posted 15 Nov 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 3
Benchmarking your knowledge management intranet Frankfurt, 11-12 September 2000
The benchmarking your knowledge management intranet event in Frankfurt this Autumn featured presentations from CIBIT, Smith & Nephew, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Siemens. Simon Lelic offers an overview of the key ideas shared over the two days.
An effective knowledge management intranet evolves; there is no big bang. Likewise, there is no particular blueprint for success, and the presenters at the ‘Developing an effective knowledge management intranet’ event in Frankfurt this September did not make any pretence at offering one. Rather, the central theme running across the two-day event was one of interaction, of sharing the experiences each presenter and delegate had accumulated through their involvement in their own company’s KM intranet initiative. And while there is no magic bullet, the course represented an opportunity for the participants to learn from the successes – and the mistakes – that others had made, and to benchmark their own progress against that of others.
With this in mind, the two days began with a workshop facilitated by Noam Shalgi and Eelco Kruizinga, both senior knowledge management consultants at Kenniscentrum CIBIT. The morning was devoted to encouraging delegates (who represented companies such as Zurich Financial Services, Fiat, Lufthansa, Fortis Bank, and the BBC) to think about their particular priorities for the two days, and to providing the background information necessary to allow participants to evaluate the intranets on display by their own specific criteria. Crucially, Shalgi and Kruizinga quickly established the idea that knowledge management should be seen as a container term; there are many stakeholders in any KM programme, and, similarly, realisation of a company’s knowledge management ambitions relies on a synergy between a number of diverse components, of which an intranet is only one. That said, the presenters from CIBIT also outlined the concept of a KM intranet (or, ‘corporate memory’) acting as a ‘knowledge pump’, actively collecting and distributing knowledge across an organisation. The intention of the opening session was to challenge the delegates’ understanding of knowledge management, and to encourage them to question their preconceptions about how an intranet project should unfold. It also served as an introduction to the main component of the workshop; the knowledge marketplace.
Shalgi and Kruizinga outlined the goals of the knowledge market exercise as, firstly, to facilitate knowledge exchange between the participants, and also to get the delegates to take the first step in creating an inventory of the lessons they had learned from their personal experiences, and of the questions they were most seeking answers to. Although the delegates had very different professional backgrounds, there was an astonishing similarity in the type of information the delegates were looking for: In particular, how to create trust in the knowledge process and avoid employee apathy; how to measure costs and return on investment; how to balance corporate and social content, moderation of content and free flow of data; what review policy to adopt; and, how to avoid information overload. The group then had the chance to see what information was in demand, and what knowledge was being ‘sold’. The result was noisy – as is any good marketplace – and resulted, essentially, in the delegates forming their own community of practice, which would develop further over the course of the event. The knowledge market also served to provide a focus for the subsequent presentations, by making it clear what the delegates were hoping to take home from the two days.
Smith & Nephew
The first intranet demonstration was hosted by Simon Hudson, e-marketing and strategic intelligence manager, of Smith & Nephew, a global medical device company employing 12,000 people across 36 countries. The company has three primary and three secondary business areas, and Hudson focused on the experiences of Wound Management (WM), one of the primary divisions. In comparison to Siemens, one of the other companies presenting in Frankfurt, Smith & Nephew is at a very early stage in the development of its KM intranet. Driven primarily by internal communications and cost-saving needs, as well as a desire to cope with the threat of information overload, the project was launched just over a year ago, with the first corporate-wide portal going live last January.
Hudson therefore made no pretence that the WM GBU intranet is even close to being perfect, but in a short period of time and for a relatively low cost, the intranet has emerged as a central business communication tool at Smith & Nephew. The core components of the intranet include a central ‘knowledge base’, a product system, clinical papers, conferences, a yellow pages directory, discussion groups, external information resources, and market research reports. As well as providing a virtual tour of the system, Hudson proved remarkably frank in his assessment of Smith & Nephew’s success.
