posted 31 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 3
Working with knowledge
As a professional-services firm, Cowi has initiatives in place to ensure knowledge is created and shared from one project to another. Niels-Jørgen Aagaard has been heavily involved in the company’s knowledge work. Here he explains how knowledge has been structured through taxonomies and business processes, and how intranets and professional networks have been established to exchange knowledge.
Cowi is an independent consulting company that delivers state-of-the-art services within the fields of engineering, environmental science and socio-economics (see figure 1). Cowi has a total of 3,500 employees, of which 2,000 are based in Denmark, and 1,500 in subsidiaries and project offices around the world. Cowi’s annual turnover is c356m, which includes that of recently acquired companies Kampsax and Interconsult.
As a project-based company, Cowi creates value for customers by organising its consultancy in project form. Within a project you have a basis, a goal, some resources and a time frame. The objective for the project team is to achieve the goal on the given basis within agreed resources and time limits. Consequently, the knowledge work and the creation of new knowledge take place within is project frame, however the transfer of knowledge from one project to another does not happen by itself.
The context determines what knowledge is relevant and what is not. Since the project is the context – and each project is unique –relevant knowledge is specific. From our experience, it is very hard to know in advance precisely what you will need to know in a coming project. Contextual knowledge is difficult to predict and even harder to describe.
Knowledge management in a project-oriented organisation depends on people. As the knowledge relevant to business in consultancy is not anchored in a physical product our knowledge-management efforts must focus on:
- Creating appropriate working conditions;
- Making all employees responsible for collecting and communicating acquired experience on a daily basis;
- Monitoring what is considered state of the art.
Knowledge is accessible and comprehensible when it is structured. Structure in turn enables retrieval and knowledge sharing. In Cowi, our long tradition of structuring knowledge is embedded in our corporate culture. It is encouraged by the need for precision and accuracy in a technical
world. Daily project work is all about codifying and structuring information
As in many companies, the spontaneous reaction of a Cowi employee to a problem is to build a business system, a rule, define responsibilities, clarify casualties or programme an IT-application to solve the problem. This may be called a pattern of reaction ’system thinking'.
Over the years many isolated solutions have been created but are often not part of a coherent system, and each employee is left to try to navigate in this ‘flexible' world. However, as the world is not perfect it has to be like this. Knowledge management in system thinking at Cowi is to add a meta-structure to solutions. For a number of years, we have tried to give meaning to these different systems through a variety of tools, such as:
- Knowledge structure;
- Intellectual-capital account;
- Intranet and project portal.
We have developed a knowledge structure that is based on three elements:
- Business processes;
- Professional taxonomy;
- Technical metadata.
Our business processes comprise management, finance, staff, market/customer, facilities, projects and know-how. Some of the business processes are integrated parts of production while others are more likely to be labelled support processes. We tend to organise everything in these groups: topics on the intranet, news, support functions, etc.
Cowi’s professional taxonomy features a list of controlled keywords used for classifying projects, customers, employee competencies and knowledge artefacts like documents and database records. The taxonomy is structured according to a set of independent dimensions that make it possible to classify a given object by a unique combination of controlled keywords.
One important use of the professional taxonomy is the classification of project references. In the consultancy business, it is very important to be able to produce an adequate list of references to accompany pre-qualification or tenders. A classification of references based on the taxonomy makes it possible to do so.
Cowi has had several taxonomies over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s they were based on words for competencies or objects such as ‘bridge engineering' or just ‘bridges'. The lists where short so it was often impossible to distinguish between various types of services and customers. The present taxonomy is made up of four dimensions:
- Society sector – the different sectors of society for which we provide services;
- Facility and nature – the types of objects that we design, analyse, etc;
- Subjects – the professional disciplines needed for our consultancy;
- Services – the variety of deliverables we provide to the customer. For example, design, planning, expert assistance and construction management.
Over the last 18 months, Cowi has merged with two mid-sized companies. We are therefore in the process of upgrading the professional taxonomy to a concept that includes 12 dimensions, each with a specific hierarchical list of controlled keywords. The upgrade is done in close collaboration with the business units, since they are the users of the working taxonomy.
The upgraded taxonomy is being implemented in several systems. It also serves as the mental framework for understanding what our business is all about. Among other things, the taxonomy is used to define and describe our service lines.
