posted 24 Jan 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 4
Gillian Grant and Betty Joseph describe a knowledge process outsourcing project, which resulted in the successful fusion of two geographically and culturally diverse KM teams
The KM concepts series takes best practices from knowledge management (KM) and applies them to enterprise-wide solutions. What we refer to as KM is really fundamental business practices with an emphasis on building efficiencies, creating consistencies and mitigating risk. In the current business climate, centralising key processes to ensure that professionals have access to codified information and tacit knowledge goes beyond a vertical in a company – it is pervasive across the enterprise. As KM professionals, we need to use KM as leverage to the bottom line and achieving goals.
Ten years ago, when I made my first trip to India to build a knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) team, the notion of virtual collaboration beyond the telephone was futile at best. While technologies have exploded since then, it has only been during the past few years that I’ve been able to leverage and implement a suite of collaboration tools. This project formed part of an enterprise-wide solution, with my work at a global professional services firm to build out the KM function. In 2005, I was asked to take over a KPO team of three people (who redacted client-sensitive memos in
Sheila, one of our analysts in
The hang-out factor
As we assembled the first wave of eight team members, we realised the need to make our
The hang-out factor is highly underrated. You don’t realise how critical running into someone in the hall, water cooler conversations, or team lunches are, until you don’t have those opportunities. For us, the formal, work-related knowledge-sharing part of this equation was easy. However, building those informal, inter-personal dynamics across the team was proving to be more challenging due to cultural differences, working styles and a perceived threat that the newly formed Indian team was going to replace the
Video conferencing and the web meeting tool, Live Meeting, enabled open and transparent conversations as we addressed the unrest across the KM team. We organised a weekly team call, where Sheila came up with ice breakers for everyone attending. These exercises focused on sharing information about cultures, interests and educational backgrounds. At first, there was trepidation from the
As the team started to grow in responsibility, we saw that we had to move ahead as one team with our KM development. As a result, we started a virtual book club through Live Meeting. Once a month, each person had a chance to choose a KM-related book or article to present on and facilitate a discussion. Using book clubs, we walked through live scenarios and listened to different approaches to problem solving. It was interesting to share our thoughts and insights on a topic and collectively agree upon one approach. It also highlighted the different working styles of our two cultures. For example, Indians work well in teams and US professionals are more independent in their working style, so it was good to build on each other’s strengths to accomplish a common goal: technology breaking down barriers
As we made headway with knowledge sharing and the use of key tools, we were still running into style differences on the work front – such as team members in
To encourage our professionals in India and the US to feel comfortable sharing details about their work and challenges, we did a beta test of Yammer with a handful of people from both teams. The concept of sharing work-related activities with the group of people you were already familiar with came across as redundant and the team did not latch onto it as a way of sharing casual updates of work and projects. We also tried to broaden the group of people that our professionals could share work updates with. However, we learned that in both the US and India, our professionals had their network of peers that were kept updated through lunches and informal socialising.
While some of our barriers were cultural, others were infrastructure related, in particular with regards to working hours and lack of connectivity. While the team in India left the office by 13:00pm eastern standard time, many of them still had a one or two-hour commute and patchy internet connections once they got home. While the firm respects work/life balance, there was more than one occasion when having to wait 18 hours to resolve an outstanding issue for a client presented an issue. Firm leadership jumped in and provided personal digital assistants for our Indian managers, which ensured there was coverage for the majority of the US working day. In addition, the firm developed a disaster recovery plan in response to terrorist threats, which enabled professionals to work from home in an emergency. This meant that we always had coverage for key activities.
Centralising our work – literally and figuratively
Initially, delegating low-risk projects to the team in India, with the US team as backup if things went off track, helped in building the team’s confidence to take up more complex work. The confidence factor acted as a milestone in trust-building process and paved the way for more complex work – just as leadership was asking if our joint team could assume more responsibility.
The mandate to grow our team in India pushed us to expand our scope of services beyond the one, redaction. The services that the professionals in India provided naturally defined them, based on the marketplace and the kind of work the firm was delivering to its clients. Our annual meetings with firm leadership identified new areas in which we could offer support – such as capturing intranet metrics, processing ‘continuing education credit’, and facilitating website updates and new pages. In return, we found a leadership group that was more comfortable than in previous years to leverage our services, based on consistently delivering high-quality work. As a result, leadership was willing to hand us new projects, where the joint US/India team documented the process and workflows and worked together to develop, test and deploy a new service.
Sheila was on the frontline, determining what documentation was needed for training, and for day-to-day use, then documenting approaches for managing our clients (service level agreements). While e-room technology was a great way to share files, we needed something more collaborative and real-time. The firm was just starting to pilot SharePoint and our internal clients had the opportunity to be part of the beta test. While creating team spaces on Sharepoint was shaky, it was a chance for our team to collaborate using a new technology and identify ways to make the product more effective in their own environment. Sharing files, tracking activities and coordinating calendars helped streamline new projects between our collective team and our internal client. In addition, SharePoint had the ability to capture feedback on documents, present ideas in real time and collect domain knowledge through wikis.
While SharePoint and team spaces were still in their infancy, the collective KM team had the opportunity to beta test an emerging technology. This real-time collaboration also reinforced the notion that our team in India was not task oriented but part of a broader exercise. Working directly with the client enabled them to see how their contributions were leveraged and how the tactical work they provided supported firm goals and revenue.
Keeping our professional momentum using social media
Like everyone else, the firm was affected by the global recession just as we were pushing our team to be more independent. Considering the maturity of our blended team, we saw an opportunity to take a look at what we did and determine what we could do better, what could we do less, and areas in which we could innovate.
The challenge to come up with innovative ways to provide KM services spawned many new ideas. The mandate we gave our team was what innovative practices or ideas can we apply across the firm, which will help save money or generate revenue in this economy? Three credible ideas surfaced: using Facebook, wikis and Twitter.
It was interesting to see two distinct cultures move in the same direction with their ideas, especially with an emphasis on social networking. A result of the incubation of these ideas was that people were testing and developing ideas on these tools, which they ended up using for their work and personal life. People started sharing Facebook pages, and team members who had avoided social media were suddenly becoming friends and sharing updates or photos with co-workers on the site. This day-to-day, dynamic content was just another lever that contributed to our team building a strong professional relationship based on personal interests. Sharing birthdays, pictures of family, weddings and children, opened the door for many new conversations and dialogue that eventually came back to work.
Something for everyone
Effective collaboration between various business units is fundamental to success today. There are so many collaborative and social media tools available and while most are implemented across the enterprise, not every one is applicable to a community or group within that environment. That said, just because a tool does not catch on during its initial rollout, does not mean it will not create value in the long term. Wikis did not take off for a couple of years within the groups I was involved in at the firm. However, we did see the value in the tool and instead of forcing people to use it, waited until a good opportunity arose where we knew we could successfully leverage it.
While the effects of a difficult economic climate have altered the professional workspace, they have also forced people to take a second look at collaboration tools and implement them as cost-saving alternatives to travel and face-to-face meetings. For Sheila and her broader KM team, they have enabled the formulation of a cohesive team through trial and error. Over the next couple of years, their goal is to continue tailoring their current suite of collaboration tools to support their ever-changing priorities.
Gillian Grant is the principal at VIS Consulting, an information and knowledge management consultancy. Prior to starting her own business she was a senior manager focusing on KM and knowledge process outsourcing at a large professional services firm. Gillian's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
Betty Joseph is a senior manager at a large professional services firm, where she leads a team of 25 people that supports the knowledge management initiatives within a function for its US business. She can be contacted at email@example.com