posted 28 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 7
Accelerating knowledge transfer
By Griet Johannsen
With more than 200 production sites, activities in 45 countries and about 11,680 employees, Lafarge Roofing, the roofing division of building materials giant Lafarge Group, has a lot to gain from facilitating good practice and knowledge transfers around the world. To this end, the company has restructured its internal knowledge-sharing processes over the past three years, which are now better adapted to its business processes.
This restructuring has seen knowledge management (KM), in conjunction with the company’s central technical centre, take on the task of supporting the worldwide production network, which added 66 new locations between 1998 and 2005 alone. Standardisation of industrial processes, performance improvement and workplace safety have all benefited as a result, from the systematic exchange of information and good practice, training courses and accompanying communications initiatives.
Portals and target groups
The main technology we deployed was a web-based intranet portal. This helped simplify the search for information and know-how around the company. Clearly structured and target group-oriented, a central, English-language information platform serves as the entry point for all Lafarge Roofing managers around the world. News, presentations and guidelines, in addition to separate sections for each central department, combine to provide a basic set of information for all staff.
Employees looking for specific sales and marketing know-how, or who want to find any technical information, can navigate from here to areas designed for each target audience. These sub-portals act as the hub for knowledge transfer. Here, for example, a product manager from Malaysia can find out about success stories from Brazil, identify which people to contact and even access full implementation packs for the introduction of good practices in his or her area of responsibility.
Communities of practice (CoPs) work in so-called teamspaces – web-based workrooms for project teams, accessible from all company locations. Design, navigation and construction of these sub-portals follow the format of the central information platform, meaning that the user does not have to repeatedly adapt to new portal structures. A common toolbar links the portals with each other and enables users to access a variety of tools, such as the Lafarge-wide address book, a global search engine and the intranets of other Lafarge divisions, at any time.
The Lafarge Roofing intranet is based on an extremely flexible database template that can be used to set up new portals without the need for additional programming. This template guarantees efficient, cost-effective and fast deployment of entire portals. It comes with a pre-defined architecture, adheres to corporate intranet design guidelines and can be filled with all kinds of content by a range of editors, who have completed only a short, simple training course.
As data is entered into a Lotus Domino database, editors work in an IT environment with which they should be familiar and which does not require any knowledge of programming.
This means that a wide range of contributors are able to produce pieces, minimising the central support and co-ordination required from the ‘knowledge manager’.
The portal template is also used by the national operating units to construct intranets in their own language. Once the portals are set up, Lafarge Roofing has a knowledge and information pool with both local and international areas. Along with the advantage of having a consistent portal structure and simple implementation, the corporate identity factor also plays an important role: the intranet has a consistent look and feel, and its familiar design makes it easy to navigate and find important information.
Guiding the users with visuals
In all kinds of places where things can quickly become confusing – such as in street traffic, airports and at railway stations – symbols or images make it easier to find one’s way around. In other instances, they simply serve to catch the eye and concentrate people’s attention. Graphics and visuals have been strategically used for many years in internal communications at Lafarge Roofing. Whether it is an international performance programme, a health and safety campaign or a new crisis management concept, visuals adapted to the company’s corporate design, which can be internationally understood regardless of language, accompany all internal communications initiatives.
Lafarge Roofing’s KM team also uses this visual approach, with a set of well-defined images and visuals appearing in all intranet zones. If it is clearly illustrated, information is easier to ‘sell’, and graphics offer a more diverse means of communication than simple columns of text, tables or database displays.
To take one example from the industrial knowledge portal: a wide range of documents from the areas of clay and concrete roof tile production needed to be restructured. In addition to a search function, simpler, more intuitive access was necessary. The graphical approach fulfilled these objectives, improving clarity and structure. As a next step, the various stages in production at the clay and concrete roof tile factories were illustrated, abstracted into process graphs and presented in a simplified format. For subjects spanning multiple areas, such as health and safety, separate icons were developed as these areas are not directly linked to a specific production process step.