Supplementary to the taxonomy, we have developed an internal standard for technical metadata to be used on any type of resources (artefacts); for example documents, records and systems. The metadata standard is built on the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI).he standard metadata makes it possible to integrate systems that might have been developed independently of other business systems and have their own terminology.
We have taken the core elements of the DCMI and added details specific to our business. This step has proven to be surprisingly easy as the DCMI operates with a set of core elements grouped into ‘content', ‘intellectual property' and ‘instantiation', as well as an additional ‘buffet' of refined elements. With reasonable adjustments to our most commonly used metadata, the standard has streamlined our language to information and knowledge to be shared.
Cowi has participated in the development a guideline for intellectual-capital statements for the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.2 During the project we developed our own intellectual-capital account (ICA) including an external statement with the annual report. Cowi has published intellectual-capital statements since 1998.
At a very early stage, we realised that an intellectual-capital account is pointless if it does not refer to management’s goals and purposes for working with knowledge. In other words, a knowledge-management programme is essential, and the ICA should be regarded as company’s monitoring tool for important knowledge.
After much initial discussion on the nature of knowledge – philosophical but unmarketable – we realised that knowledge itself is invisible and unmanageable. Knowledge cannot actually be seen. Knowledge becomes a factor, when you see its effects in terms of meaningful actions. Consequently, an ICA must include not only knowledge resources, but also knowledge processes and the effects of knowledge-based behaviour.
Only human beings or legal entities can be regarded as causes of action. In our business, we see three acting types of primary entities: customers, employees and the company itself. Based on these elements we have modelled what we call a knowledge cycle.
A three-by-three matrix is embedded in the cycle. Clients/market, organisation and staff are on one axis, and on the other are resources, processes and effects. We then took our value, vision and mission statements, and made a short language analysis, extracted keywords and phrases and constructed areas of focus covering all nine matrix fields. For instance in the staff/processes crossing, the areas staff recruitment and competence development were chosen. For each area we have constructed a set of indicators: measurements based on shares or numbers of relevant entities. The intellectual-capital statement comprises both the actual figures and an explanation stating intellectual budgets and goals for the next account period.
The ICA has internal and external aspects. The external is shown in the annual report, while the internal aspects are integrated in Cowi’s normal account procedures. We have developed an intellectual-capital report in our account system (SAP/R3) along with the conventional financial reporting procedures. In this way, we produce a financial and intellectual report each month for every department and business unit, including budget for the next period. Key figures from both the financial account and the ICA form the balanced scorecard by which performance against strategy
Our experiences are a mixture of success and disappointment. On the one hand, management does not use the ICAs as a day-to-day management tool as much as we had hoped. On the other hand, the ICAs have proved to be very useful as benchmarking tools across trade and business units. The exact numbers are less interesting than development over time. The ICA is here to stay but the honeymoon is over. We need to adjust the reporting, the expectations and some of the indicators themselves.
Intranet and project portal
The modern way of providing structure to explicit knowledge is through IT systems. We aim to make the intranet the cornerstone of explicit knowledge sharing. It has three important functions. It must:
- Be a dynamic communication tool between all employees, by, for example:
- Delivering news provided by employees;
- Covering social topics as well as business topics;
- Support project work through data, document sharing and process description. Examples include:
- Tools for staff search, project-reference management, project-management tools and a best practices database;
- A project portal for sharing project documents and calendars that are accessible to all project participants – including customers and partners – from the internet;
- Support management processes and administrative tasks by providing:
- Places for manuals, strategies and performance reports;
- Entries for book keeping tasks.
Dialogue is used as a conceptual phrase that covers collaboration, people-to-people relations, culture, values and networks. While systems are often based on artefacts and machines, dialogues are based on human beings. Most of our ability to execute complex competencies is based on the tacit knowledge held in human beings. The only known way to approach such knowledge is through dialogue. Within a dialogue, people exchange ideas, concepts and knowledge.
For a number of years, we have worked on the structure and tools for collaboration and dialogue. We have especially focused on:
- Quality and open communication;
- Project management and sparring;
- Professional networking.
