posted 8 May 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 8
Great minds think differently
An interview with Robert Buckman
In a seminar hosted by Henley Knowledge Management Forum at Henley Management College earlier this year, Geoff Smith interviewed Robert Buckman, one of the acknowledged pioneers of early knowledge management thinking. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, which details Buckmanís thoughts on the key issues facing businesses looking to develop their approach to KM.
GS: Buckman Laboratories is one of the most well-known knowledge management success stories. So much of this is associated with your personal leadership. Could Buckman Labs have achieved all this without your individual commitment, vision and energy?
RB: This is not the story of myself, but a story about our associates and what they did. We wanted to become more customer-driven as an organisation. That meant having our people effectively engaged with them and taking responsibility for satisfying their needs and expectations. To accomplish this, we needed to speed up the processes of sharing knowledge so we could serve our customers better. Our people needed answers from whoever had them, anywhere in the world. We were a multinational company that needed to become a global organisation. The whole thing was a journey, and it has invaded the fabric of our corporation. It didnít start out as knowledge management Ė we tried to do what we thought was best at the time to improve the speed at which we could respond to the needs of our customers. Then, something new comes along that seems better Ė other things fall by the wayside. Weíve really created a culture of change that became a journey Ė the journey continues today.
GS: You took over at Buckman in 1978. Since then, you have been through several waves of change Ė being customer-driven, defining corporate values, introducing early KM technology, scaling things up. Now you are into continuous competition-driven change. But is it going to take everybody 20 years?
RB: I started down the path in January 1984 when Tom Peters got a hold of me. He challenged my thinking. It was from there that we started down the path. No, it wonít take 20 years; it wonít take 16 years like itís taken us. I think what weíve learned over the last 16 years will short-circuit what you folks have to go through. There was no internet, no consultants, no gurus out there Ė we were just trying to figure out how we solve customer problems faster.
GS: Looking back on your KM journey, what would you say made the biggest difference, and was the biggest accelerator, out of all the things youíve done?
RB: I think recognising that marketing was one department globally, instead of each operating company having its own marketing department, and we started solving customer problems on a global basis. That was the single biggest jump that we took, because you have to realise that all of our legal systems that create these geographic entities that we call companies, also create compartments and boxes in which we do work that we think is economically viable. But we found that customers have the same problems worldwide, and if we shared knowledge across the organisation, across these cultural and geographic and language barriers, that started paying off, big time. When you run into technical problems, they are the same anywhere in the world. It doesnít make any difference whether it happens in South Africa or Australia or Brazil. And so, the knowledge thatís available anywhere in the world becomes valuable elsewhere. If you can move it fast enough across the organisation, you can solve the problem in a completely different part of the world with knowledge from somewhere else. Itís not unusual when we have a problem to have knowledge shared from five or six different parts of the world at the same time, on that problem.
GS: You started off wanting Buckman Labs to be more customer-driven. Itís very clear from your mission statement that associates are there to solve customersí problems. It struck me you were saying: ďCustomers first Ė not knowledge.Ē Yet some say if you want to manage knowledge you need to start out finding where it is, mapping it, doing audits and so on. You seem to be saying: ďNo, start with the customer.Ē Is that how you see it?
RB: Yes. I think you have to start with what the customer wants. You have to listen to them. You have to find out what is important to the customer. What kind of problems do you have to solve to get in with the customer and win points with them? If you can solve those, you come out ahead. If you donít, you wonít. Itís that simple. I donít think you can start with what you have already got written down, as it is already out of date in most cases. It does not make sense to spend a lot of money on out of date information or knowledge just because we have it handy. What Iíd spend a lot of money on is capturing the dialogue that goes on around the needs of the customer, because thatís where your latest and greatest knowledge and information is. We have to remember that by the time it is written down, it is usually out of date in the fast changing world we have in front of us. Sometimes, old knowledge has some longevity, but many times it doesnít if youíre dealing with a fast-changing situation. So you have to figure out how you become fleet-of-foot as an organisation, around the needs of the customer. If thatís where you generate your cash flow, then thatís where you had better be focused.
GS: Do you think your journey would have been different or more difficult if you had been a public company, rather than privately owned, staying true to your vision and sustaining a programme over a long period of time?