A common question raised during the knowledge market related to how documents should be managed once they had been posted on the site. Smith & Nephew has developed a unique answer to this problem, implementing a system of which Hudson is understandably proud. The ‘quality and ageing rate algorithm’, explained Hudson, relies on two values, both of which are assigned by the author to a document at the time it is posted. The first relates to the reliability of the information, five stars meaning the document is 100 per cent reliable, a rating of one star that the information should be treated as rumour. In addition, a 1-60 month ageing rate is identified, a rating of one signifying a rapid degradation of the information, a 60 indicating that the document is, in business terms, more or less immortal. Once posted, the reliability rating of the document decreases according to the assigned ageing rate, until the rating reaches zero. At this point, the document is either deleted immediately, archived, or referred back to the original author, and again this is decided when the document is originally published.
This system also demonstrates the emphasis placed on employees at Smith & Nephew to take responsibility for the information they post. In fact, the WM intranet operates according to extremely egalitarian principles; not only are employees given total responsibility for publishing information, but everyone also has equal access to the company’s knowledge base – very few items are subject to restricted access. And according to Hudson, peer review has proved a powerful force to ensure information on the site is of sufficiently high quality.
Since the project’s inception, significant headway has been made at Smith & Nephew both to establish a knowledge sharing culture, and to establish a high level of employee use of the WM intranet. In fact, along with the document rating system, Hudson identified these factors as his team’s key successes. But he also offered some recommendations based on less favourable experiences at Smith & Nephew. In particular, Hudson emphasised the need to establish clear branding for the intranet project. This is something he admits did not initially happen at Smith & Nephew, and is only now being addressed, after it became clear that users were confusing various elements of the intranet system. Hudson also warned delegates not to expect every tool to work perfectly first time. The discussion group facility on the WM intranet, for example, is rarely used – rather a culture of relying on email and the telephone to communicate remains, and, in Hudson’s opinion, this is unlikely to change. In fact, he placed considerable emphasis on the need to determine your company’s approach to developing a knowledge management intranet according to the pervading culture of the organisation. In addition, the experience at Smith & Nephew reinforced the idea that an intranet project is, or should be, constantly evolving. Problems will arise, get solved, and surface again in a different guise. As Hudson pointed out, to every complex problem, there is a solution that is neat, simple...and wrong. Knowledge is a complex asset to manage, and your organisation’s KM tools should reflect this.
The second day began with a site visit to PricewaterhouseCoopers, a company that has adopted a somewhat different approach from Smith & Nephew to developing and managing its knowledge management intranet. PwC is the world’s largest professional services organisation, employing more than 150,000 people across 150 countries. KnowledgeCurve is the name given to the firm’s global intranet application, available to PwC staff around the world. On the 3 March earlier this year, the number of individual users of the site broke 100,000. But the intriguing aspect of the PwC experience, as Volker Lenz, a senior consultant at PwC, explained, is that each country in which PwC operates is at a very different stage with the intranet’s implementation.
In Germany, the project has been underway for little more than a year. But while the site has been developed to address the specific knowledge management needs of the 10,000 PwC employees in the country, the intranet also conforms to fairly rigid international standards, particularly in terms of design. And although each line of service (LoS) also has its own specific homepage, as has each general business unit at Smith & Nephew, more emphasis is placed on maintaining a degree of consistency at PwC, primarily because of the nature of the business the firm is in, and the importance the company places on being able to offer customers a standard level of service internationally. This is further reflected in the compulsory use of English for all systems provision across the PwC global network, although content is usually published in the vernacular.
Part of PwC’s presentation focused on the approach the company adopts when working with clients to develop KM intranet applications. As Steffen Hermanni, a senior manager at the company, explained, PwC’s external knowledge management work revolves around three core technological elements: Document collection, virtual communities and knowledge portals. Each of these areas incorporates a number of specific tools, developed in association with a host of outside partners. The German branch of PwC has worked closely with Microsoft, Lotus, OpenText, IDS Scheer, Hyperwave, Artificial Life, Autonomy, Plumtree – and the list continues. This is not to say, however, that the company sees technology as the be all and end all of any knowledge management programme. Rather, an intranet is regarded as a central instrument for communication and knowledge sharing; the technological framework for effective knowledge management.
Indeed, Hermanni recognised cultural factors to be the most common failing point for corporate KM initiatives, but, internally at least, the German arm of PwC has also benefited from being able to learn from the company’s experiences in other countries. The approach adopted to develop the intranet at PwC thus differs markedly from that outlined by Hudson. Whereas at Smith & Nephew, the user is given a great deal of control over content and personalisation, at PwC content is controlled by an editorial team, each LoS homepage conforms to corporate-wide standards, and a log-on system serves to restrict employee access and protect sensitive customer data. Neither approach should be considered better than the other, but the two presentations made it quite clear to the delegates that the successful implementation of a KM intranet depends to a considerable extent on how closely the application is integrated with a company’s corporate values.
