posted 12 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
Case study: Arup
The culture of an organisation is inseparable from the way it manages its knowledge. And the culture of Arup is a little bit different from the average organisation.
By Colin Henson
Arup is one of the largest and best-respected names in the engineering-consulting sector and has been instrumental in the design of some of the world’s most impressive projects, including Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, to name just two. And the company will be celebrating its 60th Anniversary in 2007.
Sir Ove Arup himself was an Anglo-Danish architect. He was born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north-east of England, but studied philosophy then engineering at a University in Denmark. What is more, he set up Ove Arup and Partners in 1946 at the age of 51, when he left the construction company he and a cousin had founded eight years earlier in order to go it alone as a consulting engineer.
He saw an opportunity for what he called “total architecture” and Arup’s early clients included virtually every architectural practice of note at the time. Maintaining a close connection with avant-garde architecture, the company pioneered many advanced and economical solutions for buildings.
To do so, however, has always required the company to maintain a diverse skills base and we now count planning, design, economics, environmental and project management alongside the business and management-consulting skills the company has developed over the past five decades.
Better known for involvement with many of the high-profile buildings of the post-war years, Arup has made a name for itself in many other aspects of engineering, too, from roads and bridges to environmental sustainability. Arup now has some 9,000 staff working from 82 offices in 34 countries worldwide and an annual turnover of more than AUS$1bn.
Given the nature of the work, Arup needs to draw together many different disciplines and a breadth of experience on an ad hoc basis, in order to build the teams it needs to complete assignments to the highest standards.
We summarise our approach in one statement: ‘We shape a better world’. This encapsulates the team working, creativity, belief in sustainability and global nature of Arup, as well as recognising the significant role we, with our clients and collaborators, play in forming new environments. It is difficult to summarise the culture Ove Arup himself instilled in the company, but it can perhaps be summarised by some extracts of his writings, primarily the ‘key speech’ he presented in 1970:
“… only limited use is made of all the existing technical knowledge…with the best technical education, the designer could not hope to be familiar with [all] modern technical possibilities… a wealth of new knowledge, new materials, new processes has so widened the field of possibilities that it cannot be adequately surveyed in a single mind. In response we must create the organisation, the ‘composite mind’.”
Ove Arup was also a storyteller. The firm has recorded much of his work in a series of books. This culture, and the generations of staff who have carried those ideals, should not be underestimated when considering the management of knowledge at Arup and the ability of that type of knowledge management (KM) to be transferred to other firms and organisations.
For example, the ownership of Arup is held by charitable trusts rather than personal share ownerships, and the company is therefore relatively free of the short-term influences of individual owners, takeovers or stock price. “I was initially struck by the flat structure and the ability of people to get on with the job without worrying about hierarchy,” said current chairman Terry Hill. This culture has attracted and retained staff that wanted to work at the leading edge.
Key project drivers
Encouraging buy-in through collaboration.
Given the culture imbued in the company from the very start, it is little surprise that Arup was an early adopter of KM. In the 1990’s Tony Sheehan, group knowledge manager, noted that Arup contained a wealth of systems, but added that many of them were underused and, in many cases, poorly understood.
The result was confusion amid a range of possible options and legacy systems from IT, human resources and even the finance department. Many in the firm condemned these systems as useless. This was far from the case, but the underuse of these systems presented us with major opportunities for improvement, as follows:
· For the ‘good’ systems, we can help people to access them in new and flexible ways, to interact with and query reliable systems in a way that enables the information to be put to best use;
· For the ‘bad’ systems (if they are bad) this presents an opportunity to draw a line and move on. Wasted investment on inappropriate systems to be addressed;
· For Arup, there is an opportunity to remove the confusion that currently exists in its approach to technology, to provide consistency across the organisation in terms of access and training, to enable informed decision and good KM by maximising information effectiveness.
We have a network of knowledge activists to help staff extract the maximum value from their knowledge. Their role in the Australasian division is:
· To improve the business performance of staff through better access to corporate knowledge, both within and beyond Australasia;
· To encourage the sharing and contribution of individual knowledge to the Arup knowledge-base, such as Arup people, staff mentoring and so on;
· To pilot, monitor, measure and report on the success or otherwise of KM in the division.
We have also established a network of information professionals in Australasia – linking the librarians in each office. With their colleagues outside Australasia, these experts have established a library help-desk and an intranet resource, called Infofinder, which directs the searcher online to all manner of knowledge sources, including the Knowledge Activist site.