RB: I donít think it makes any difference whether youíre public or private. I think the issue is, does management have the courage to think long term rather than next quarter? If youíre going to re-define the organisation around the needs of the customer, youíve got to start thinking long term; you cannot do that quarter-to-quarter, and turn it on and off depending on the results of the previous quarter. It just doesnít happen.
GS: You seem to have only a small number of solid KM measurements in terms of the age profile of your products, education levels of employees, and the number of people out selling. Do you think the whole issue of KM metrics and ROI is overstated?
RB: Let me put it this way: you cannot figure out how a tree is growing by pulling it up and looking at its roots every day. I think weíre doing way too much in the way of metrics. We need to figure out what are the key things we should be focusing on, and quit worrying about the rest of it. I think earnings per share are impacted by too many things to be used as a metric of KM or knowledge sharing. I really do. The dollar can drop, and our results can change very dramatically from one month to the next. Itís strictly a currency shift, and has nothing to do with applying knowledge around the needs of the customer. Not a damn thing. You could look at your rate of revenue growth, or how you create innovation with your customer. How do you measure that? Because speed of innovation, in my book, is the most important thing to improve if you want to stay ahead of the competition. If you out-innovate your competition, youíll always be ahead. So I think thatís more important than a lot of these metrics that I see in the press today. I really am quite disappointed on the metrics side of things. Think about metrics around the flow of information and knowledge rather than financial metrics. Knowledge will create value if it moves across the organisation.
GS: Can I come back to your personal lead in all this? It seems middle management and functional heads have bought into KM. How would you advise people communicate KM upwards and get other CEOs on board, to take them to your level of insight and vision?
RB: I find this comment interesting, because every time I talk to CEOs, I find they are more comfortable with what I talk about than most middle-level management. Theyíre not always doing it yet, because they havenít figured out how to, but in many cases they want to.
GS: Is that the key? If you can show senior management how to do KM, and make practical returns?
RB: Sure. Donít get focused on earnings per share; focus on results with customers, focus on beating the competition with customers, speed of response. Not how fast you can throw it over the transom, but how fast you can satisfy the customer. How do you start anticipating the needs of the customer? I can almost guarantee you, if you can get an answer to the customer before the competition does, even though your answer may not be perfect, youíll get their business ahead of the competition, most of the time. And if you donít get the business, you donít get the opportunity to do anything else anyway! Itís about how you create opportunities for the rest of your organisation to show what it can do. You have to have the business.
GS: You have talked a lot about external customers and customer needs. What about internal customers? How do you organise KM in the company so that all the different functions and groups agree on the way forward for KM?
RB: I think there is only one customer, and thatís the one that pays your bills. Weíve gone through that argument in our company at least a dozen times, backwards and forwards, but most internal customers donít pay your bills. So think in terms of staying focused on the external customer, the ones who provide cash flow to the organisation. Start by figuring the things you should be doing to help cash flow come to the organisation, and how to enhance that cash flow. Because, in the end, I donít care how good a company you are, you havenít got a prayer of generating any profit unless youíve got a positive cash flow. The internal customer-type mentality is part of the old, sequential business model, not the networked model. As you move from command and control structures to networked forms, you will find that the network model will allow you to move much, much faster. You also get rid of this continual interpretation of knowledge being dependent on what level you are in the organisation, and whether you have got an internal customer or not. Because with the network form, everybody can be effectively engaged on the front line with the customer. You shift from a physical world of face-to-face, to an electronic world where ideas move towards a need.
GS: The educational profile of your employees is very highly qualified. Is that key to what you have done, or can this apply to more blue-collar organisations?
RB: I think you have to look long term. Start with whatever you have Ė it doesnít make any difference. Your organisation has a certain percentage of college graduates today, but what did it have 20 years ago? Did it grow or change, or not? What is its direction or planned direction for the future? Is it going to grow its knowledge base as an organisation, or is it going to stay static? If you are going to play in the knowledge-driven world, you had better be growing somehow. I donít care whether itís face-to-face classes, or distance-learning classes, but start thinking in terms of life-long learning for your associates. Because itís no longer a one-shot deal with the customer, itís a lifetime of direction. Are you taking long-term steps to enhance the knowledge base of your organisation or not? I think you had better be, because itís going to get tougher. Watch your kids today Ė go look at ten year olds, 15 year olds, even the six year olds: watch how they interact with each other on the internet, and youíll get a glimpse of the new management model. Unformed, kind of crazy, yes, but thatís what they are going to bring to the scene: for the first time in history, the kids are ahead of us! We have to figure out what they are going to be doing. Iím on the board of a couple of colleges and universities, and the biggest challenge today is how do we get our information systems up to speed to attract new freshmen? Now thatís a challenge! Thatís what they are looking for. It used to be that they came to the university, and the font of wisdom imparted knowledge to them, but now the kids are saying: ďHey, youíre not up to speed Ė weíre not coming here!Ē And it has nothing to do with the content provided Ė it has to do with the infrastructure of the network. Itís a very different promise. We are in the process of changing the pedagogical approach to education to take advantage of the economies that technology can bring us. This change will open up opportunities for education to everybody in the organisation, including those with a blue collar.
