posted 18 Jan 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 5
KBR Production Services, headquartered in
Generally referred to as ‘brown field’ work, KBR Production Services supplies engineering, project management and personnel to its clients for modifications, upgrades and maintenance of onshore and offshore plants all over the world, throughout the lifecycle of the plant or installation.
The oil and gas support industry is intensely competitive. It has changed significantly in recent years in two important areas. First, the industry reward mechanisms have changed from being based on ‘man-hours sold’ to being more directly linked to the volume of oil and gas produced and to plant availability. That has changed the risk/reward relationship and, in turn, fostered an incentive for KBR Production Services to ensure work is not repeated, as well as to provide engineering solutions and support services more rapidly than before.
The other significant change is that operating companies are now developing much smaller fields than they did just ten years ago. Therefore, the overall duration of projects has shortened, exacerbated by a desire to avoid shutting off production during major upgrade and maintenance periods.
To remain competitive we need to re-use or adapt prior solutions, as well as reducing the time it takes to execute these solutions. This approach also dovetails with a parallel drive to adopt a measure of standardising the way our engineering is executed. The engineering programme, called ‘Lean Engineering’, is complementary to the collaborative working the knowledge management (KM) programme has brought to the organisation and is driven by the same changes in the business environment.
Key project drivers
Some sectors of the industry have reacted defensively to these changes in the operating environment. But KBR Production Services’ management decided to treat them as a business opportunity.
Our vision was to become smarter at transferring know-how across the organisation, particularly as we expand on a global scale to maximise the use of our intellectual capital for the benefit of our clients. The anticipated outcomes included changing the work and behavioural patterns of our staff and, of course, employing suitable techniques and technology to realise this vision and gain a competitive advantage.
Our organisational ethos on business performance is closely linked to a ‘line of sight’ concept, where each employee is in a position to see where his or her present work aligns with the overall aims of the company.
This vision is clearly articulated by senior management and strenuous efforts are made to align all activity to support it. KBR Production Services’ personnel evaluation system is, in turn, linked to achievement of strategic goals aligned to this vision. It was quite a straightforward matter, therefore, for personnel to include aligned activities related to the KM programme in their own, personal goals.
Development of the overall strategy
This combination of factors helped us to formulate our KM strategy. However, we also needed to take account of the developed-world’s problem of an aging workforce, which is a major challenge for us, and to retain the mainly tacit knowledge in the heads of our people - their ‘know-how’.
To address this problem, which is sometimes called the ‘big crew change’, we have for the past five years recruited about 40 new graduates annually – about four times our previous intake rate. But we still needed a system to ensure that the knowledge of retirees, for example, built-up during a life time of working in the industry is not lost entirely when they leave.
Furthermore, we also needed to ensure that personnel based overseas had access to all the knowledge tools they need from wherever they are. Frequently that will be in client offices and on client systems. This reflects a further change in the business environment in recent years, in that host governments overseas no longer permit us to send large numbers of ex-pats to work on their oil and gas fields.
Therefore, any team sent from
We also recognised that to introduce, and more importantly, to embed KM within the organisation would depend in large measure upon connecting people seeking solutions with those who originally developed them. This formed the basis of our initial strategy.
‘People-to-people’ is about helping staff to find and talk with other people in the organisation who share a common interest. We developed a software application called ‘SkillFinder’ to help users find others with similar interests or particular skill sets. This application, also available via the web portal, goes beyond the conventional Yellow Pages directory as each employee controls their own SkillFinder profile, rather than having their entry written for them by human resources (HR) or their department manager.
‘People-to-Solutions’ is a related system that can help staff find information about prior work within context, which can be applied to solve a current problem. In other words, it is about helping staff to dig out and use an existing solution or method, if one exists, instead of spending time and trouble re-inventing one.
This connection is important because getting the prior work in context will speed up re-use. People-to-Solutions can be used in connection with SkillFinder to confirm the credibility of those involved in the prior work. This helps to increase the trust levels between staff who may not have worked together before. Indeed, it can help put the two together and overcome the widespread ‘not invented here’ syndrome, which seems to afflict so many organisations.
The implementation of this technology was designed to help us move on from the process of simply relying upon the memory of someone involved, or of somebody remembering who was involved, especially given the rate of staff turnover in this industry. The problem of staff turnover is increasingly being compounded by demographic changes as older, highly experienced staff retire to give way to younger staff with a much shorter ‘corporate memory’.
SkillFinder also helps to more quickly ‘plug-in’ new staff to our system because it enables them to make the whole company aware of their talents from day one – and for them to become instantly aware of people who can help in their everyday work, too. In the past, ‘the organisation’ would not have been aware of many of its skills until new staff had worked at the company for some time. In effect, we did not know how much we already knew!
Objectives and plans
Having developed the outline strategy, we built-up more detailed objectives and plans to help us implement our KM strategy.