It would be possible to list most of the Arup KM initiatives, but it would require a weighty book to describe them in any level of useful detail. Instead, the remainder of this article describes some of the key pieces of ‘kit’ that Arup has developed to help staff and clients.
The five Arup ‘knowledge brands’ are intended to help users understand the value of knowledge and to establish confidence in re-use of that content:
• Insight – best-practice guidance validated by appropriate experts;
• Network – access to reflections and discussions within our skills and business networks;
• Projects – past project experiences and key data;
• People – a route to people that could help;
• Corporate – access to Arup rules and procedures.
Each brand is differentiated from other, unbranded content on the Arup intranet through the use of an icon. Content within search results on Arup’s intranet is also ordered to reflect the varying importance and implied value of the Arup knowledge brands. For example, any content attributed with the ‘Insight’ brand will appear at the top of the search page, while unbranded content will appear at the end of the list of items.
Above all, however, it presents us with an opportunity to support a series of technologies to deliver lasting benefit to Arup. To provide order in this chaotic environment, it was proposed to consolidate these systems into three simple categories:
• Arup People – tools and technologies to bring people together;
• Arup Projects – tools and technologies to support project practices;
• Arup Insight – tools and technologies to enable strategic knowledge management across the firm.
Knowledge is the lifeblood of the modern organisation. Software and technology clearly form part of the solution, but often rely on the failed assumption that staff will publish all their useful information (and only their useful information) and those who need it will find it. The process is time-consuming, doesn’t scale well, is incomplete and quickly becomes obsolete. However, our approach is based on the following self-evident realisations:
· Knowledge can only be volunteered – it cannot be conscripted;
· We only know what we know when we need to know it – human knowledge is contextual;
· ‘We can always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.’ (Snowden, 2000).
The television programme, ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’, and ‘Arup People’ have at least one thing in common – a ‘lifeline’ to phone a friend when you don’t know the answer. This is access to the complex tacit knowledge which resides within people. Our intranet page, Arup People, is an expertise finder. It enables each staff member to fill out a free-text web page about themselves, and their skills and contacts. Particularly useful fields include:
· Emerging professional interests – where I am going;
· Social and after-hours interests, hobbies – the sort of person I am;
· External contacts – people I respect outside the organisation, who may be useful contacts for you, too;
· Communities and memberships – my friends and networks.
In Australasia more than 85 per cent of staff have filled out their Arup People details and regularly use the system to look up information. With the Olympics scheduled for 2012 in London, there are plenty of queries from the UK on Olympic venue designs, not to mention searches for people working in a particular area of maritime security, people interested in football or simply the background experience of someone who has just sent an e-mail.
The results of a poll of 536 knowledge workers in companies with more than 1,000 workers (Gilmour, Harvard Business Review, 2003) indicated that despite an abundance of collaboration tools:
· 67 per cent said, ‘Some people in the company can help me to do my job better’;
· 39 per cent said, ‘I don’t know how to find these colleagues’;
· 60 per cent said, ‘Work is often duplicated because people are unaware of each others’ work’;
· 54 per cent said, ‘Opportunities to innovate are missed because the right people do not work together’;
· 51 per cent said, ‘Wrong decisions are regularly made because employee knowledge is not being effectively tapped’.
Arup People is an opportunity to shift from KM based on a publishing model towards a focus on collaboration management based on a publishing model, and to focus on a collaboration management based on a brokering model – we will share and exchange useful tacit knowledge with each other. We have a lot to share, if only we knew.
Communities of practice (CoPs) enable an organisation to harness the influence of champions – the best in the organisation. From modest beginnings as real networks based on meetings and project travel, the networks have evolved into a powerful virtual tool for communicating up-to-date knowledge relevant to winning and executing projects across the company. Within Arup, we seek to deliver the best of the organisation to our clients by networking our knowledge globally. Our knowledge is networked in several ways, each facilitated by one or several champions in each business sector or geography:
· Skills network. These enable staff to share their design and technical knowledge, distilling good practice from the experiences of our people and projects;
· Business network. Business areas are tasked with networking business knowledge. Some do this as part of business operations, but others create recognised business networks;
· Informal and social networks. Informal networks (our communities of interest) enable us to support social activities and interest groups that may yet grow into our future business areas.