GS: When it comes to KM technology, at Buckman you deliberately started out simple. With all the plethora of new KM technologies, what excites you most out of the stuff thatís coming at us today and over the horizon?
RB: I think the key thing thatís going to help organisations is what redefines the time equation for people. I donít care what form the software takes, but itís those things that help us redefine our time equation, to the point where we donít have to travel physically, but we can travel electronically wherever we have to go to meet the needs of the organisation: whether thatís just knowledge sharing, or acquiring new knowledge, or as a virtual team member. Start thinking about how you build virtual teams, virtually. Donít have a requirement that you have to bring them together physically before they can begin to function. Start thinking about how you do that instantaneously. If you need a new team to address and issue, you canít wait six months before you can gather this group together and start functioning Ė youíve got to start functioning in the next hour. So start thinking about how you do this stuff without moving people around, because moving people is the most expensive, unproductive activity that businesses are involved in today. Think about how you move ideas around. Take half the money you spend on moving people and start spending that on moving ideas Ė then youíll start re-creating the business model.
GS: Is that a metric youíve ever actually looked at? Projected travel costs and so forth?
RB: No, we havenít (up to now) but weíre starting to look at, because all the costs of moving people today are going up faster than the rate of inflation. Businesses canít continue to absorb costs that are going up faster than the rate of inflation over the long pull, so somehow these are going to get redefined. Thatís the challenge for education, with its current pedagogical model Ė theyíve got to redefine themselves, because the economics are not there any more. The same is true of business travel. Weíve had situations in the last month or so in the US where we had whole sections of the country shut down, and people stranded at airports for three days. Now how productive is that? It doesnít take a rocket scientist to figure out that the current model is not working!
GS: Yes, weíve had a little of that over here, with petrol shortages, floods and rail problems! So do you see a convergence between knowledge management, knowledge sharing, learning and collaboration?
RB: Yes, itís all going to be part and parcel of the same thing Ė how do you redefine the time equation? How do you improve productivity of people, long term? Because thatís the challenge every businessman, every CEO faces. The most expensive item you have in your organisation is people, so how do you improve their productivity? All of us have cut costs to the point where itís kind of absurd in places Ė I donít think that process is going to continue long term. I think what weíre going to figure out is how do we redefine work? How do we do it smarter, better, faster? How do we keep from spending three days on travel to spend an hour sharing an idea together? Things like that. How do we get more quality time with our families? You sure donít get it running through airports, I guarantee you!
GS: Do you think itís possible to build the kind of trust that youíd need for that kind of virtual team electronically? Without face-to-face meetings?
RB: Yes, I do. The Applied Knowledge Group Inc., a company Iím working with at the moment, had its beginning with people from the Intelligence Community. They were doing virtual work 25 years ago at 300 baud with people theyíd never met. So it can be done. Is it easy for the typical business person today? No, because weíve got used to a face-to-face environment. Weíve got some things to learn Ė but I think it can be done. Trust is built around common values and shared experiences, whether face-to-face or across time and space.
GS: What about when your people are local, with most of the workforce in one or two buildings, close together?
