posted 14 Jan 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 4
The knowledge: Chris Collison
As one of the faces behind BP’s success with knowledge management, Chris Collison revealed the team’s secrets in 2001 in his book Learning to Fly, co-authored with Geoff Parcell. Now leading change and KM at Centrica and having just completed a second edition of the book, he talks about his career and the importance of his family life, and hints at plans he will hatch in the future. By Sandra Higgison
Well known for being part of the central team that turned BP into one of the world’s most advanced and admired knowledge-focused organisations, Chris Collison’s success and enthusiasm as a practitioner is characterised by his ability to identify and solve pragmatic KM challenges. After helping knowledge management to hatch, develop and finally take off in BP, Collison and colleague Geoff Parcell captured their experiences in the industry-acclaimed book Learning to Fly. Three years later, the second edition, fresh off the press, features lessons learnt by fellow knowledge workers across industries, including stories from Collison’s current role as director of change and knowledge management at energy firm Centrica. In what might be called an exercise in learning while doing, Collison reflects on his own strengths, major milestones in his career, and current and future challenges (not least of which includes a eight-year-old daughter who is already making bids on eBay).
In 1995, BP ran a virtual-teamworking initiative aimed at building and supporting virtual connections and international networks across the global company, and encouraging people to think beyond their immediate work challenges. The project put desktop video-conferencing and collaboration tools in the hands of 2,000 employees, and marked both Collison’s and BP’s first step towards knowledge management. “This project was the perfect blend of people, process and technology, as it released the potential of globally available local experts,” says Collison. “When your world expert in corrosion is sitting in northern
Although much of what happened at BP since then has been well documented, one of the highlights for Collison came after the central team was reduced to just himself and Parcell. “Just as birds eventually leave the nest, the time came for the organisation to be pushed to fly alone,” he says. Lord Browne, BP’s CEO and one of the team’s major supporters, was now focused on the operational side of the business, involving some 30,000 people in 100 operating units around the world. “There was a general belief among these people that there was nothing they could share with each other, because they focused on why they were different,” says Collison. Aside from their lack of experience in operations, the challenge for Collison and Parcell was to create a community that would get these units talking the same language, sharing knowledge, benchmarking and setting themselves improvement targets to benefit from each other’s wisdom.
Collison and Parcell worked with subject-matter experts to create a self-assessment framework that measured the progress of each unit towards operational excellence. “This became a process of continuous improvement,” says Collison. “Each year, the units would assess themselves against the framework’s criteria, identify how they could improve and who they could learn from. Seeing the light bulbs come on as the community realised the value of a common language through this simple assessment, and finding that we couldn’t stop them talking to each other was hugely powerful. I look back on that with a lot of pride.” Not only has Collison reapplied this model to projects at Centrica, but Parcell has also taken it to the United Nations, where it is being applied to the way different communities tackle the AIDS crisis. As Collison says, “This common language, created through self-assessment, has become a reason for sharing knowledge and driving networking.”
Helping Centrica’s 40 executive directors understand the potential impact of knowledge management was another milestone for Collison. Despite joining the company with a remit to lead and manage transformation projects, the cry from the organisation for KM was too great for Collison to ignore. Within a year he had talked knowledge management into his job description. As part of a workshop with the company’s top 40 leaders, Collison applied Tom Davenport’s ‘kindergarten rationale’, which relates the way children behave, share and interact to a business context. “I had to convey the message about how people in Centrica felt about sharing knowledge at the time,” he says. “Using
In keeping with the theme, the management team drew pictures of a knowledge-sharing culture with wax crayons and by the end of the day had compiled a series of actions for the organisation to take forwards. “We took some risks in trying to create an unusual, multi-sensory learning experience, but the children’s video worked; it was great fun and transfixed the audience,” says Collison. “Children can speak so much truth without baggage or jargon, and provide a safe environment to learn from; it was a great moment from last year.” Six months later, 15 new networks were launched, together with leadership competencies explaining what it means to be a knowledge-sharing agent at Centrica.
