posted 17 Feb 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 5
Rolls-Royce: Memories fade; knowledge shouldn’t
Practical knowledge-acquisition techniques that deliver tangible returns. By Darius Baria
Shortly after one o’clock in the afternoon on 26 November 2003, Concorde touched down for the last time at a drizzly Filton airport in Bristol, England – just a few hundred metres from my office.
While all that is left of the aircraft now are memories and museum pieces, Rolls-Royce still has the unique skills, knowledge and experience that have gone into designing, building and maintaining the exceptional Olympus engine, which has accumulated a record-breaking 600,000 supersonic hours of operation on Concorde over the past 27 years. This knowledge, and that relating to our other products, is the most precious asset that the organisation has. It is what puts us ahead of our competitors.
In case you are wondering what Rolls-Royce is doing making gas turbine engines for airplanes, we are Rolls-Royce PLC, not Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. We are a global company providing power for vehicles on land, sea and air.
A surprisingly small amount of our unique and critical knowledge is stored in reports, drawings and files. Though we have taken massive strides to document know-how in the form of processes and procedures on our comprehensive engineering knowledge base (also known as the capability intranet), much more valuable knowledge is stored in the form of stories, lessons learnt and experiences. Knowledge, to us, is what you miss the most when the experts are not around.
Knowledge in an organisation can deteriorate over time if it is not managed well. Some day there will be a need for civil supersonic travel once again. Many of the original designers and engineers of the Olympus are no longer with us, but so long as we maintain our ability to learn from past experience, we will still be able to benefit in the future. For this reason, Colin Green, president of Rolls-Royce Defence Aerospace, initiated a programme of knowledge acquisition (KA) on the Olympus to ensure that we get the maximum return on our supersonic-technologies knowledge.
A certain amount of Olympus know-how has been reflected back into our work processes over the course of the Olympus development and in-service life. Therefore, designing for supersonic propulsion is somewhat in-grained in how we do things. It is obviously impossible, though, to capture and document all knowledge, especially on a subject as vast as the design, development and service experience of the Olympus.
As such, Andrew Newman, KA programme leader, had to carefully scope out potential topics in deciding what to focus on in the KA exercise. “Potentially, the knowledge-acquisition activity was an enormous initiative,” he says. “It would involve tracking down and recording the design and development history of the Olympus, which was spread over ten years, as well as the lessons learnt from 27 years of supporting the world’s only supersonic civil-aircraft propulsion system. Rather than review all of the documents personally, I was able to consult with some of the key personnel involved at the time, most of whom have now retired. Together we made sure that we only investigated the most important topics, and did not get hindered by the more insignificant details.”
To prioritise which knowledge topics to focus on, Newman and his team made use of our structured knowledge-auditing technique, which the company has used successfully in many areas of the business over the past three years. It is a method that provides visualisation of a knowledge area, supported by descriptive data to help managers take direct control of a knowledge resource.
The technique is based on group and individual interviews. The output is a ‘knowledge-dependency map’ of a knowledge-resource area. This displays the structure of knowledge, not the knowledge itself. The technique also incorporates scoring each of these knowledge areas to identify which are most at risk. Knowledge auditing allows managers to make informed decisions about organising, developing and protecting their knowledge resources.
Once the stakeholders had agreed the scope, Newman and his team then used the various tools and techniques to systemically capture the knowledge identified as being the most critical.
KA is a great method for quickly and effectively eliciting tacit knowledge. It is a proven way for new starters to acquire knowledge, get to know a department, find out the right people to speak to and generally get up to speed in a short space of time. KA has gone from strength to strength in Rolls-Royce; the technique is continually improved by lessons learnt and is strongly linked to business improvements. Over the past eight years, approximately 300 people have completed 230 KA projects, and the demand for KA is continuing to grow.
A typical KA project is 12 weeks long, but can range from just a few days to a year. (Most projects are 12 weeks because this is the length of a placement for a graduate trainee or modern apprentice.) The Olympus KA programme was longer because of the scope of the work involved. But Will Erith, then team leader in New Projects Engineering, has no doubt that the project was worth the effort. “There is a strong view that supersonic propulsion systems will play a key role in future defence markets and we need to be able to respond to these requirements as they evolve,” he says. “The knowledge and experience that we have as a result of the Olympus project obviously puts us in a very strong position in this respect. The value of this unique knowledge (covering key aspects of design, development, performance, in-service issues etc) is potentially enormous, should we embark on a full-scale supersonic-engine-development programme in the future.”
Mike Zdybel, head of Propulsion System Design and one of the pioneering knowledge-management leaders in Defence Aerospace, explains the benefits his department has had from doing KA projects: “The returns have been enormous and there has been great value added. The KA projects require quite a big investment – three months of an engineer or graduate’s time capturing the knowledge, although much less time is needed from the experts involved. However, the gains in terms of knowledge acquisition are huge.
