posted 10 Oct 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 3
Seven steps to knowledge enablement
Raising and sustaining the practice of knowledge management
In August 2000 Unisys launched a formal programme with the aim of implementing knowledge management in a systematic manner across the organisation. Lee Beyer and Susan McCabe explore the strategy and seven key tactics the company is using to successfully raise and sustain the practice of KM.
Unisys is an e-business solutions company whose 37 000 employees help customers in 100 countries apply information technology to seize the opportunities and overcome the challenges presented by the internet economy. Unisys people integrate and deliver the solutions services platforms and network infrastructure required by business and government to transform their organisations for success in this new era.
By mid-2000 Unisys had already invested a great deal in creating a standardised global infrastructure for communication and information sharing: employees worldwide consistently used a unified global intranet infrastructure; the majority of corporate information resources were accessible through a single corporate homepage; employees communicated easily through a global e-mail system; and key information about knowledge resources and experts was available online. However many Unisys employees still found it difficult to sift through the volume of information available through this infrastructure to find the information they needed when they needed it. They found it difficult to locate the experts on a particular subject to communicate quickly and to collaborate – especially across geographies and hard organisational boundaries.
As such in August that year the senior management team at Unisys responded by launching a formal knowledge management initiative as a means of implementing KM in a systematic manner throughout the company. Born out of a demand to combat information overload the initiative was focused on harnessing knowledge and leveraging it strategically to achieve goals and maximise results.
Many KM practitioners have contended that given the objectives and goals of KM taking a centralised approach to knowledge management is counter-intuitive – a position backed up with the evidence of many successful KM initiatives that started as grassroots efforts. This article reviews seven critical success factors for enterprise KM initiatives:
- Senior management commitment to KM as a strategic initiative;
- Business orientation towards communities;
- Community goals that align business and member drivers;
- Alignment of KM processes to the business process;
- A holistic approach to KM systems;
- Metrics and performance management;
- Visible symbols of the institutionalisation of KM.
#1 – senior management commitment to KM as a strategic initiative
Knowledge management must be seen at the executive level as necessary to successful realisation of the business strategy. Knowledge management is a discipline that has the potential to fundamentally alter the behaviours of an organisation. It is so fundamental that it requires calibrated strategies and tactics in every core business function. If the CEO and the executive management team are not the sponsors of a KM strategy there is little chance KM can play a role in transforming the organisation although spot performance improvements are possible.
At Unisys the KM initiative was underwritten by the senior management team the members of which believe that improving the company’s ability to leverage knowledge assets and accelerate learning is a critical factor in achieving revenue growth. The initiative is driven by the belief that the expertise and intellectual capital of 37 000 Unisys people are the source of the value the company delivers to its clients. As a services and consulting business the company considers its knowledge assets to be the ‘shelf stock’ from which it fashions solutions to its clients’ business challenges. As a technology company it is the ‘raw material’ that drives the design development and delivery of innovative products.
The KM team together with a number of KM advocates and stakeholder organisations defined a strategy and plan to manage knowledge resources by focusing on the processes of sharing acquiring and creating knowledge while ensuring there is cultural and technical support for these processes. The objectives for the KM initiative were defined as:
- Accelerate the speed and scope of organisational learning;
- Decrease the time it takes to reach critical mass in new markets;
- Improve internal performance and efficiency;
- Unite cross-boundary groups;
- Increase innovation in product and process;
- Create new business opportunities;
- Increase the value we provide to our customers;
- Increase the value of being an employee of Unisys;
- Transform employee know-how into a corporate asset that impacts image and valuation.
Evolving to a knowledge-based business model
Taking advantage of the lessons learnt by the early practitioners of knowledge management the KM team identified a number of tactics and solutions that would be relevant to Unisys.
To facilitate better leverage of existing explicit knowledge assets and targeted knowledge delivery Unisys is implementing an enterprise portal application that will allow each Unisys employee to build individual workspaces and populate those spaces from a list of available tools or with websites of their own choosing. The flexibility of the enterprise portal will also be used to develop unique views into the Unisys knowledge base for different groups of knowledge workers. This capability will be used to support the cornerstone of the Unisys KM strategy – the establishment of knowledge communities.
