posted 1 May 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 8
Connecting the TALK Centre
The Arthur Andersen TALK (Tax and Legal Knowledge) centre was established in 1998 as a fusion of several existing departments. The traditional functions of the tax and legal libraries were combined with a database management team to create a central source of knowledge for the firm’s Tax and Legal service line. The TALK centre provides tax and legal information to offices throughout the UK and, in some instances, the world. Here, Ned Wilsher shows the fundamental success factor of the centre, i.e. context.
In consideration of the fact that people work more efficiently when they are comfortable the centre has deliberately banished the old-fashioned gloomy library feel in favour of bright and airy surroundings. Quiet rooms, easy chairs, plants, fresh cut flowers and even a bowl of sweets all add to the relaxed atmosphere. For added convenience network points are provided on all research desks so visitors to the centre can set up a laptop and use the centre as a temporary workspace, or they can use the on-line facilities provided. But efficient working is not the sole driver behind the centre’s layout and design. “Knowledge ambience” is a vital ingredient if people are to develop the information they have acquired into a comprehensive solution for the issue at hand. It is the sense that in a positive and innovative environment, an idea can evolve from a collection of unconnected facts into a practical conclusion. To achieve this an element of creativity is required together with resourcefulness and imagination. These types of skills are impossible to teach but by providing congenial surroundings the TALK centre encourages individuals to develop their own skills at the same time as using the resources on offer.
As well as performing a traditional library function, the TALK centre is home to a number of databases providing electronic versions of primary legislation, case law, regulatory material and authoritative commentaries. Material is constantly updated and a comprehensive search facility allows users to locate the most relevant sources of information quickly and efficiently. Partners and staff can access the material from their own PC’s or via terminals in the TALK centre itself. By combining the library and database management functions of the division, the TALK centre has evolved into a central location for the collection and dissemination of information.
Within the TALK centre a skilled team of library staff has a wealth of research experience enabling them to locate information from a huge variety of sources. This may be as fundamental as knowing which reference material is most likely to provide the best starting point or as obscure as having a contact in another organisation that may be able to assist on an unusual enquiry.
The TALK centre is based in London but is a facility utilised by personnel throughout the UK in the Arthur Andersen tax division, and the associated legal firms of Garretts (in England) and Dundas & Wilson (in Scotland). Accessibility is therefore a crucial issue. Partners and staff in London can visit the centre in person and talk to researchers about the information they need, but people in the regions understandably find this more difficult and, in most cases, impossible. It was crucial to the development of the centre that it was seen as a UK wide facility so access to resources had to be accommodating. This led to the birth of the ‘TALK centre gateway’, a virtual TALK centre.
The TALK centre gateway was developed internally as a means of navigating to any information source required by tax and legal professionals from their PC workstation. No longer is heard the cry “where do I find it?”. The gateway brings together the numerous internal tax and legal technical and administrative databases as well as providing access to relevant or useful Internet sites and external products used within the firm. Even so, there are times when professionals need the practical support of skilled research staff and the gateway contains a simple research request facility, which is posted to the TALK centre research team in London. This is a unique single gateway to all the information and directories that tax and legal professionals need. The combined resource of the TALK centre will make it even easier for practitioners to tap into the vast reservoir of tax, legal and business knowledge that exists both within the firm and outside, wherever they are.
It must be stressed however that access to information though essential is not what makes the TALK centre successful. Technology is effectively just a means of delivering the information in an efficient manner. The philosophy of the TALK centre is that for research to have any useful function it must be coupled with something more. We believe that it is the people involved that make the difference. Information on its own has a function but the real effectiveness of knowledge comes from being able to put the people who need information in touch with people who have information. The skill comes from being able to judge who, what, where and when; and that is where the TALK centre is at its most powerful.
From a database perspective an important aspect of the TALK centre electronic material is that it provides access to internally generated ‘know-how’. This includes tax and legal technical memoranda, correspondence, counsels’ opinions and journal articles by Arthur Andersen personnel. ‘Know-how’ is fully anonymised to protect client confidentiality but provides an effective foundation for research as well as contact names of colleagues with appropriate skills and experience. When an individual is looking for information on a particular topic, searching the database will not only provide relevant cross-references to legislation and case law but also details of similar situations encountered within the organisation. As well as the technical details, the name of the originator is included on each item so that a point of contact is established. Partners and staff are encouraged to follow up these contacts and feed back any additional comments they may have. In this way ‘know-how’ has evolved into a comprehensive source of relevant knowledge.
