posted 18 May 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 8
Making knowledge mobile
Empowering employees by aligning KM initiatives with long-term business goals. By Pawan Bakhshi & Sorabh Singhal
Bharti Tele-Ventures is one of
The Indian telecoms industry is particularly complex. It includes a large number of service providers, not enough trained manpower to handle telecoms operations, local and regional variations and an ever-changing regulatory environment. This presents several challenges that providers need to address at various levels. In 2001, the business issue that dominated senior-executive thinking at Bharti was providing consistency in customer experience across all locations. Knowledge management was identified as a means of facilitating this.
KM at Bharti is primarily a tool to achieve strategic business objectives through an integrated set of initiatives, systems and behavioural interventions. Broadly speaking, KM seeks to eliminate re-invention of wheel anywhere in the organisation.
Linking KM to business objectives
Once the strategic goals for KM at Bharti were identified, it was critical that these were broken down into bite-sized chunks that people could identify with. The most important question to ask was, what problem were we looking to solve? The business needed to increase customer satisfaction and provide a consistent customer experience. This goal provided us with a starting point.
The team then held detailed discussions with functional heads on their vision of customer satisfaction and customer experience. This was a crucial step, in that it helped to create buy-in at the operating level, without which KM would have gone nowhere. These detailed discussions led us to establish a few vital parameters, which would help us to gauge our progress against the goals we had established. These parameters were derived from critical customer-impacting business processes. The aim became a reduction in performance variation across regions, which we hoped to achieve by quickly replicating best practices. Replication of proven good practices from within or outside the organisation is always faster than starting from scratch – by our estimates, building on proven processes takes between a quarter to a third less time.
Capturing, sharing and replicating also ensured the institutionalisation of best practices: individual knowledge was converted into organisational knowledge, which could be re-used at a later date. Naturally, this also reduced the firm’s dependence on particular individuals, but was definitely not seen as a means for the firm to replace any employees. Again, this was a critical distinction given the high level of employee turnover that most businesses must contend with these days.
As such, the deliverables for KM closely followed those of the business as a whole. This ensured that KM was supporting the business, and that we were not engaged in KM activities purely for their own sake. Indeed, one of the problems we had become familiar with from the experiences of other organisations is the difficulty KM programmes have in securing resources. The lower the business’s expectations of what KM would help to achieve, the more pronounced this problem would be. We had to prove that KM was not a fad, but a business tool that could deliver real results. In aligning KM with strategic goals, KM became part of Bharti’s culture. That said, there are always people who will question the value of KM. Given this, regular, focused communications and visible senior-management support remain invaluable.
The KM cycle
There has always been an informal knowledge-sharing culture at Bharti; it’s a part of the firm’s DNA. But the growth in adoption of KM-based practices suggested a clear need to establish a robust and scalable infrastructure for KM.
Once the focus areas of KM were identified, it was imperative that we addressed all phases of the KM cycle. We started with the ‘K-Map’, which reflected our repository structure. Knowledge repositories are based on a business-processes map, which ensures all KM initiatives remain relevant to the business. The aim was not to create the biggest electronic library that we could, but to keep all the knowledge that was stored relevant. Indeed, all KM initiatives at Bharti, including the creation of knowledge repositories and communities of experts, the sharing and replication of external and internal knowledge and so on, are formed around identified business processes.
In creating our knowledge base, we encouraged employees to submit whatever they wished. Anyone could upload content, and there was only a minimal review procedure in place. Though this compromised the quality of submissions slightly, this was more than made up for by the change in culture we witnessed. People actively came forward to share. The result was a large number of good submissions and some not-so-good ones. The process of tightening the submission-review process is currently underway, with the aim of securing a higher percentage of good submissions.
For each repository, there is a ‘knowledge champion’ and a number of subject-matter experts, who are responsible for encouraging knowledge sharing and replication in their domains. They are also available to answer questions related to their domains – experts can be approached via the KM portal, e-mail or phone.
Using the organisation’s Non-Financial Parameters Dashboard, the monthly performance of all regions/business units is tracked, and all units are ranked based on predetermined metrics. Based on this ranking, all top-performing units are required to share the good practices that resulted in their strong performance, while all low-performing units are expected to quickly replicate the best practices shared and measure their performance on a month-by-month basis.
We realised from the start that there is no single, pre-eminent KM process. Each organisation has to go through its own learning curve to discover what suits it best. Though there are process tips available, their suitability needs to be evaluated prior to adoption. Influential parameters include age of the organisation, the average age of employees, geographical spread, the type of work people do, prevailing organisational culture and so on. Keeping our work culture and the way people operate on the shop-floor in mind, the KM process at Bharti was designed, in several iterations, with the following key considerations:
Simple, quick, user-friendly processes for sharing knowledge;
Standard templates to maximise replication value;
Powerful, yet easy-to-use search and retrieval functionality;
Virtual collaboration, team rooms and threaded discussions;
‘Ask an expert’ facilities;
Have we managed to get the balance right? We think so, for the most part at least. We see people responding positively to the KM processes that have been established. Our programme meets the requirements of management at one end and employees at the other. Also, the process is dynamic. So, as the organisation becomes more mature in KM activities, the programme will evolve further.
Change in culture requires strong leadership and visible commitment at a senior level. Top management at Bharti has identified KM as one of the top ten strategies on the organisation’s strategy matrix, and has communicated its commitment to the concept throughout the firm. In evolving a knowledge-sharing culture, it is also important to communicate the benefits of operating as a learning organisation. Unless people believe that an initiative will benefit them, they are unlikely to participate wholeheartedly.
To motivate employees, and aside from strong communication, various rewards and recognition schemes are being used at Bharti. Perhaps the most notable are the ‘knowledge dollar’ (K$) scheme, and the president and CEO’s Knowledge Management Awards, which were created in 2002. These awards are designed so that anyone who has ever contributed or replicated knowledge is eligible to receive an award. We have enough categories that every type of employee can aspire to at least one category of reward. In addition, there are employees whose jobs do not offer opportunities to contribute; rather they are the primary customers of knowledge tools and resources. Our reward structure is built so that they too can earn rewards, by replicating best practices in their area of business.
Irrespective of the reward processes that are put in place, in order for any KM initiative to work, an adequate supporting infrastructure (including new roles and responsibilities) must be put in place. Everyone’s responsibility, as they say, is no-one’s responsibility. Therefore, at Bharti, certain facilitating roles have been created:
Knowledge champions – As the title suggests, knowledge champions encourage and promote knowledge sharing and replication in their domain. They also lead the group of subject-matter experts for a given knowledge repository or sub-repository;
Subject-matter experts – Subject-matter experts collaborate to form a pool of talent in their respective area of expertise. They promote knowledge sharing and replication in their domain, and review and approve content contributed by employees for publication via the portal;
Knowledge-management heads and KM co-ordinators – The local faces of KM. They work within their specific geographical region to interact with employees, and encourage and influence the growth of KM.
A note on technology
Would our KM practice exist without technology? Yes, although technology is an important enabler given Bharti’s geographical spread. Anyone who has been to
Gyan Bharti, as we call the knowledge portal, is a common platform across Bharti. It contains knowledge repositories around customer-impacting processes and support processes, as well as external knowledge that is relevant to our business. There are standard templates documenting internal best practices, external knowledge and best-practice replications. The portal provides classification and taxonomy schemes to organise content, and has powerful search and retrieval capabilities.
The technology did not come out of a box. Over a period of two years, we spent several hundred man-hours interacting with IT vendors to develop the features the portal now boasts. The problem we encountered is that many vendors don’t truly understand KM. Hence, they are unable to appreciate the nuances of the requirements posed by KM professionals. We have learnt that the technology must be flexible enough to be able to continuously develop, and that changes need to be implemented quickly lest the tools lose their appeal among prospective end users.
Building momentum and ongoing challenges
There are employees who have not yet bought into knowledge management. We cannot blame them; we may not have communicated sufficiently what we can do for those particular users. If users feel that they will directly benefit from engaging in a given initiative, they are more likely to do so.
Even at Bharti, securing funds for the KM programme is also a challenge. Educating senior managers is crucial if sufficient financial resources are to be obtained. But executive commitment will come once there is widespread buy-in and evidence of tangible results.
We have also found that knowledge champions and subject-matter experts sometimes do not have time to fulfil their KM roles. But given the right level of motivation and incentives, people find a way to integrate KM with their everyday tasks. If unfamiliarity with technology is the problem, as we have found is the case with some of Bharti’s older employees, training is critical. We are working on a means of training employees, but our initiative in this area is still in the early stages.
Finally, a major challenge for any business is that people, uncertain about their future in a dynamic environment, often fear that KM is a means for the business to replace them. But, at Bharti, we believe there is no substitute for tacit knowledge – not all the expertise and insights that come from years of experience and specialisation can be documented. Also, people do work, knowledge doesn’t. Knowledge enables a person to do their work correctly, efficiently and effectively.
The measurement of any KM system depends on the objectives of that KM programme; the objectives of a consulting-services company will never be the same as those of a manufacturing company, for example. At Bharti, we derived our measurement system based on the premise that it needed to be able to reflect what it was that we hoped to achieve.
The fact that we linked KM objectives with business goals ensured that we had a suitable measure of success. The reduction in variations in performance across regions, for instance, is an outcome that the company looks to gauge. Other measures include:
The level of engagement among employees;
The amount of knowledge sharing that takes place;
The number of knowledge replications with successful results;
Unique visitors to the portal;
Total hits on the portal;
The number of knowledge dollars awarded.
Pawan Bakhshi is general manager, knowledge management (CKO) at Bharti Cellular Limited (Airtel Mobile Services). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sorabh Singhal facilitates KM at Airtel Broadband and Telephone Services, Long Distance and Enterprise Services.