RB: Think in terms of analysing where your people are at any point in time. I think youíll be surprised at how high a percentage of them are scattered Ė how do they stay connected? Iíve found companies that have just one building, and by the time they got through analysing where their people actually were, they found that theyíre not in the building when they are doing knowledge work. So how do we develop systems that let us function anytime, anywhere? You would think that if everyone is located in one building, you wouldnít have that problem. Well, actually you do. I think thatís one of the fallacies of the office, quite frankly. When we were part of the production unit, yes, we went to the office or the plant 8-5, did our work and went home. That was it. It was all manual work. It was all sequential work. You had to be there to do it. Well, when you get networked, itís not sequential any more Ė you can do it anywhere, and you do it asynchronously. And all of a sudden, you redefine what the office is about. Weíve got a lot of money tied up in edifices today that are becoming obsolete as social gathering places. Some consultants use hotelling for a lot of their people Ė you walk in, punch in your requirements, and they assign you to a space for that day. Every day youíll be in a different space. So why spend all this money on buildings, whose costs are going up faster than the rate of inflation? Itís a non-productive use of capital. Why donít you just stay home and move your ideas electronically? As technology continues to advance, this is going to become easier and easier. It will be a better use of the resources at our disposal.
GS: And is the nature of companies going to change as well?
RB: Oh, I think they will radically change. You have to start thinking about how to build the socialisation of organisations, with people who never come together physically. These are going to be some real interesting times! Thatís the reason I say, look at what the ten year olds are doing. They are doing it already. They are becoming part of social organisations without even thinking about it. Weíre sitting here struggling, trying to figure out how we redefine the equation. Theyíre doing it! So itís going to be a challenge, it really is Ė particularly for us older folks! Now that Iíve retired, I've got a little more time to play, so I can start exploring a little more but you folks are right in the thick of it. Well, how would you describe your ideal job? What characteristics would it have? Do you want to spend a lot of time running through airports? Iíve found very few people who really enjoy that process... except that the travel industry tries to pretend that itís nice. So start thinking about that, start thinking about ĎOK, if I do it a different way, if I can accomplish the same thing doing it in a different way that doesnít require me to be away from my family three days this week, I'm aheadí. Thatís an incentive for you to spend a little extra time on re-defining the equation for the company and yourself.
GS: Some would insist that trust, empathy and business success ultimately depend on a certain degree of face-to-face socialisation?
RB: Oh sure, thatís the reason I tried to emphasise Ė how do we build in socialisation electronically? Those are some of the things that businesses havenít really addressed yet, and I think thatís going to be very, very important. I tell you this Ė we have built a lot of our trust by having an electronic Ďbreak roomí where our associates sell cats and dogs, they exchange timeshares or apartments around the world, they tell jokes to each other Ė as long as it doesnít violate our code of ethics, anything goes. Itís the most used section of our forums, but itís where they build relationships; itís where they get comfortable with each other. They find the people who have similar values, and then when a real business need comes up, guess who they share knowledge most deeply with? So is that the only example of what could be used to build socialisation in this new form of communicating? No, but itís one thatís worked for us. The other one thing weíve used is letting people have full access to the internet at our expense Ė we pay all the network costs. By the way, we bury our network charges Ė they are all centrally billed and never back-charged to a department. Why? Because we donít want some manager somewhere deciding that somebody is spending too much on network charges, and trying to control his costs that way. Network charges are to a networked organisation what telephone bills are to a salesman. How many marketing managers do you know who have tried to control their expenses by controlling the telephone bill of their sales people? Yet youíll find that the most productive sales people are the ones with the biggest telephone bills. Itís kind of counter-productive, but you see that happening a lot. So think about how you expand your network charges as rapidly as possible Ė itís a kind of crazy thought process, but... I see you [in the audience] smiling and shaking your heads, but youíll find that to be true if you carry it through! That is how you will ensure that knowledge is moving in the organisation! It also indicates to your associates that you trust them to do the right thing.
GS: Finally, can it continue into the future? How do you plan to hand on the inheritance you have created?
RB: A little while back Steve Buckman [now CEO] and I were in a meeting with one of our biggest customers down in Memphis. While I was out of the room, apparently they asked: ďI suppose when Bob retires, all of this will drop by the wayside?Ē Steveís immediate response was: ďHell no! If we tried to stop what we are doing there would be a revolution. Because the perception of the people at the front line is that Ďthis is enabling us do our jobs a lot more efficiently and a lot more effectivelyí and therefore it will stay.Ē I think the key thing is you have to redefine work into something more valuable in the time expended. If you do that, itíll stay. If you donít, it wonít. I donít care what kind of fancy words you put around a new initiative, it will fail if you do not add value in the time expended. It all revolves around the question: have you created enough added value so that it will stay and have substance? Thatís the key to the whole thing.
(c) 2001 Henley Management College
Geoff Smith is European head of knowledge and content management at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org