As a source of both technical and general information the TALK centre provides a valuable research function. Interaction is a fundamental aspect of the research process and to ensure the relevance of the material, the skilled researcher must establish as much detail as possible about the enquiry. Technology can be used to some extent but in our experience, conversation is still the most efficient method of eliciting the salient facts. With a full grasp of the issue at hand both the researcher and the enquirer can feel confident that the end result will be both relevant and complete. As the TALK centre has grown and the facilities become more familiar within the firm, it is common to see staff and library researchers working together to locate material. This combination of skills is a learning process for both parties and an invaluable source of knowledge in itself.
By having a central location where skilled staff are available at all times, the TALK centre is able to provide a comprehensive service not just as a research and database management team but also as a supplier of points of contact both within and outside the organisation. For example, one of the databases managed within the team is made up of contributions from over ninety countries worldwide. Almost as important as the technical data are the individuals in each country office who, in addition to contributing to the database, act as a referral point for enquiries from other countries.
Utilising existing knowledge and experience in this manner is a critical function of the TALK centre. Books and journals, whether paper or electronic can never replace the experience gained by the practical application of information. The crucial factor is providing the means for people needing information to communicate with the people who not only have access to the relevant material but also the experience of applying it. Perhaps the combination of information and experience constitutes ‘knowledge’ and certainly if that is the case then what we are trying to achieve is ‘knowledge sharing’. However, terminology is far less important in this context than the actual application of the principles that we seek to achieve.
The three basic elements to successful knowledge sharing are energetic people, effective processes and the right technology. As independent tools each serves a useful though limited purpose, but experience verifies that the real value is added once these three basic elements are combined. In Arthur Andersen there is a strong central team with a balanced combination of information science, tax and legal knowledge, and IT skills. In order to achieve the optimum scenario however, a further, more elusive component is required. By creating an ‘ambience ring’ around the basic elements the end result is a strong, cohesive unit in which each of the elements can achieve their full potential. Within Arthur Andersen’s Tax and Legal department the TALK centre is the ‘ambience ring’ in the sense that it provides access to each of the basic elements in an atmosphere that is both relaxed and focused. In the TALK centre, rather than being alternative solutions to a problem, people, technology and processes have become part of a larger comprehensive solution.
The key is that users have confidence in the services they are receiving and feel that the TALK centre is a resource they can utilise freely. We are keen to promote the human face of the centre and encourage discussion of issues rather than just a faceless enquiry service. To achieve this we looked for some identity that went beyond the physical or virtual boundary of the centre. We found it in art. The centre commissioned the Chelsea College of Art and Design to produce works on the theme of knowledge to adorn the walls of the centre in London. We chose the college because, albeit only a tenuous link, like the TALK centre the college is a nucleus of learning. A more apprehensible connection is the students’ ability to be creative and innovative, in the same way we like to be creative and innovative in using knowledge to provide client solutions.
A new concept like the TALK centre can face enormous opposition in a well-established department! In a fee-earning environment it is often difficult to persuade people that initial time spent in sharing information can provide valuable long-term benefits. There is a natural reluctance to share knowledge that is commonly felt to provide a unique advantage, particularly when there is an apparent lack of importance associated with the process. Within the tax and legal department these initial barriers were overcome by stressing the huge partner support given to the TALK centre. Over time partners and staff have come to realise that there is much more recognition to be gained from sharing their knowledge than from retaining it for their own use. As more and more people use the facilities the concept of submitting useful pieces of ‘know-how’ has now become a natural part of the working environment.
The choice of acronym ‘TALK’ for the research department was no accident. Technology is an irreplaceable starting point but talking, to the right people, is one of the most rewarding ways of sharing. Discussion provides a means of validating the knowledge gained and feed back cements the whole process by reinforcing the original material. This is a successful combination and one that we hope to build on as the centre evolves.
Ned Wilsher is Manager of the Talk Centre at Arthur Andersen. He can be contacted at: