posted 2 Apr 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 7
The knowledge: Robert H. Buckman
Buckman Labs has become one of the most oft-cited examples of a successful knowledge-based enterprise, and a huge amount of credit for the company’s achievements is owed to Bob Buckman, former CEO and chairman of the board. He talks to Simon Lelic about his personal accomplishments and what he sees as the dominant issues facing knowledge-management practitioners.
Bob Buckman didn’t set out to ‘do’ knowledge management at Buckman Laboratories. If anything, the term itself was retrospectively applied to the work Buckman and his associates had been doing since the 1980s after it became fashionable over a decade later. Buckman’s goal was, and still is, to establish Buckman Labs as an organisation driven by its customers – their needs and expectations. And yet, as countless awards and industry accolades over the years have served to demonstrate, Buckman Labs has become the archetypal knowledge-enabled company. Whether Buckman himself likes the term or not, Buckman Labs is now one of the world’s best examples of knowledge management in action.
Buckman became CEO and chairman of the board of directors at Buckman Labs in 1978, and it was in these roles that he oversaw the company’s biggest steps forward in realising its potential as a knowledge-based business. Buckman’s personal journey in KM began even earlier, however. It was after attending an IBM Executive Education class in 1967 that he first began to consider the growing importance of connectivity in a corporate environment. Some years later, in 1984, Buckman was further galvanised by the words of Jan Carlson, former chairman of SAS Airlines, who said, “An individual without information cannot take responsibility; an individual who is given information cannot help but take responsibility.”
The biggest spur to action, though, came with Buckman’s realisation in the mid-80s that Buckman Labs faced a driving need to develop solutions to its customers’ problems much faster and on a global basis. “We could not afford to have experts in every country we were serving our customers in,” recalls Buckman. “We had tried to move our experts around the world on a regular basis to satisfy this need, without significant success. We had to come up with a system where those experts could be available anywhere, at anytime, on a global basis. That’s when we started moving away from the face-to-face world as the way to solve our problems. We began to realise that experts could come from anywhere in the organisation.”
At the time, Buckman had few leads he could follow. Unaware of any other ‘knowledge-management’ projects underway anywhere else in the world, Buckman cites Tom Peters and Reuben Harris of the Tom Peters Group as being among the biggest influences on his thinking at the time, particularly in encouraging him to look beyond established organisational practice. “Dave Zimney of IBM was also instrumental in helping us think through the kinds of elements we needed in our systems,” Buckman adds. “Likewise, the futurist Stan Davis was helpful in considering where we wanted to get to in our re-design of the organisation. And I learnt a lot from some early pioneers, including Brook Manville, currently of Saba but formerly chief knowledge officer at McKinsey, and Sherman Woo, formerly of US West.”
Rather than focusing on knowledge management per se, a concept that was anyway still very much in its infancy at the time, Buckman and his colleagues were looking for ways to do things better, faster, cheaper. With this in mind, he followed a number of guiding principles that, he says, still hold good today:
· Stay focused on the strategy of the organisation – the system you implement has to be based on needs;
· Help people to realise added value from that system – think about redefining the time equation of work;
· Create a system that lets people do things better and in less time – otherwise, the system will be in place but no-one will use it;
· There has to be something in the system for the individual – aim to help the individual to grow through their use of the system;
· Consider the value-added that you provide your people, rather than the value-added you provide the company – the more value you offer to your employees, the greater the benefits they will gain from using the system. The more benefits they achieve, the better it is for the organisation as a whole.
Even with these considerations firmly in mind, success is by no means guaranteed, as Buckman himself will testify. “In the early days we faced many technical obstacles,” he says. “The infrastructure simply wasn’t there – we were stuck in a mainframe world. Later on, the issues were primarily cultural; the biggest of which was the power base of middle management in controlling the flow of information and knowledge to and from their people. Once we got past that barrier to global communications, we achieved significant gains, but we spent about 90 per cent of our efforts on overcoming cultural barriers.”
Modestly glossing over his own contribution, Buckman attributes the success of the knowledge-sharing programme at Buckman Labs to the firm’s employees. “Our people are the key to our success,” he says. “It is what they have done in redefining the time equation of work that has made the difference. They have dealt with the cultural issue of our face-to-face past as they have moved to a global system of networked communication. We gave them the means by expanding their span of communication, but it was the change in their way of working that let them increase their span of influence. They have become a community of one on a global playing field within the framework of Buckman Laboratories.”
But for all his protestations, Buckman himself deserves a share of the plaudits. He describes his own contribution as having helped to open windows of opportunity for the company’s associates. This process, he says, began with the removal of the obstacles bequeathed by the sequential world of communicating in a command-and-control structure to allow a networked model of communication to emerge. He is most proud, though, of his role in helping to establish the Buckman Labs Learning Centre, which he says has redefined the pedagogical approach to education in the organisation. “Instead of a student attending a class, we have moved the classroom to the student – anytime, anywhere the student happens to be,” he explains. “By redefining the opportunity for our associates (our knowledge base) to grow over time, we are able to ensure that we stay ahead of the curve.”
Buckman retired from active management at the company in April 2000, although he still sits on the board of directors and is chairman of the executive committee of the board at Bulab Holdings, the parent company of Buckman Laboratories. There is no doubt, though, that he has left an enduring mark on the company as a whole. As Steve Buckman, current CEO, is once reported to have said, even if the company tried to stop the processes and ways of working that his predecessor put in place, there would be a revolution – employees simply wouldn’t tolerate the loss of something that allows them to do their jobs so efficiently and effectively.
It is a legacy of which Buckman has a right to be proud, but there is no sign yet that he is content to rest on his laurels. Rather, he continues to explore this concept of redefining the time equation of work. As he points out, it is not a question of doing the same things faster, but of redefining how the objective is reached. “This is where the payback for businesses will be,” he says. “For example, we enter knowledge into a system by typing. This archaic method is the best that we have today, but suppose we had an entry method that could function as fast as we could think. Similarly, we as individuals are spending more and more time commuting to the office, but more and more of the work we undertake is done away from the office. Why should we spend time commuting to a place where we no longer work? How do we devise a work culture that supports work being done at any time, no matter where we happen to be?”
He goes on to outline a number of scenarios in which businesses have the potential to realise huge cost and efficiency benefits, all of which relate to this central theme, and it is clear that this is what he sees as the next significant challenge for knowledge management. “As long as the discipline stays focused on redefining the time equation of work, then it has a future,” he says. “Figure out how to redefine what we do to reach an objective so that we can save huge chunks of time – it is the most expensive commodity we have. There is an awful lot that can be done in this field, so long as we have the courage to change the way that we reach our objectives. Think globally and not by department. We have to think strategically and not get stuck in the minutia that a lot of people associate with KM.”
This will undoubtedly be one of the central themes of Buckman’s forthcoming book, currently being written under the working title Building the Knowledge-Driven Organization and due to be published by the end of this year. He also plans to offer further insight into the success that he and his colleagues have achieved at Buckman Labs. While he may not be able to point to any magic formula, the company clearly got something right; after all, Buckman Labs is the only organisation ever to top the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises list on more than one occasion. It is certainly a tale worth telling. No doubt Buckman will play down his own role in the story, but readers should be under no illusions that Buckman was anything other than the chief protagonist.