#2 – business orientation towards knowledge communities
Unisys believes that the highest value knowledge resides in people and is released through their relationships with one another. For such knowledge to be accessible to Unisys as a whole it is necessary to focus on the people who have the knowledge the people who need it and the context in which it is used – not on the knowledge itself. Because of this focus on people the concept of knowledge communities is central to the Unisys KM strategy.
Knowledge communities at Unisys are groups of people who have a common need for knowledge assets and who are motivated to work together and share their insights experiences and best practices. Such communities are sponsored by the corporation but owned and operated by their members.
Significantly the members of a knowledge community can come together from different organisations and geographies. Communities can span hard organisational boundaries and so can provide a virtual structure to support the cross-organisational teams that accomplish much of the work at Unisys.
Communities also provide a way to formalise and scale personal networks. By connecting people to people across organisational and geographic boundaries communities enable each employee to increase his or her network of contacts within Unisys where all can leverage each other’s knowledge.
Finally the use of communities is a proven strategy for creating an environment where knowledge sharing and collaboration occur. Knowledge and relationships are inseparable and essential KM behaviours – the willingness to share what we know use what we learn and collaborate – require a solid foundation of trust and respect.
At Unisys the initiative for KM was sponsored by the senior management team but it was also necessary to build resolve and drive in the key stakeholders and major business unit heads. When the KM programme was introduced to this management level at Unisys about 50 potential communities were put forward as candidates for the knowledge community pilots. The strategy was to form initial knowledge communities around key areas of business success such as sales application development and service delivery and then ensure the goals and metrics would be developed to direct business benefits through knowledge management.
#3 – community goals that align business and member drivers
To ensure commitment and accountability each knowledge community must have a sponsor who is usually the highest-level executive with a remit that spans the focus area of the community and who is relevant to the members and constituents of the community. The sponsor makes a case for community formation articulating the business need for the community and what the expected outcomes will be. The case also outlines the key member groups and constituencies for the community and identifies how members will be involved and benefit through membership in the community. Unisys adopted this approach to avoid two problems that often derail KM initiatives:
- The WIIFM (‘what’s in it for me?’) question;
- The myth that KM is desirable but dispensable for business executives faced with resource constraints.
At Unisys communities form for a variety of reasons. Some knowledge communities will focus on roles or processes with the goal of performance improvement. They use and contribute to the corporate knowledge base collaborate and learn – with the expressed goal of creating more innovative solutions through continuous process improvement and innovative problem solving.
Other communities will focus on different subjects that are critical to Unisys’s core competencies. Subject or topic-based communities contribute to the knowledge base ensuring that the knowledge is validated structured and stored for easy access and re-use. These communities work to accelerate organisational learning and the growth of Unisys’s intellectual capital.
Still other communities form to offer support and provide opportunities for personal growth thus increasing employee satisfaction and loyalty. And some communities represent a hybrid of interest in subject and role.
#4 – alignment of KM processes to the business process
For knowledge to have value it must have an impact on the way the core functions of the enterprise are performed. Therefore KM business systems must support actionable knowledge integrating knowledge management processes with business processes.
A core technique in the Unisys knowledge management programme is a process referred to as knowledge mapping. Knowledge mapping defines the knowledge needs of the community. It’s a technique to identify:
- Which members (who);
- Need specific knowledge (what);
- To perform a specific activity in the business process (when and where);
- To achieve a required business outcome (why).
Knowledge mapping starts with an examination of the processes the tasks and the activities community members go about to do their jobs. The technique is used to analyse the information expertise and skills required to execute the process effectively. The result of the analysis is a knowledge map that will help shape the overall knowledge strategy for Unisys.