Quality and open communication
A prerequisite for quality and customer satisfaction is open communication. To achieve progress on these parameters you need long steady initiatives. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. Cowi’s objective is to provide competent consulting services at a high level of expertise, thereby ensuring that value is added to the client’s organisation. We generate quality by complying with the following principles:
- Every employee has a role to play in generating quality;
- All employees must be fully aware of how they will add value to their external and internal clients;
- All employees must confide in their superior if they feel uncomfortable about performing a particular task;
- The line manager must make sure that employees understand and comply with the quality-management system;
- The project manager must ensure that the project complies with the quality-management system;
- All departments must seek, apply and exchange ‘best’ practices;
- All departments must set goals and actions to improve quality and develop competencies.
These quality principles are printed on every employee’s mouse pad.
In consultancy, as with most intellectual work, quality and knowledge are closely linked to each. Any employee is considered an individual consultant no matter what kind of customers he/she is working for. Consequently, all activities are organised in projects, some with external customers and others with internal customers. Transformed into knowledge slang you will find following principles:
- Openness as a starting point;
- Dialogue – close, mutually binding and unbiased;
- The balance between explicit and implicit knowledge;
- Development – preferably for clients in real-life projects;
- Clarity and quality for useful knowledge;
- Direct, customer oriented and honest communication;
- Participation in knowledge sharing and knowledge management for everybody;
- Visibility, visibility and visibility.
Project management and sparring
Project management is, of course, a cornerstone in Cowi’s business. The challenge is to protect the individual’s time and calendar in order to ’sharpen the saw' by learning from new tools and learning from colleagues experiences.
It is the responsibility of the company to ensure the necessary organisational framework for the project managers’ development of their competencies. With the involvement of the head of department, the individual project manager identifies his or her training needs. Together they plan the project manager’s competency development. Identification of the need for competency development is part of staff performance and development appraisal, which again is an element in the annual personal interview.
We have designed an internal project-management-training course consisting of a series of elements, including a project team members and two levels of project managers.
This is quite a challenge. On average, every employee is involved in 18-20 projects on an annual basis. Approximately 60 per cent of all employees are engaged as a project manager in one or more projects running in parallel. This business scenario makes it difficult to spend time on course schedules.
A set of the most important topics in project management has been integrated into the quality system to become part of day-to-day performance, for example always use a sparring partner and always validate, check and review activities of any project.
Knowledge-management activities around project management are focused on:
- Each employee being responsible for registering competencies and experience in his or her CV;
- The project manager ensuring that examples of good project results are registered as best practices;
- Implementing the experiences acquired by employees during the execution of a project on a regular basis.
To support the registration of good results as best practices, we have formed a set of
professional networks with members across the company. The networks' objective is to support professional work by facilitating professional dialogue; making professional competencies visible and delivering ‘best' practices on methods, solutions and projects.
Each network is headed by a discipline co-ordinator with authority to decide on
professional questions. Networks are appointed on disciplines such as concrete engineering, urban development, mechanical engineering, railway engineering, project management, rural roads, etc. The total number of networks is approximately 50.
In our experience you need to support general knowledge work by allocating
organisational and technical resources. Knowledge sharing does not happen by itself in a project organisation. A concept like ‘best practice' needs an organisational solution as well. Cross-organisational concepts such as professional networks constantly need inputs of energy, resources and attention to work otherwise they will gradually grind to a halt as participants have other priorities. Finally we have found that the systematic implementation of experience acquired during the execution of a project is more effective the more the discipline is codified and standardised. For example this is especially true in many engineering disciplines as opposed to context-based disciplines, such as social sciences or management execution.
Balancing systems and collaboration
Balancing our knowledge-management efforts between systems and dialogues is extremely important. The efforts should complement one another. Our experiences tell us that you cannot create systems without devoting serious work to the organisational culture and, on the flip side, you cannot do organisational work without supporting systems.
Employees are caught in the middle. On one hand, the contextual nature of complex knowledge implies that you only know what you need to know, when you need it. You consequently rely on dynamic collaboration with human beings. On the other hand, you are strongly dependent on systems for sharing knowledge over time and distance. Keeping that balance is the art of consultancy.
Niels-Jørgen Aagaard is knowledge manager at Cowi. He can be contacted at email@example.com