posted 9 Dec 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 4
Five minutes with… Arup
Jacquie Bran, project manager with the Knowledge Management events team, spent five minutes talking to Tony Sheehan, group knowledge manager for Arup, about the company’s experiences implementing a KM programme.
When and why did you first consider incorporating KM?
Our formal knowledge-management programme began in 1999 when I was appointed by the board to explore the discipline’s relevance to Arup. As a firm, we had ignored a wealth of recent popular business ideas, from re-engineering to six sigma, but knowledge management really struck a chord. The reason? Well, knowledge is pretty much all that we sell at Arup – we are a firm of designers, who thrive on delivering creative solutions to client problems.
Knowledge management had never been described as such within the firm, but good practices such as sharing of project lessons and, critically, a supportive knowledge culture were already largely present. Many of our good practices could be traced back to our founder, Ove Arup, who created the firm with a strong ethos of sharing knowledge – and profits – back in 1946. Over the years, this has continued, with many good things evolving as a result.
The knowledge-management challenge was therefore to build on a good KM foundation, adapting and updating current techniques to reflect best practices in the wider knowledge-management sector. We adopted an approach exploring people, process and technology, in that order.
What have you done to encourage and promote knowledge sharing?
People will only do something if they see it as a benefit, so we have done all that we can to encourage good knowledge behaviour. Clearly this starts at the top, and the chairman has supported and encouraged the knowledge-management effort. All the time, however, we have sold the line that knowledge management is everyone’s job. We also, therefore, measure knowledge factors in our appraisal process in order to ensure that everyone is doing their best to encourage good KM practice.
Simple things help. Our business works by bringing people together, so creation and maintenance of an up-to-date skills database has been essential. Many organisations find that corporate Yellow-Pages-style applications fail. We have found quite the opposite. By reviewing our needs and aligning ‘Arup Pages’ to these needs, our Yellow-Pages application has formed the backbone of our KM effort.
What cultural factors did you have to take into consideration during KM implementation?
The key challenge here was not to erode the very promising culture that was already in place. We made particular efforts to communicate and consult with the firm as much as possible, and also encouraged the use of pilot projects tested in the field rather than centrally developing and imposing solutions. With technology implementations, we also tried to be as unthreatening as possible, retaining (for example) existing interfaces while introducing new functionality behind the scenes. Success stories and appraisals helped as well. Our philosophy is to publicise and promote the good knowledge sharers, and to discourage and restrict opportunities for those who fail to play ball.
Following your KM pilot projects, what glitches did you have to iron out and what challenges arose before you went ahead with full KM implementation?
In all honesty, we’ve had very few problems, but a lot of that was down to an overarching vision and fairly realistic expectations at the outset. Every pilot project is a trial; if the trial fails, its back to the drawing board. Our approach has been to research particular aspects of the KM field, translate these into Arup context, demonstrate/test these ideas, revise them in the light of experience... and then start all over again.
How did you progress to implementing a KM infrastructure?
Implementing an infrastructure for KM required a clear understanding of both needs and benefits to the business, and a fair assessment of existing tools and their effectiveness.
We developed a good awareness of technology providers and their capabilities, but were careful to let our requirements drive selection rather than select a product and impose it on the firm. Having identified possible candidates, it was a case of trial, evaluate and, eventually, adopt.
What are your major lessons learnt?
Knowledge management is not zero based. Start from where you are and build on the positives. Also, know your business and be aware of the motivations of your people within that business. The best KM solutions will fail if these issues are not addressed. Beyond that, be realistic. Knowledge management takes time, so you need a supportive CEO and sensible targets. Finally, celebrate success for all its worth. Some aspects of the KM programme will take time to deliver or may fail, but you must balance these with glowing stories about those that succeed.
Tony Sheehan is group knowledge manager at Arup. He can be contacted at email@example.com