based. This content to could then be used for a multitude of purposes, including training and employee development.
After the PA General Assembly passed Act 2001-9, the SERS used its website to brief all members about the retirement plan changes. Using Pocket SERS, we launched the first members’ briefing two weeks after the passing of the new legislation. The main benefit of using the website as the central information repository was the creation, routing for approval and re-usability of content for various internal and external purposes. The benefit of consistent and reliable information was realised for field offices as well as media releases.
We would not have been able to deliver content at the point of need without substantial planning. Our application architecture was composed of Oracle, our website platform (Microsoft), Linux and a number of other business tools. The important thing to remember is that knowledge management is a key driver of our business strategy. It is our philosophy that the business drives technology. Technology is in turn the enabler of our KM approach, allowing the SERS to develop customer information, employee development programmes, core business rules and departmental applications, all of which are all connected through our approach to knowledge. KM drives the decisions of what components to include or exclude in our infrastructure.
KM: Can you give readers an example of the success of your KM system?
JB: The best example of our success is our integrated website. Our design of the site addresses the needs of both our customers (members) and our employees. The website is role-based, which means that the system knows what information to present (or not present) to the user by their choice of roles when they log in. Through this same capability, an employee sees what the member views, as well as content that provides office information, process information and frequently asked questions (FAQs). Prior to the development of the website, our employees were required to access a variety of informational resources before they were able to provide an answer. This was very time consuming. Now employees can assist members in getting the information they need more quickly.
We are also improving member self-service by delivering more content through standardised website answers. Members also have the ability to access their personal account information online and estimate their retirement benefits. Standardising the language and using the website as the primary source of information reduces the confusion that might occur if members were to receive information from multiple sources. This is approach is consistent with our philosophy that our information must be accurate, complete and timely.
KM: It sounds as if you have achieved major business results through your knowledge management activities, but how many people are on your KM staff?
JB: We have four people on staff, augmented by internal and external consultants who drive the KM effort. We support knowledge management on all levels. The director of administration, Bill Shupp, provides executive-level support for the programme. Our communications director, Sean Sanderson, and the new KM director, Michelle Earnest, co-ordinate the KM efforts with the organisation’s managers and directors. Both have benefited from being able to build on the foundations laid by Kim Helton, the first KM director at SERS. In addition, Michelle and Bill Truong, a program analyst in KM, deal with day-to-day issues: helping document business processes, managing content and co-ordinating with IT. We are fortunate to have an IT environment that provides a framework that allows business users to deposit their knowledge in the system comparatively easily. We have involved every level of the enterprise and have made technology the enabler of our approach.
Our philosophy is to keep the KM team small, bring in the expertise as needed and develop our own integrated teams. The teams have specific roles and targets that they are responsible for delivering. This strategy allows us to use the external consultancy firm as a coach to develop skills in our people, and, in turn, make our employees the real leaders in KM.
KM: How do your website and KM project align with your broader strategic goals?
JB: One of our most important goals is to realise measurable improvement in member information processing and services. This means that our website must increase staff efficiency and provide a higher level of member services through new delivery methods. The amount of information and the information delivery systems available to our members today had never been available to them before. This means that members are now better informed, and are, in turn, able to make plans for their future based on a thorough understanding of all of their retirement options.
KM: Now that the website has been in use for several months, what sort of response are you getting from your members?
JB: Our members have given very positive responses to the website and our approach to delivering member information through the web. In particular, our online benefits calculator has received rave reviews. We used several focus groups during the roll-out of the website to help with its design. Accenture’s experience in designing websites based on a user’s intentions was also invaluable. We supplemented the focus group information by using electronic surveys to capture our users’ reactions, as well as taking the website on the road with our portable content capability that Accenture had developed for us.
We held several business conferences in Pennsylvania to disseminate state retirement information and conduct recruiting for state employment. We used the website to display information at both of these events. Our staff is proud of our website success, particularly since we received an award at the Prime Expo for our efforts. We also appreciate the recognition from the governor for our work.
KM: How is your approach to integrating work processes into your website helping you to develop a sustainable corporate memory of knowledge relating to the retirement system?
JB: In reviewing our human resources data, we realised that 10 to 20 per cent of our employees could retire within the next five years. Every time an employee leaves the organisation, they take with them job-related knowledge, experiences and training. As in any other business or organisation, our employees are very familiar with the processes and rules relating to their jobs. This information is often not formally documented. As a result of KM, retirement policies and procedures are being formally documented. Accenture developed an approach to capturing this information for us through a simple, three-step process:
- Process capture – templates and a system to capture/review the business processes that were core to the agency; recording information accurately and with appropriate detail;
- Process delivery – using our website to deliver the information electronically;
- Process publishing – a solution that formats information from the web and utilises a PDF template for employee or customer access.
All of our training, standard operating procedures, procedure manuals and reference materials are connected to the templates. For the first time, our employees have a system that allows them to access information at various levels as needed. For new employees, this means that they will have an electronic coach, which will also allow them to review rules and documented past experiences online. For experienced staff, it means that business processes will be consistently executed. When something changes, everyone will be aware of the change through the integrated business process template. This approach will accelerate the learning curve for all new employees and standardises working processes, in turn providing a more consistent customer experience.
KM: What do you see on the horizon for your knowledge management programme?
JB: We have gone through the first phase of creating the process templates on our website. Our goal now is to develop the content on a more detailed level. We are working with our subject matter experts to connect retirement staff training information, reference material and computer screen captures with annotations to provide background information relating to each step in the member process. We are also working towards the development of a scorecard for the website that measures business performance.
In addition, the true value of our KM system will be determined as new employees begin to use it as the primary source for obtaining information to do their jobs. I see the HR function as a key beneficiary of the system. KM provides online employee training and education, as well as allowing the documentation of business information for succession planning. This is key to our organisation today as we face the retirement of many of our seasoned employees.
The SERS is embracing the KM best practice as a change agent for improving agency management, customer service and providing retirement planning information for our members. Knowledge management is central to our approach to employee training, the member education programme, operational metrics and content delivery. We have demonstrated that success is contingent on proper planning and the ability to draw on expertise. Overall, our approach to managing knowledge has been a remarkable success in the re-engineering of the way we work.
John Brosius is retirement system executive director and knowledge management executive sponsor at the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System. He can be contacted at: email@example.com