posted 1 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 2
Five minutes with... Sinclair Knight Merz
Jacquie Bran, head of the Ark Group events team, speaks to Peter Nevin, group manager of information systems, and Colin Saunders, head of knowledge management, at Sinclair Knight Merz. They discuss their involvement in the development of a KM programme at SKM and their experiences with communities of practice, collaboration and cultural change.
When and why did you start addressing knowledge management within your organisation?
Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) formally introduced knowledge management about three years ago. Our chief executive, Paul Dougas, and chief operating officer, Mark Read, were both exposed to the benefits of creating a learning organisation during their time studying at Harvard University. At the same time, our employee development and services team was putting pressure on the organisation to pursue KM. It would be fair to say that SKM is a progressive knowledge organisation that is always looking for ways to improve the way it manages knowledge, even if it is not officially called KM. We introduced an intranet and informal communities of practice (CoPs) called TechNets about six years ago.
Did knowledge management develop organically?
It was more of a mandate. We’ve grown very quickly over the past three years and some of the informal KM measures needed to be formalised to keep up with our changing culture and global expansion. We also needed to address how, due to commercial pressures, natural networking and knowledge sharing have changed since we were a smaller company. Our executive team approved the development of collaborative software and a benchmarking exercise to assess how others undertook formal KM.
How long did it take you to develop a KM strategy?
In a sense the strategy has grown by identifying the need for IT solutions and how we can better understand KM through benchmarking exercises. In essence the two streams have developed at different speeds. The IT aspects were focused but they involved a lengthy development programme to enhance the software to suit our own needs. Once the benchmarking exercise was complete, and a knowledge manager was appointed, it took about six months to nail down a strategy.
What will be the biggest KM challenges?
Timelines for cultural change are difficult to pin down. It has already been more than three years since we starting thinking about KM. We’ll probably spend another 12 months entrenching the initiatives, but it may take a little longer before the ‘KM way of thinking’ is completely accepted within our culture.
As an engineering, science, project-management and planning-service provider, the bulk of our people are technically oriented. Technical people are used to seeing concrete and tangible results, and a major focus of our work in the future will be to show the value of a less tangible project such as KM. This challenge is heightened because we have chosen to pursue a personalised KM strategy. We are fortunate that we have leaders with foresight and imagination who can visualise the benefits and have taken the first leap of faith.
What are your challenges in relation to fragmentation?
Sinclair Knight Merz has offices in more than 30 locations in 16 countries. The issue of fragmentation was considered critical from the outset. Sinclair Knight Merz addressed it by implementing a data-replication methodology that allowed collaboration servers worldwide to have a single, unified view of information. This approach ensured that local performance was delivered while retaining a holistic view of the company's knowledge base.
What quick wins or longer term results have you realised?
We believe KM will deliver benefits in the medium to long term. Having said that, the company has a strong knowledge-sharing culture that provides us with a good platform to work from. We have started to implement a series of CoPs, which have generated a great deal of enthusiasm. We have won some excellent projects by using the CoPs to tap into our global skills.
We also have first-rate collaborative software, which we call Wise (worldwide information-sharing environment). The technology allows us to replicate project documents to any of our offices and do complex searches on any document around the world. This is being used by the CoPs as a repository for their knowledge and as a tool that enables discussions. In addition, we are able to create virtual project teams that can work on the same documents from anywhere in the world.
What are your KM objectives?
We want KM to enable a culture of trust that will allow us to know and share what we know. Personal growth, innovative thinking, engaged staff, and satisfied clients and shareholders are areas where KM can contribute.
What are the most important lessons you have learnt?
Existing literature covers the lessons learnt quite well and we can only add to these conclusions. KM needs support and drive from the top of any company. An active, interested and supportive executive steering group should guide these initiatives. KM is not a project that can be implemented overnight and may require dogged persistence to change this perception, especially where budgets are constrained and you’re working with very busy knowledge workers. KM should be closely aligned to the organisation’s IT and HR departments.
Peter Nevin is group manager of information systems at Sinclair Knight Merz. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Colin Saunders is head of knowledge management at Sinclair Knight Merz. He can be contacted at email@example.com