posted 21 Jun 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 9
Gloria María Ceballos Atienza, Dr. Frithjof Weber, Antonio Montosa Jurado and Rafael Navarro Fontestad discuss the evolution of knowledge and expertise transfer within manufacturing engineering at international aeronautic organisation Airbus
The difficulties associated with converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge have been well known since Professor Ikjiro Nonaka presented his model for the ‘knowledge creating company’ in 1991. In 1990, Wayne Baker described social capital as “a resource that actors derive from specific social structures and then use to pursue their interests, (…) created by changes in the relationship among actors”. Indeed, it is one of the capitals that enterprises have identified as key to success in their markets. According to Baker’s definition, effective management of social capital is essential in converting tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge.
Many organisations are aware that important knowledge is held by the people who work for them – and within their day-to-day processes. However, many do not develop any methodology, process or tool to organise and maintain this knowledge that has been acquired over the years, often throughout several generations of employees. Tacit knowledge in particular is difficult to capture, maintain, develop and extend to the entire organisation. But the sharing of information, knowledge and expertise acquired by workers throughout their employment does create added value, so it is a challenge that organisations cannot ignore.
Additionally, industrial organisations are becoming more aware of the value that is lost when an employee leaves a position ? either because of a career change, a job switch within the same organisation or upon retirement. Organisations thus need to define and implement a structured policy to help to avoid total or partial loss of expertise from departing employees. Some large companies – such as ABB Switzerland (capturing Knowledge Program), Volkswagen (Wissensstafette/Knowledge Relay) and BP (Connect page) – have developed successful methodologies in order to retain and share expertise and knowledge within the company (Mertins, Heisig and Vorbeck, 2003).
Such programmes are not based on ‘cloning’ experts. Knowledge transfer is not a magic process whereby any knowledge acquired by a person during their life will be inherited automatically by their successors. Instead they provide a structure in which knowledge is transferred based on areas of expertise and technical knowledge (Haarman, 2008) and which may provide considerable value to the industrial organisation in which it is applied.
This article will present the methodology that is being used successfully at Airbus to transfer knowledge and experience.
Knowledge management and transfer at Airbus
Airbus is a leading aircraft manufacturer. It employs more than 52,000 people of more than 80 different nationalities in design and manufacturing facilities in
Airbus is utilising the latest technology and constantly innovating and creating new knowledge. With the development of the A380 – the double decked, largest passenger aircraft in the world – and other new products, such as the versatile airlifter A400M and the long-range A350 XWB (both with significant parts of their fuselage and wing structures built from carbon composite materials) Airbus is at the forefront of the aeronautical industry. This industry is highly technological and relies on knowledge-intensive processes.
Knowledge management (KM) plays an important role in the company’s strategy to strengthen its competitiveness. The corporate KM department, a multi-disciplinary and distributed team, is responsible for the development, deployment and operation of KM solutions and services.
The KM team provides a holistic portfolio of methods and tools with a blended approach, comprising both document based and people-based solutions. These can be combined and configured according to the respective customer needs (Weber, Krieghoff, Katzung, 2007), see Figure 1:
KM Overall Diagnosis (KMOD) is a methodology for diagnosing KM needs and appropriate action plans by identifying an organisational unit’s knowledge, analysing its criticality and assessing the existing KM practices.
Expertise Transfer (ExTra) is a service designed to facilitate the transfer of knowledge between employees in situations such as retirement, mobility or transfer of work.
Yellow Pages (YP) is a software tool to enable users to locate the right person to answer a question – to find who knows certain information, who used to, and who does what inside the organisation.
Professional Networks (PN) is a consulting service which facilitates the planning, set-up, maturation and transformation of networks throughout their lifecycle – usually also known as communities of practice(CoPs).
RISE [re-use, improve, share experience] provides a process, software platform, workshops and networks to support the capture and re-use of lessons learnt and best practices across the organisation.
Knowledge Capture and Publishing (KCP) is a methodology to capture product and process knowledge in a structured format. Creation and publication of the resulting knowledge books is mostly done in wikis.
