posted 10 Oct 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 2
The knowledge: Bruce Karney
Mixing his knowledge of industrial engineering, marketing, change management and technology, Sandra Higgison finds out how Bruce Karney has created and delivered KM tools and processes to help staff across HP perform their jobs more effectively.
When Lew Platt, former CEO at HP said, “If only HP knew what HP knows” he succinctly described the aspirations of many organisations taking their first steps in knowledge management. Recognising that the company’s continued success relied on its employees’ knowledge of its markets, products and customers, HP started to design and implement processes and tools to help its people connect, collaborate and learn. One such pioneer within the firm was Bruce Karney who helped its geographically dispersed trainers share knowledge and become a community. Karney’s 24-year career at HP has stretched from industrial engineering to corporate education and knowledge consulting. His overriding objective in each of these roles has been to bring about improvements by helping the company know what it knows. Today, less than a month from retirement, Karney has reflected on his lessons learnt and shares his carefully considered KM conclusions.
Soon after completing his Masters degree in management science, Karney was working in one of HP’s parts-distribution warehouses when he had what he describes as a career-changing experience. “My job was to come up with an algorithm for orders the warehouse received that would reduce the total amount of inventory without increasing the likelihood that we’d be out of a part when a customer needed it,” he says.
“It was a classic industrial engineering challenge.” Having formulated the algorithm and tested it mathematically it seemed solid. However, it involved more complicated decision making by the people placing the orders.
Instilling the new working practice proved to be a bigger task than Karney had anticipated. Whereas he had been focused on this problem for some time and understood how it would improve existing processes, the people who had to change the way they performed their daily tasks were reluctant to do so. “To embed the algorithm into the organisation, the understanding and co-operation of these employees was essential,” he says. “They were simply under pressure to do their work. It hadn’t occurred to me that if my algorithm didn’t work, they were the ones who would be yelled at by their managers and potentially lose their jobs, not me.”
This discovery proved pivotal to Karney as it piqued his interest in how companies can encourage people to accept changes. Although his work until now had followed classic Frederick Taylor scientific-management principles, Karney accepts that
While working with trainers, Karney realised that the traditional teaching methods found in schools and colleges were not effective within a corporate setting. “Simulations and active exercises are the best way to engage adults,” he says. “A lot of my learning experience during my schooldays was reasonably passive: listening to lectures and doing homework alone. In a student’s world, collaborating with someone else was considered cheating. In the world of work, however, you get paid to collaborate with people all day.”
These lessons served Karney well in his next role as worldwide manufacturing education manager. Just two weeks after joining the team he was sent to
Although the term was little used in 1994, Karney knew that the educators’ issues would respond well to knowledge-management-based solutions. As Karney says, “Their problems were that HP’s manufacturing facilities were scattered all over the place; manufacturing training departments tended to be fairly small and communication between them poor. They suspected that their peers elsewhere faced similar challenges in their work and even if they hadn’t been any more successful at finding a solution, they recognised that when starting new projects it would be good to build on, if not best, then at least current practice.”
The first thing Karney did was to create a newsletter to share information about the training activities of each group of educators. He collected and edited the stories, and maintained the distribution list. Soon after the launch, Karney learnt about Lotus Notes and its capabilities. He did some research with his audience and tested about a dozen concepts. Three ideas received substantial support and enthusiasm. He therefore used Lotus Notes databases to create one library for educators to share training resources, another that allowed them to review training materials from external sources, and the Trainer’s Trading Post, a discussion database for exchanging ideas about manufacturing education. “One of the master strokes was that none of the databases opened empty,” he says. “Each had about six months’ content from the newsletters so there was a lot to read from day one.”
The community grew rapidly and Karney attributes much of his community-building success to the encouragement he received from his manager who allowed him to put in the time and energy required to lead, moderate and facilitate it. He was also quick to respond to how well each of the databases was being used. “The one for training reviews was not particularly popular; because little new material was entered, trainers had few reasons to visit it. The training manual repository suffered a similar fate. As it was so easy to include attachments to postings, there was no need to have two databases and within nine months of launch we’d merged them into a single discussion forum.”