Siemens Business Services
The final site visit of the two days took the delegates to the offices of Siemens Business Services. Siemens employs 416,000 people worldwide, making it the largest company featured on the benchmarking course in Frankfurt. The firm is also over 100 years old, and has traditionally faced immense external pressures to retain and develop its competitive advantage. In the 1990s, the company’s chairman, Heinrich von Pierer, set into motion a radical business strategy with the intention of restructuring and streamlining the company’s corporate activities, and since then Siemens has been among the leading proponents and adopters of knowledge management techniques.
As Dirk Ramhorst, a senior consultant at Siemens, explained, KM is a driving force in the company’s attempts to transform itself from a product-oriented to a service-focused organisation. And of the 150 internal knowledge management projects currently underway at Siemens, most rely on intranet-based system support. Siemens has adopted a class system to address the problem of how to regulate content. Class A sites incorporate information intended for corporate-wide use; content is regulated, with quality ‘guaranteed’, and provided in both English and the local language. The second level system, class B, also includes regulated information, but that which is aimed at a business unit level and provided primarily in the local language, with English versions available on demand. Pages rated as class C include information targeted at department level, of varying quality, and in any language. This system incorporates a degree of flexibility as to what information is made available to Siemens employees, without relinquishing central control over key areas of the application.
After Ramhorst had provided an overview of the knowledge management programme and intranet development at Siemens, Michael Wagner, Sharenet programme manager, presented an in-depth look at the Information and Communication Networks (ICN) division’s ShareNet intranet platform, a tool developed to facilitate knowledge exchange between ICN employees. ShareNet is a closed user group application, featuring personalised workspaces, discussion and collaboration forums, a knowledge library, and an urgent request section. According to Wagner, urgent requests for information, which are published in English and are visible to all ShareNet users worldwide, are usually answered within two to three hours, with an average of four or five answers being posted by other ShareNet users in the two weeks for which the request remains active. If no answer is published within ten days, content editors take responsibility for finding a Siemens employee capable of answering the question, although Wagner estimated that, in 99 per cent of cases, this action does not become necessary.
The application is only a year old, but ShareNet now has 7,600 users across 80 countries. Although the obvious value of the system goes some way to explaining this high level of user participation, as does the money spent promoting the tool (around 80 per cent of ShareNet’s total budget), Siemens has also developed an employee incentive scheme that works alongside ShareNet. ‘Shares’ are assigned to employees for each contribution they make, and according to the value of the information they provide, a rating decided by the beneficiary of the employee’s input. The potential problems of using monetary rewards in a company with offices in regions as economically diverse as China and the United States were obvious. Rather, ShareNet shares can be collected by employees and exchanged for either electronic goods (600 shares will buy a Siemens mobile phone, for instance), a trip to see a knowledge exchange partner, or for books, CD ROMs or other training materials. The system originated in a more competitive form, where the top share earners would be invited to attend a special event in recognition of their efforts, but recently it has been altered to better represent the values ShareNet attempts to promote.
The benchmarking imperative
Over the last few years, benchmarking has established itself as a valuable tool in the knowledge management portfolio. In developing a KM-focused intranet, no company, regardless of size or inclination to invest, can claim to have got everything right first time. As Hudson clearly demonstrated, complex problems require complex solutions; there are no shortcuts or blueprints for success. And invariably, events such as these raise as many questions as they provide answers. But the opportunity to learn from the successes and the failures of other organisations, at the very least, encourages those in the earlier stages of their intranet’s development to take a step back and consider how their project is unfolding. In fact, and by common consent, even those presenting in Frankfurt learned something, both from other presenters and from the delegates themselves. Although it is impossible to offer much more than a brief overview of the event in an article of this length, the central theme that emerged over the two days is that an effective KM intranet is subject to an evolutionary process. And while information technology should be recognised as being only part of a comprehensive
KM solution, the experiences of Smith & Nephew, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Siemens show that, successfully implemented, an intranet will add enormous value to your knowledge management programme.