Business Search (BS) is a web-based search engine for synchronous search in multiple internal data sources. It includes features such as filtering, clustering, synonyms, query management and alerts.
Innovation Management (IM) is a set of workshops, consultation and training on innovation, problem solving and creativity.
KM Training comprises different trainings on
KM principles, methods and tools – for example, managers, experts and architects who have a particular role in KM.
This portfolio is now widely deployed in Airbus, especially in the design and engineering environment, and KM initiatives are ongoing in all functions. Further deployment is underway across the entire organisation. The manufacturing environment is of particular interest.
In this area, workers have acquired knowledge in technical schools, master-to-apprentice learning, and practical expertise taught in workshops. These programmes are focused on high quality, technological training for workers. On the one hand, this covers metallic technologies, such as sheets, machining (lathes, machining centres, milling machines, grinding machines), thermal treatments and surface treatments. On the other, it features composites, such as composite lay-up, curing cycles, de-molding, non-destructive tests and quality inspection. These workers, who are currently active, are all experts in their fields, and much of their expertise and knowledge is held tacitly.
Operating in a more global and competitive environment, and with a stronger trans-national integration of manufacturing processes, however, there is a strong requirement to direct research at the better use of tacit knowledge and how this can be expanded worldwide across the industrial organisation. Worldwide knowledge availability will ease continuous improvement, process harmonisation, quality of products, and communication among involved parties.
In order to implement a KM strategy across manufacturing engineering, a pilot project was carried out. Its objectives, research, results and lessons learned are detailed below.
The pilot project was developed within the Manufacturing Engineering Extended Enterprise department. The main function of this department is to monitor, manage and provide technical support to external collaborators so that sub-contracted product delivery is performed on time, cost and quality.
The pilot project had three key objectives. First, to establish how Airbus is retaining its competitive edge through employee knowledge transfer in manufacturing engineering; second, to establish and analyse which strategic knowledge should be maintained; and, third, to establish mechanisms that will minimise the loss of strategic knowledge in a structured and efficient manner.
The knowledge transfer programme was based on the ExTra methodology already used widely in Airbus (Weber, Dauphin, Fuschini, Haarman, Katzung, Wunram, 2007), (Katzung, Fuschini, Wunram, 2006). The methodology is detailed in Figure 2 and consists of the following steps.
Identification – givers and receivers are identified by functional managers and their corresponding HR partners;
Kick-off meeting – the first step is to create trust between the members of the transfer cell and to help them feel at ease with the process of knowledge transfer. This step facilitates buy-in and commitment from all the participants.
Diagnosis – the giver, receiver, manager and facilitator define the objectives of the transfer and the knowledge to be passed on. This results in a detailed action plan, defining knowledge areas and transfer methods, which is agreed by all participants.
Action plan implementation – comprises typical transfer actions, such as workshops, transfer of personal contacts and networks, lessons learnt, organisation of documents and archives, or contribution to a knowledge book.
Operation closure – the facilitator conducts an exit interview with the participants to ensure that all activities have been achieved and to obtain feedback through direct impressions and a dedicated questionnaire
Further development – carried out several months after the operation closure date to gather feedback from the receiver and the manager about the effectiveness of the knowledge transfer process.
The transfer network
This refers to a group of employees from human resources, KM and local managers. The objective of this group is to identify the employees who leave the company or change their position and newcomers who should receive that departing knowledge. The transfer network acts as an early warning system in an organisational unit and is responsible for systematic anticipation.
The transfer cell
The transfer cell consists of knowledge giver, knowledge receiver, direct manager, and facilitator and process coordinator (usually the same person). The role of the facilitator and process coordinator is to ensure the smooth running of the project, conduct the diagnosis by mediating between the people involved and to follow-up on the entire process until the closure operation.
The ExTra methodology may be used in several cases. The typical situation is that the knowledge giver is a person who has reached retirement age and will be leaving the company. Other cases may be when a person changes position, or when knowledge transfer from experts is needed internally in the succession plan, or when the lack of experts must be covered in a job function. The methodology has also been successfully applied for group transfers and inter-departmental knowledge transfer.
ExTra has been successfully applied in more than 350 cases in Airbus, most of them in design and engineering. But in the case study described herein, it was developed in the Manufacturing Engineering Extended Enterprise department, which is a special case as it was the first application of KM within this environment.
In this department, employees have to work with the suppliers, so the partnership with external enterprises plays an important role in this case study. The data and names used in this case study have been changed and anonymised by the authors. The transfer cell comprised four people:
G (knowledge giver) was due to retire in four months. He was considered an expert in the manufacturing of metallic parts. He acquired his technical knowledge at the school of the organisation formerly known as CASA [Construcciones Aeronáuticas, S.A.]. He had worked at Airbus for 46 years, always with metallic technology and he owned a huge expertise in shop-floor activities, from internal and external partners.
R (knowledge receiver) was going to replace G. He also came from CASA, but he didn’t have the same level of expertise and knowledge as G yet, so his direct manager, M, felt it was important for him to learn from G’s experience.
C was an internal collaborator – a person who belonged to the same department and tried to understand the whole process, provide new ideas, drive the process throughout its duration and keep everyone involved informed. In this particular case, this role was important due to the infancy of this activity in manufacturing engineering.
F (facilitator and process coordinator) was an experienced ExTra facilitator, who had already conducted many ExTra operations.
Kick-off meeting and diagnosis
Before the actual kick-off meeting, the knowledge receiver completed a structured questionnaire to enable the transfer cell to gain first impressions on his ability to step into the role. He stated that the process had been launched at the right moment and was pleased to participate in an official and structured process. He also expressed that he considered any knowledge contribution towards a job as useful and that this would be helpful when solving certain questions currently beyond his means. He was eager to participate in the pilot project.
At the kick-off meeting, it was declared that G and R had a good relationship and that they had known each other for a long time. C, internal collaborator, also knew them both, which provided a positive foundation for the project.
From the beginning, G found this activity positive, especially due to the level and quality of information from his 46-year career, which could be transferred during the project. R said that he would like to have had more time for the project, because he thought that it was impossible to get all the answers to his questions within a three to four-month period. Nevertheless, he also felt positive and thought that he could take advantage of the programme.
During the diagnosis phase, M, the direct manager, expected R to acquire a little knowledge about the metallic parts manufacturing processes, including work processes and contacts built up over the years. M prioritised the project, while asking to maintain the regular day-to-day activities, which he introduced to R throughout the project.
As well as the expertise-based knowledge from G, R was expected to increase his technical knowledge, the main aspects of which were structured in a knowledge map.
Action plan and implementation
The action plan consisted of five main areas of activity (see Figure 3) and was implemented in a period of five months. It sought to:
Establish a network of technology suppliers and internal contacts. These lists were based on the technology diagram plotted in the diagnosis phase;
Establish a site visit to check the supplier’s facilities. Thanks to such visits, R could learn about (and compare) the technologies that G had explained to him previously;
Encourage new ideas on how to solve certain manufacturing problems, mainly based on G’s expertise, while also covering new technological developments in the aeronautical industry;
Maintain a common repository, housing the documentation created over G’s entire career lifespan; and
Create new documentation to guide R in his new position in the short-term. In this case, a contribution for a knowledge book was written with the information gained from the supplier visits.
One of the most tangible results of the transfer was a 40-page knowledge book, with photos, drawings, process descriptions, Ishikawa diagrams and supporting text.
Comments from all the involved parties were collated, with most of the time expended on the project being from the receiver, the giver and the collaborator. The facilitator and process coordinator remained in touch mainly by telephone and over e-mail. Just one face-to-face meeting was necessary in order to check and monitor the main activities identified during the action plan definition.