“Though of secondary importance to the knowledge capture itself, the other benefit that KA projects offer is that the person carrying out the project becomes more learned in the subject matter of the exercise. They will also gain knowledge-acquisition skills, while more inexperienced employees taking part will be exposed to broader project-management, interviewing and other techniques. For a new starter or graduate, a KA project is also the ideal way for them to gain knowledge in a given area.
“For this reason, knowledge-acquisition projects have been built into our graduate-training scheme. When we know what function or skill group a graduate is going to join, we will try to give them a KA project that is focused on the area of expertise they are interested in. This will help us capture knowledge and help that graduate climb the learning curve more rapidly.”
The training is conducted in the form of short face-to-face sessions and workshops, supplemented by online help. It is delivered as and when the trainees need it as opposed to a continuous schedule at the beginning of the project.
During the training period, participants also learn about the origins of KM in Rolls-Royce. Although we have always been managing our knowledge to some degree, we started referring to ‘knowledge management’ in 1996, when the capability intranet was developed and introduced. In the same year, Rolls-Royce was involved with a business-process-re-engineering project involving industry and academia. Part of this project was the development of a process for capturing knowledge and publicising it in a user-friendly form, a process that has been continually adapted and improved over the years.
Of course, KA and knowledge auditing are not the only KM tools and techniques that we have developed and used at Rolls-Royce. We have also implemented a comprehensive KM system that allows the capture and sharing of key experts’ knowledge, experience, lessons learnt and problem-solving rationale. The system, depicted in the illustration elsewhere on this page, comprises of IT and non-IT-based tools and techniques aimed at adding demonstrable value to the business.
Rolls-Royce was recently named among the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises in Europe, awarded by an expert panel of European chief knowledge officers and leading knowledge-management practitioners. We believe the Rolls-Royce KM system is respected and praised because of the level of uptake by company employees, its longevity and also the level of proven, tangible benefits. To improve our KM programme further, we continue to invest in the development of:
People capabilities – Tried and tested training and change-management packages to address the people dimension of knowledge acquisition, including storytelling, peer assist, communities of practice, and understanding of the dual need to protect and share knowledge in respect of regulatory and other commercial requirements;
Process capabilities – Improved knowledge-capture processes, simple benchmarking tools, lessons-learnt templates and reviews, structured knowledge audits, inventive problem-solving techniques and hazard-identification prompt lists;
System capabilities – Search engines and interfaces, database structuring and data-mining methodologies.
Naturally, it is the first set of capabilities, focusing on the people aspects of knowledge management, that is most important to us, followed by processes and then systems capabilities. A unique aspect of the Rolls-Royce range of KM tools and techniques is that none of them depends on fancy IT applications. Indeed, most can be conducted with just a pen and paper or with standard desktop applications. Avoiding a dependence on technology in your KM programme is one of the most important lessons we have learnt over the years, one that will hopefully stand us in good stead as we continue to develop our range of knowledge-based practices.
Darius Baria is head of Knowledge Management Services at Rolls-Royce. He can be contacted at email@example.com
SIDEBAR: Lessons learnt
Start with simple techniques – Don’t dive straight in with a massive programme of complicated KM activities. Many hard-nosed engineers and commercially driven people are naturally sceptical and may react adversely to what they perceive as managerial interference. Start with a simple techniques that quickly deliver benefits to the business and participants. A lessons-learnt review is a good start;
Use pilot projects – If you want to try something a bit more challenging, such as a knowledge-acquisition project, conduct a pilot first. Prove to your peers and seniors that what you are planning works before embarking on a bigger programme;
Use everyday language – Communicate with your employees in a language they can understand. Don’t put them off with complicated terminology;
Utilise word of mouth – Success stories among peers are far more effective at communicating success than, for instance, presentations from KM practitioners trying to sell the concept;
Ensure demonstrable business benefits – Everything we do has to add value. It is hard to quantify business benefits with something as intangible as knowledge, but it is possible to demonstrate quantifiable reductions in training times and efficiency improvements;
Learn lessons – In the KM team, you should practice what you preach and conduct a lessons-learnt review after every KM activity. Learn from your experiences;
Continually refresh and improve the way you do things – Following your lessons-learnt review, you will undoubtedly identify areas for improvement. Share your ideas with fellow KM practitioners and develop them further;
KM should become a way people do things rather than a thing that is done – Although you will need a dedicated team to kick things off, KM is not the job of a central team divorced from the business process. Sharing must become a way of doing things, supported by the right processes and tools.