#5 – a holistic approach to KM systems
As Unisys implements knowledge management communities it faces the same challenges that any organisation faces when implementing any comprehensive business change initiative. Unisys has developed a ‘knowledge community enablement method’ (KCEM) which is simply a series of phased activities and processes to develop and operate a KM community. The KCEM outlines six phases (from origination to ongoing operations). In each phase a number of activities/decisions and tasks are identified and a number of supporting tools (guidance notes templates examples etc) help the community complete each phase. As Unisys KM consultants work to enable communities they capture the learning and add to a ‘proven practices’ repository in order to continually enhance and evolve the KM efforts. Unisys believes the knowledge community enablement method will reduce time and improve effectiveness of KM community development and operation. The company has applied for a business methods patent for the process.
#6 – metrics and performance management
While a community’s defined outcomes may present a compelling argument for community formation there are offsetting considerations that have to be faced and are commonly based on:
- The opportunity cost (redeployment of resource) of employee involvement in community set-up and community activities when up and running;
- The direct capital and revenue costs of the development deployment and ongoing operation of the community infrastructure;
- The disruption (loss of efficiency) in current operational activity.
The ubiquitous presence of these counter-arguments creates a value-for-money context for KM communities and communities must offer a worthwhile use of Unisys resources. Consequently the expected outcomes of a community need to be seen to materialise and action is needed to direct progress towards their achievement.
Each community at Unisys is required to develop a performance management system that will provide four key functions:
- Identifying the specific performance increments that are expected;
- Directing a community’s activities to achieve these performance increments;
- Monitoring progress towards expected performance targets over time;
- Adjusting community activity to maintain progress.
Without such a system in place a community will have no basis for reviewing the results of its activities. It would be unlikely to be able to claim that it has achieved or is achieving its outcomes which will leave the community vulnerable to other business pressures for resources.
#7 – visible symbols of the institutionalisation of KM
Institutionalising continuous improvement of knowledge management efforts at any company is a major task. Unisys will be managing KM through the virtual organisation concept that is at the core of the KM strategy – the knowledge management community. The Unisys knowledge management community defines the strategy and governance for the KM initiative at Unisys.
The mission of the KM community is to ensure that there is a systematic way for Unisys employees to manage tangible and intangible knowledge assets to institutionalise continuous improvement of business performance and customer value creation for sustained competitive advantage.
The governance board of the KM community is the KM community council which is comprised of influential senior executives who represent key stakeholder organisations across Unisys. Council members assume a mantle of ownership and make a personal commitment to the success of the KM programme at Unisys. These council members make decisions about KM priorities and investments help eliminate roadblocks and provide insight guidance and sponsorship for key communities.
At Unisys high-level governance and support and KM-oriented changes to the HR system combine with a newly deployed enterprise knowledge portal and newly instituted knowledge communities as visible symbols that the changes necessary to support enterprise knowledge management are occurring.
Where will KM success take Unisys?
Knowledge management is at the forefront of Unisys's business strategy for the years to come. The management team is dedicated to leveraging the vast cache of knowledge that exists in the globally dispersed corporation. Opportunities exist each day for employees to share sales techniques on similar product implementations to re-use solutions to technical problems and to apply innovative ideas company-wide.
In 2001 Unisys has leveraged the visible executive backing to create a critical mass of support throughout the extended management team. It has developed a sound methodology implemented significant new technology and is ready to move quickly to establish communities across the company.
The knowledge community concept accepted at Unisys takes a holistic approach to knowledge management. It leverages some of the most advanced technological solutions available but employs software as an enabler rather than a solution. It lets communities form around self-described interests but it does not let employees waste time on communities that are not tightly aligned to a corporate goal. It provides a framework to ensure community success but it ensures that communities are free to design a KM system that supplements their business processes. Finally it not only has senior executive support but also senior executive involvement which makes employees feel that they are part of something that is vitally important to the company. As more communities roll out across Unisys the financial benefits of knowledge sharing re-use and creation are sure to be considerable.
Lee Beyer is director of the KM communities programme at Unisys. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Susan McCabe is director of KM operations at Unisys. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org