Quoting Joni Mitchell, the move from BP made Collison realise what he had been taking for granted. “It’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,” he says. “BP is a mature organisation that has made an empowered, flat structure work. Networking is second nature and Lord Browne’s leadership is unswervingly committed to shared learning and improvement. While Centrica is a younger, more driven organisation and a fantastic turnaround story, the culture is still being defined. Networking, asking for help and ‘learning before doing’ are not yet natural habits or unconscious competences.” But it may not be long before they are. The board, with the personal commitment of CEO Sir Roy Gardner, has declared knowledge sharing the third pillar of the Centrica strategy.
Although Collison has won senior management buy-in and can see Centrica’s social infrastructure improving, he recognises that it is time to step back and let the organisation work things through for itself. “It’s classic emergent change,” he says. “We’ve made some interventions, put in some enablers, and fanned the flames in areas where we have identified that change is already taking place.” He also appreciates the size of the organisational challenge at hand. “In the coming year, I could be holding back impatient members of the executive who will want to dig up this seedling, shake the roots, see how it’s doing and put it back again. Sustainable change needs to be given the space and time to emerge.”
Collison does not, however, shy away from celebrating success when it happens. It forms a critical part of his change and knowledge-management toolkit for encouraging buy-in to new initiatives. His advise is to tell the real story by capturing the emotion from the people directly involved. “Video is a very powerful way of communicating and cannot be argued with,” he says. “When you talk to your front-line staff, take a video camera to record how they feel at different stages in the change process. Link what you are hearing to the company’s strategic agenda and show it to the executive team.” According to Collison, words on a PowerPoint slide will only deliver about seven per cent of the message. “Seeing the person, even if it means inviting front-line staff to management meetings, will ensure you deliver 100 per cent of the message.”
Celebrating the success of other organisations on the KM front line was one of the reasons Collison and Parcell chose to write a new version of Learning to Fly. “We did it partly from a sense of completion,” says Collison. “The first edition described a set of tools that worked well within the BP culture, but we didn’t know whether they were truly transferable. We were curious to find out if we had really written the practical fieldbook we set out to, or if it was just an organisational biography.” To test the techniques, Collison and Parcell asked members of the 500-strong Learning to Fly community that has grown since 2001 for their experiences applying the book’s lessons. The ten stories that appear in the new edition are the results of this request and come from companies as diverse as DeBeers’s diamond mines in
In the meantime, knowledge management continues to evolve, although Collison questions how many new angles the industry can take. “I get the sense that the development of knowledge management is coming towards the end of its S curve,” he says. “That’s not to say there isn’t ample room for improving what we’re doing already, using the tools at our disposal and unlocking the value in people and networks. Technology will become greater, smarter and quicker, but if people are fundamentally not prepared to talk, share or learn, then IT is just a gadget that won’t make a lasting difference.” In particular, he sees the potential for growth in knowledge-sharing environments that reach across traditional organisational boundaries and impact the supply chain.
Closer to home, the immediate future for Collison holds a number of challenges. Unfortunately, his decision to give Centrica a few months to develop and grow its networks does not give Collison an opportunity to sit back and catch up on the latest daytime TV rerun of Quincy. Among his to-do list are items such as training senior managers in how to engage employees and gain their commitment to change; making sense of Centrica’s huge portfolio of initiatives and ensuring it pursues the right change in the right way; and, a project involving Centrica’s 2,000 IT professionals, leading a part of their transformation programme. “The big challenge is keeping the knowledge-sharing work going and making sure the networks we launched really are networks and not just distributed project teams driven by senior management,” he says.
On a personal level, aside from making sure that his eight-year-old daughter puts the decimal point in the right place when making online bids for teddy-bear clothes, he is coy when talking about his own future. “I plan to continue learning and innovating, but would like to have more control over what I do and where I work,” he says. “My family is my biggest passion outside of my job and I’m conscious that, by the time your children are eight, you’ve had half the time you’re ever likely to have with them.” As one of the few original KM practitioners still practising KM full time, could this be a sign of changes to come? Collison leaves the question hanging, but the twinkle in his eye speaks volumes.