During this time the community and its scope was broadened to include all 2,000 educators and trainers in HP. “The good news is that once you have the infrastructure in place it’s easy to manage the growth,” he says. “We simply invited people who provided training in technical, engineering or marketing functions to use the space that already existed.” One particular challenge Karney encountered was how to encourage first-time users to participate. Installing the Lotus Notes client software was a cumbersome process that put many people off. “I bought tens of thousands of frequent-flyer air miles from American and United Airlines to create an incentive programme that awarded users 2,000 miles the first time they logged on, 5,000 for their first post and 500 for responding helpfully.”
The promotion was a huge success and introduced several hundred people to the Trainer’s Trading Post over the four months it ran. Looking back on this work, Karney says it is one of his greatest achievements while at HP as he felt like a pioneer. Within two years, over two-thirds of the educator community had read at least one posting, and more than a third had submitted a post or commented themselves.
“If I look back to the original problem I was trying to solve – helping people who were far apart feel as if they worked closely together – this was a big step in the right direction. I think I accomplished everything I hoped to.”
Based on this early work and his experiences since then, Karney has created a set of rules to help people who are asking others via e-mail to share knowledge. These have been widely distributed and used throughout HP and the KM community as a whole:
Make the subject line very specific using words rather than two or three;
Identify yourself by name, role and organisation;
Identify the problem briefly and clearly;
Explain why solving the problem is important to the reader;
Explain exactly what kind of help you want from them;
Specify your deadline;
Tell what you know (and how you learned it), and what you don’t know;
Ask for suggestions about who else to ask and what else to do;
Outline what you will do to share what you learn more widely;
Explain how those who help you will be rewarded or recognised.
Following a couple of years’ work in the marketing education department developing e-learning packages, Karney moved back into a pure knowledge-management role within HP’s consulting business unit in July 2001. With 8,000 consultants around the world, Karney’s work aims to place the knowledge resources of the entire organisation at their beck and call. One of Karney’s challenges has been to align business processes and reward systems to the behaviours HP would like people to exhibit. “It’s not surprising that technology rather than people or process issues often dominate at HP,” he says. “I work on the people side making sure that usability issues, and reward and recognition, are well understood.”
Karney’s biggest challenge, however, since joining the consulting business came just two months after he was hired when HP announced its intention to merge with Compaq. “We had two different sets of methodologies, histories, pools of information and knowledge, and technologies,” he says. “We’ve done a lot to integrate content and made technology choices quickly.” One of the issues that HP had not fully appreciated was the people challenge. “If you mapped the social networks in HP and Compaq and marked them blue and red respectively, the merged company should be acting ‘purple’. On day one there was almost no connectivity between these groups and even a year into the merger it was still easy to tell whether someone was a member of the red or blue social network.”
While his work in this area continues, after 24 years, Karney is retiring from the computer-manufacturing and IT-services firm but plans to continue his knowledge-management work. During his last weeks at HP he has reflected on the most important knowledge-management lessons he has learnt and compiled his top ten. Number one on the list is a quote from KM guru and Harvard Business Review editor Tom Stewart that he believes continues to hold true: “Connection, not collection, is the essence of knowledge management.” Another source of inspiration to Karney has been Chuck Sieloff, HP’s former knowledge officer, who he says showed him how to combine research with practical application.
The indelible mark left by knowledge management on Karney’s career has also left an imprint on his life outside of HP. In 2002 he stood for election to the
Karney’s willingness to share his own knowledge with his KM peers and co-workers lays testament to the success he has had at HP. As he closes this particular chapter, the initiatives he has set in motion will continue evolving within the firm to deliver even greater value. Retirement is his next challenge. Given his broad experience mixing traditional management disciplines and quantitative thinking with the latest technology developments and people-based change issues, the KM community is lucky that Karney doesn’t plan to use his departure from HP as an opportunity to put his feet up. n
Bruce Karney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.