posted 31 Oct 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 3
The knowledge: Geoff Parcell
With experience that spans the private, public and not-for-profit sectors, Geoff Parcell’s work with knowledge management has helped find oil and save lives. He talks to Sandra Higgison about what he finds most rewarding, what he would have done differently and how he has achieved the mythical work-life balance.
There can’t be many knowledge managers who aren’t but a little envious of the initiatives Geoff Parcell has championed and been involved in during his time at BP, the United Nations and beyond. Not only has he had a front-line role in shaping the oil and gas company into what many consider to be the knowledge-management benchmark, but he is also using this experience to support the global fight against some of the world’s most destructive viruses and diseases.
Like many of his KM peers, Parcell is a self-confessed agent of change who admits to looking for opportunities where he can make a difference. His track record is formidable. In financial terms he has demonstrably helped BP create savings in the hundreds of millions. However, it is clear that he places greater value in seeing the effects of his work on individuals as they realise the benefits of knowledge sharing on a personal level.Joining BP as a geophysicist, Parcell spent half of his 30 years at BP working in exploration, drawing maps and examining the geology of areas where the company was looking to drill. In 1989, when Lord Browne, chairman of the oil and gas firm returned from the US to head up BP’s exploration division, Parcell was put on one of the first 100-day projects that aimed to reduce BP’s total spend on IT by cutting duplication. “I soon learnt that switching systems off wasn’t about pressing buttons but about persuading people to let go of their legacy systems,” he says. “I got so passionately involved in the project that I wanted to implement it rather than just write the report on how to make it happen.”
From then on Parcell was either given explicit change roles or he found areas that were going through changes and defined his own position. In this way he reduced the risk of BP drilling dry wells, coached business leaders, led staff development initiatives and supported the relocation of whole businesses from places such as
In 1996, Parcell was looking for his next move when he came across two opportunities: one to coach the leader of an Algerian business unit, the other with BP’s newly formed knowledge management team. “By electing to take on both I kept one foot in a real business and the other in this nebulous thing called KM. Viewing the coin from both sides I was able to bring the team back to reality by asking how I would sell our ideas in my business.” Much has been written about the ensuing KM story at BP, not least by Parcell himself who recently published the second edition of Learning to Fly, which he co-wrote with Chris Collison (who was profiled by Inside Knowledge, volume 8 issue 4).
Almost ten years later, Parcell recalls some of his most memorable achievements. Soon after the central KM team was disbanded – a deliberate move that aimed to diffuse the practice into the business but coincided with the Amoco merger, a time when he believes KM really needed central coordination – Parcell and Collison proposed to dedicate their time to making operations more efficient at BP through a programme called Operations Excellence. For 18 months they used KM techniques to get knowledge shared. “We evolved the self-assessment process to give people a framework to see the big picture, determine their strengths and identify what needed improving, which went beyond what we’d previously done with KM,” he says. “We also introduced peer assists, after-action reviews and the yellow pages system, Connect, to deliver a holistic approach to knowledge sharing.”
To offer the thousands of people involved in operational excellence a community space to access good practice databases, news items and a discussion forum, Parcell and Collison built a portal that employees could use regardless of their shift or time zone. “People could see who else was in the space at the time and could ask questions. We encouraged them to ask about the latest football results as well as technical issues as we knew that would help build relationships.” This community space is still being used daily.
Parcell’s first KM assignment also stands out. “BP had a gas project in
Having arrived in
Across the various KM initiatives Parcell was involved in during his time at BP, he acknowledges that he faced a similar hurdle on each. “The biggest challenge was with senior levels of management who could not understand the true value of knowledge management and networking in particular,” he says. “People who were using it could clearly see the benefits but senior managers just saw people talking a lot and not getting results. Some were even driven to ask for practical outcomes from each meeting not recognising that they are about building relationships. Knowledge sharing and business progress are made beyond meetings because of the relationships developed.” Although he says he has never found a foolproof solution to this issue, he recommends that people demonstrate the value of knowledge sharing through examples that show senior managers exactly what it has enabled people to do.
One senior manager who had no trouble understanding the benefits was the head of the UNAIDS programme. Having read their book, he invited Collison and Parcell to Geneva to give a day’s advice on creating global networks to help countries share successful responses to AIDS. “At the end of the day he asked if
I could stay for a year. I laughed and said it sounded very worthwhile but that he’d have to ask BP. I didn’t think anything more would happen.” However, soon after, the head of two UN agencies wrote to Lord Browne asking if Parcell could be released to help on this project. BP generously agreed and within a few months he was on his way to Thailand where he would begin using his KM experiences to help save lives rather than generate profits.