Over a decade ago, the idea of a skills network was to capture and disseminate technical knowledge, which in those days consisted of a few papers that sat alongside feedback notes and ‘notes on materials’, and a meeting of ‘technically energetic’ people sharing experiences. Today they are much more than that – for example the Structural Skills Network (SSN) at Arup, which is the largest, encompasses many activities and services, including:
· Developing and delivering in-house training;
· Providing information and a forum on software packages and user’s experiences;
· Providing a technical forum where engineers can ask for past experience in a particular field or project;
· Supporting collaboration amongst younger engineers in entering competitions, or helping with their training;
· Providing up-to-date technical information on issues as diverse as materials, sustainability, design for fire, modular construction and so on;
· Capturing and describing where structural engineers are adding value in different business sectors, such as sports and healthcare.
The SSN has fostered emerging networks in specialist areas, such as the wind network and sustainability website. It has pioneered a web template for other networks, too. It has even spawned new business areas – both the Arup Sport and Arup Investigation, Repair and Refurbishment (AIRR) business units began following seminars that pulled together activities in a particular area from across different groups and divisions.
At the heart of the success of these networks are local gatherings of engineers, planners, administrators and/or special interests who meet to share their experiences, and a task-based approach to capturing these in a form that can be accessed by others. The enthusiasm of individuals is what drives the networks and the spread across countries and disciplines is testimony to how well they succeed in tapping into people’s motivation to share and build on their knowledge through collaboration.
Arup’s hard work in CoPs has been recognised industry wide. SSN won the Innovation Knowledge Management Award at the International Information Industry Awards in 2003. The American Productivity and Quality Centre (APQC) selected Arup as one of the five ‘best practice’ organisations in KM for work on CoPs. And the Skills Networks are rapidly becoming the means for supporting specialists and engineers in their work as they strive to be the best in their field.
However, many of our competitors have adopted similar policies, presenting a challenge to us to maintain and enhance our KM approaches.
This area is one of the most complex as it involves combining the vast range of systems that collate project information. These include:
· Financial systems;
· Project-management systems;
· Project handbook;
· Questions and answers;
· Document management;
· Project records;
· Client and description database;
· Causeway collaboration;
· Arup project support;
· Image base of photos.
There is a need to provide structured search and retrieval in this area, as it will normally be possible to categorise data into recognisable reports or activities. The front end to Arup projects follows the style of Arup People – a simple summary page that acts as a new view into data held in other repositories. Some of this data is volunteered (in a similar way to Arup People) while other areas are populated automatically, or prompted through the use of workflow capabilities in other systems.
An Arup Projects competition was conducted highlighting the value of KM at the operational level. The aim was to secure more examples demonstrating how we create benefits for our clients, vital to winning new work. Launched in January 2006, the Arup Projects Competition aimed to support our bidding process by increasing the availability of good quality project knowledge. Entries were judged on the quality and completeness of knowledge shared in the Arup projects pages and attached documents. The best entries were those that:
· Clearly articulated the value added by Arup to the project;
· Highlighted the value provided by Arup to the client;
· Comprised a variety of content. For example, completed a summary page, skills-specific content, lessons learned, nuggets, images and key documents.
There are types of information that cut across projects, that provide our cutting edge and competitive advantage and that are as close to captured tacit knowledge as is possible. For these types of knowledge, our challenge is to enable, providing the best possible software to enable (particularly) the skills and business networks, but also to brand – to recognise that ‘feedback notes’ are more valuable than the thoughts of an individual; to recognise that good practice in one part of the Arup world can be innovation in another; to recognise that shared thoughts across the firm stand a far greater chance of delivering value than isolated project data. Having branded (which, in itself requires work) we must provide different accessibility to the various types of Arup Insight.
This process is not easy – it is not simply a case of removing barriers and sharing everything. Its very essence is that we must only share what is of value – to our clients and, therefore, to each other. Arup Insight remains a work in progress.
The wealth of knowledge in any organisation is mostly unharnessed, but Arup has worked hard to develop a culture of critical enquiry and excellence, at significant cost to the short-term bottom line. Fortunately, Arup is not ruled by the tyranny of quarterly reporting and can take a longer-term view.
The culture of the company has also attracted and retained good staff, enabling them to forge tacit-knowledge links between colleagues, wherever they are in the world. In organisations where staff are moving on all the time, that is more difficult to achieve.
We have many systems in Arup and we have invested heavily in IT networks and systems to ensure that collaboration across different boundaries, whether geographical or disciplinary, is the norm, not the exception. “This is a real differentiator – global knowledge, capability and experience at near zero marginal cost at the point of delivery,” says Sheehan.
The challenge remains to sustain that edge in KM.
Colin Henson is the knowledge activist in the Australasian region of Arup. He can be contacted by e-mailing, firstname.lastname@example.org.