Finally, after implementing the action points, it was apparent that expertise was not only transferred at an explicit level (for example, documentation and a list of suppliers) but also at an implicit level (through impressions, views and opinions when visiting suppliers).
Following the operation, the four participants filled in a structured questionairre. The main results showed that:
The knowledge receiver was highly satisfied with the ExTra initiative. The process coordination and the methodology used were appropriate. He could see in-situ technologies, which would not have been possible without this process. However, he felt that the time spent on the programme was too short;
The knowledge giver was also satisfied with the methodology of the process and with the initiative. Hefelt that it should be a day-to-day process within the business. He estimated that the knowledge-transfer process (without a structured methodology) would have taken around three times longer;
The collaborator was pleased about participating in this process because it was a first for manufacturing engineering. The collaboration involved in adapting the process to the needs of the participants was a challenge;
The direct manager felt that it was crucial for organisations to retain their current technical background. He intends to continue this activity in his department, where more people with key knowledge are expected to retire in the coming years.
However, some difficulties were experienced in the project as well. During the implementation of the action plan, it was fairly difficult to hold meetings with the knowledge giver and knowledge receiver – although we stated that it was a priority in their daily activities. The other main challenge was writing up the documentation created during the process. At the closure of the operation, R felt that more time should have been available for the process, although the action plan was well structured.
After evaluating the project, we recognised the following key success factors:
The project benefited from the support and buy-in of the manufacturing engineering organisation. As a pilot project for a more systematic transfer, management and retention of the key knowledge acquired by staff during a long stay within the organisation, it received positive management attention;
The process required participants to work closely as a team and to exploit their relationships – the knowledge giver, knowledge receiver, direct manager, collaborator and finally the facilitator. Thus, effective communication between the participants became a key factor for success and Baker’s social capital enabled the conversion of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge as cited above.
Suppliers’ collaboration in this process has been decisive, as they have allowed access to their facilities, explained their manufacturing processes and technologies in detail, and facilitated the creation of a contribution to the knowledge book with their explanations, diagrams and other varied information;
The ExTra methodology itself already has a very high level of maturity: With more than 350 operations and an impressive customer satisfaction indicator of 97.7 per cent, it provided a powerful baseline for the pilot case. For further success criteria of ExTra, see (Katzung, Fuschini, Wunram 2006).
Feedback and experience from the pilot project indicated some potential for further improvement and extension of the approach.
To anticipate mobility or departures in our personnel early enough, it is essential that the Transfer Network is well linked and communicating efficiently. This enables the KM facilitator to launch the ExTra operation with enough time to guarantee a successful outcome – the belief that SAP can tell this early enough is a common pitfall.
Other feedback identified during the ExTra project was the possibility of establishing discussions around specific technical topics with other members of the department, or even with members from other departments. In this way, organisational and technological communication could be combined. For example, while presenting interesting technological cases, it could be simultaneously communicated that an employee was leaving the company or moving into another role, as well as introducing the successor.
As manufacturing engineering is a globally distributed organisation, knowledge transfer needs to reach beyond local communication. It is also necessary to make use of information and communication systems in the transfer.
A wide variety of tools, such as Netmeeting, Webex, Sharepoint or Confluence Wikis, or the tools from the KM portfolio mentioned earlier can be used to support knowledge sharing at Airbus.
Final conclusions and future investigations
Together with a second case, conducted with the same approach in a different country, this pilot project was able to demonstrate the clear value of systematic knowledge transfer in manufacturing engineering in Airbus. The project thus prepared the starting point for the implementation of a wider KM strategy in this organisation unit and the corresponding management decisions have just been made.
Gloria María Ceballos Atienza is head of Manufacturing Engineering Extended Enterprise methods and processes at Airbus in Spain; Dr. Frithjof Weber and Antonio Montosa Jurado are head of knowledge management and head of Manufacturing Engineering Extended Enterprise CoE Empennage and Aft Fuselage, respectively, also at Airbus. Rafael Navarro Fontestad is a knowledge transfer partnership associate in Decision Engineering at Cranfield University.
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