All these icons can be clicked on in the portal, taking the user to the corresponding topic area. Just by clicking on a symbol, employees can view all available good practices, training courses, or up-to-date presentations given by the company’s experts at conferences or network meetings on that subject. Aligning all the information was simple, showing that even complex subjects can be presented in a well-structured manner using graphical tools. The different production processes are recognisable to anyone, thus making it easier for users to navigate.
Good practice transfer
At Lafarge, knowledge sharing and good practice transfer are firmly anchored in the company’s ‘principles of action’. All employees are expected to actively share their knowledge, while also seeking out their colleagues’ expertise in order to solve problems or improve processes. This element is absolutely essential if subsidiaries are to benefit from belonging to an international group, creating competitive advantage through greater efficiency, process optimisation or product innovation.
But how should all this be organised? Which processes are so good that they should be introduced internationally and, even more important, how can these be conceived and implemented worldwide?
A process was drawn up for good practice transfer between production sites and has proven highly practical and beneficial since its introduction a year ago. For example, solutions to problems and suggestions for improvement in production often come up in daily team meetings. Workers then have the opportunity to discuss their ideas with the shift supervisor or plant manager.
What is subsequently proven to work in that factory can then be communicated via the knowledge portal, or directly to the appropriate contact person in the central technical centre. There, a committee – the ‘technical circle’ – reviews incoming suggestions and decides whether they should form a new standard for other factories or be posted on the knowledge portal as a recommendation.
Three good practice categories were defined which now provide the framework for global implementation in factories: Three-star good practices are mandatory and must be implemented within a defined period, two-star good practices are ‘highly recommended’ and one-star good practices are simply ‘recommended’. As investments can be required for the implementation of most good practices, suggestions receive careful review and are agreed upon by senior management first. Three different labels are used on the portal to indicate their category to users.
Technical documentation is also handled by the technical centre and follows a pre-defined design. To make technical implementation in the factories easier and to overcome the language barrier, photos and illustrations are used as much as possible. Once good practices have been posted on the portal, factory managers are informed directly via e-mail and a highly visible news ticker is activated on the portal’s home page, linking to the download area.
To encourage employees to contribute to knowledge transfer, teams from all plants can participate in an annual performance competition, where prizes are awarded for successful good practice transfers between factories.
Despite being an extremely useful tool, the intranet alone cannot reach all employees and involve them in the knowledge-transfer process. In contrast to those in the international sales and marketing community, most hourly-paid employees of Lafarge Roofing have no access to computers and must be reached by traditional ‘offline’ communications. This can be managed only to a limited extent by central KM or corporate communications, as local requirements and languages vary widely.
Management at the plants then plays an important role in direct on-site employee communication. Not only is it time-intensive, it also calls for an established framework to make sure that it works across the organisation. All factories are therefore equipped with meeting points which serve as hubs for knowledge sharing and employee information. These include:
short daily discussions preceding/following every shift;
the display of important documents, such as guidelines, posters, newsletters and so on;
overviews of the key figures and performance indicators of the factory, with data maintained by the employees;
problem solving meetings.
Technology alone will not make it happen – the right media mix, prompt and regular communications and securing the buy-in of all employees are essential factors for success and represent a challenge in themselves. At Lafarge Roofing, the technical infrastructure needed for knowledge sharing is now largely in place, three years after beginning the KM initiative. In the next stage, the process of knowledge sharing will accelerate and assume its rightful place as a key component of the company’s business processes.
Griet Johannsen is divisional knowledge and communications manager at Lafarge Roofing. She can be contacted at email@example.com
About Lafarge Roofing
Lafarge Roofing is the roofing division of the Lafarge Group. With 211 production sites and activities in 45 countries, Lafarge Roofing is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of pitched-roofing products, roof system components and chimney systems. Parent company Lafarge is split into four operating divisions: Cement, Aggregates and Concrete; Roofing and Gypsum. Overall, it employs some 80,000 people in 75 countries and posted sales of €16 billion in 2005.