Just like his work in Vietnam, Parcell spent his time in northern Thailand with the network of facilitators making sure he understood how the education programme worked.
“I gave a presentation to representatives from the Salvation Army, UNAIDS and the University of Chiang Mai,” he says. “We could see light bulbs flashing as we realised we could use the self-assessment process as a framework for AIDS.” As he travelled to villages with the facilitators and tried to overcome his feeling of inadequacy as he met people dying from AIDS, he quickly instilled the discipline of having pre-meetings before each visit and after-action reviews to capture what they had learnt. “The self assessment neatly gave people a range of practices and levels to benchmark where they were.”
In contrast perhaps to the response Parcell sometimes received to knowledge management at BP, the appetite for his ideas was vast and his work progressed quickly. “Usa Dongsaa from the University of Chiang Mai took the initial framework I’d sketched and sent it to seven villages. Within two weeks we had data from their pilots. This was happening fast.” The framework allowed people to have a conversation as a community about their response to AIDS. Once a final version had been agreed upon it was distributed to facilitators around the world. The approach was taken to a meeting of cities in Brazil and then Lyon, which is where Parcell felt the greatest reward for his efforts.
The meeting comprised rich cities with a low prevalence of AIDS and poorer ones with a high prevalence. “They all went into a melting pot where everyone could learn from each other,” says Parcell. “It was an amazing experience to see Ouagadougou, the capital city of 900,000 people in Burkina Faso, sharing knowledge with Lyon, and Parma learning from Durban. People were energised and left wanting to find out more. At worst people learnt that they were having similar problems to other regions, at best they were finding solutions to their issues.” Parcell’s final meeting of his secondment took him back to Chiang Mai. He describes the 140 people from over 30 countries talking about their experiences with self-assessment as a slightly chaotic knowledge-sharing jamboree.
Eighteen months after joining the UNAIDS project, Parcell returned to BP. Aside from having to re-assimilate to the corporate world, he found that it wasn’t the BP he’d left. “I realised that making knowledge management sustainable is harder than we think,” he says. “I kept hearing people ask questions that I knew we already had answers to; I couldn’t understand why we had lost what we had achieved and why we weren’t learning from what we’d done in the past. If I could go back and do anything differently, I’d put more time and effort into convincing people to maintain the infrastructure for knowledge sharing. To truly embed KM, you have to make processes sustainable, which requires investment in the infrastructure, whether that’s in people, resources or technology.”
Parcell’s experience with the UN and perhaps the frustrations he felt once back at BP motivated him to seek more freedom in his work. “I wanted my work with non-governmental organisations to continue alongside the corporate side so I left BP to become an independent consultant in May this year,” he says. “I now split my time between the private or public sectors and the Constellation of AIDS Competence, a not-for-profit group set up by the head of the UNAIDS project when it received no further funding from the UN system. I’ve discovered that there’s no shortage of money at the UN for delivering a truck load of condoms but it’s much harder to secure the capacity to help people find their own solutions as this is not as easy to measure.” Parcell is currently working with the Constellation to adapt the self-assessment technique for its response to malaria.
Although Parcell has been incredibly busy since leaving BP, his thirst for learning ensures he continues to search out new techniques. He has been exploring the application of appreciative enquiry, is looking into the distinction and relationship between experience and expertise, and is talking to Collison about writing another book on self-assessments. And if that were not enough, he has just bought a house near the French Alps, which he plans to live in three months of the year. As he says, he has been fairly successful in achieving the mythical work-life balance: “The trick is to blur the boundaries so it doesn’t feel like either work or play.”
Summing up Parcell’s work since he discovered knowledge management is not easy. His modesty belies his achievements, which continue to enable people to share knowledge within and across businesses. Perhaps more importantly, however, Parcell is also helping to change lives and give people opportunities that may otherwise be denied them by a deadly disease or virus. Indeed, if Parcell still looks for roles where he can make a difference, it is safe to say that his work so far has already left an indelible mark on the lives of many.
Geoff Parcell can be contacted at email@example.com. The March 2005 edition of Inside Knowledge includes a full account of Geoff Parcell’s work with the UNAIDS project.