Two principal facets of the implementation were to engage the company’s people more closely and to establish strategic communities of practice (CoPs). The supporting technology (collaborative portal software from software supplier Plumtree, now owned by BEA Systems) was already in use within KBR Production Services for a highly specialised aspect of operational support, and was therefore readily available for use in the KM programme.
What we needed to do next was to recruit and train an army of ‘community champions’ or moderators as part of an engagement plan among the organisation’s staff. One of the early objectives, apart from setting up Communities of Practice and the appropriate governance system, was to start a series of ‘rollout’ sessions for all personnel.
The role of the CoP champion
The champion’s role is partly as a facilitator and partly to keep order. In the former, the role involves encouraging participation, promoting debate, recruiting and welcoming new members and, in the latter function, reviewing the ebb and flow of debate and managing links within the wider community.
The champion will also instigate occasional meetings of the CoP, possibly using Microsoft NetMeeting or video link conference calls, and using a facilitator if appropriate. Great care therefore needs to be taken to select and train the right person for the role of CoP champion.
The success of a CoP is heavily dependent upon the choice of individual; it is better to get a good ‘people’ person rather than the subject matter expert if he/she is poor at inter-personal relationships, for example.
Another lesson we learned was not to leave the CoP to a project administrator. It can be very easy to look to an administrator to run the CoP, but while useful in terms of carrying out the associated administrative tasks within the CoP, it can also lead to the watering down of the more technical CoPs.
In KBR Production Services we have several CoPs with multiple champions, each taking a distinct part of the role. That approach, we found gets the best results.
Introducing the programme to the organisation at large also required a well-considered strategy.
Rather than adopt the traditional approach of simply cascading information about the KM programme from the top downwards, we instead recognised that middle management, particularly in the relatively flat structure of an organisation such ours, is strongly focussed upon the daily operational issues of delivering service to our clients.
This meant that middle management would not be in a position to divert their time to detailed implementation of the changes in work methods. Therefore, we directly targeted the bulk of users with detailed inductions and ensured that middle management learned enough of the techniques in sufficient detail to help them manage these changes.
Engaging personnel in the organisation
The principal method was the well tried ‘roll out’ session - where people attended induction sessions, which included demonstrations of the supporting technology. For those based outside the
From the very start of the programme, we adopted and adapted good practice from other organisations. We drew from case studies of other organisations, principally in industrial sectors, such as Halliburton, Ford, BP, DaimlerChrysler and Siemens, as well as the US Army.
We set up communities of practice hosted on the portal technology to help link up people with common interests. As it happens, CoPs are not a new concept in KBR Production Services; it’s just that they were not called that. However, they tended to be somewhat ‘silo’ like, in the same geographical location and therefore no longer adequate for the future of KBR Production Services’ global expansion.
We identified three distinct types that we considered strategically important to KBR Production Services:
• Single discipline CoPs were a good place to start the KM programme, because there were already communities, albeit simply called ‘discipline groups’;
• Multi-discipline activity-based CoPs are a development of the concept. They involve a variety of skill sets, that require integration. For example, there are perhaps ten ‘step-out retro-fit risers’ to be engineered and executed in KBR Production Services over any typical two year period in Aberdeen-based project assignments alone. It makes sense for those involved to discuss and ‘trade’ various methods and good practices. This also raises inter-personal trust levels – doubly important in an expanding organisation;
• Project assignments have a very different role in that their CoP also needs to meet the needs of internal ‘visitors’ as well as the regular project team users.
Global expansion presents further challenges for the KM programme, yet also offers great opportunity because that’s where a high proportion of our future workload lies. There is also a desire to include people in overseas locations so that we can learn from them too (and vice versa, of course).
Performance standards within all the CoPs are maintained with regular ‘health checks’, determined by the stage of maturity of the CoP. Generally, these are more frequent at start-up than after they have become well established.
Along the way we encountered early adopters, the unsure and those who resist any form of change. It was particularly interesting that our graduate groups took to the new concepts relatively easily. Several of them are using the techniques developed for a typical strategic CoP for collaborating on some of the team challenges we set them as part of their early professional training and development.
We believe the most challenging part of embedding KM techniques in the organisation is simply persuading people to change their work habits. Like any change, there are barriers and among the most significant of these are the cultural, logistical and technical barriers. We have tried to address all of these, using some of the techniques described here. The KM programme will continue, because like any change management activity, it can take time for working habits to change.
We believe that successful KM is ’20 per cent smart technology; 80 per cent people behaviour’, and that within our organisation there is still work to be done to gain the full benefits of working more collaboratively. We look forward to reaping these benefits, to provide a superior collaborative service on a global scale.
Alan Thompson is knowledge manager at KBR Production Services. He can be contacted at: Alan.Thompson@halliburton.com
The old and the new
For the purpose of illustration, assume this is a group of 22 professional engineers in
They start to send e-mails (copying in everybody in the group, of course, and forwarding to sub-groups, too) about the issue to each other. That continues until it is time to consolidate the views and respond to the original inquirer. The co-ordinator distils the various views and responds on behalf of the group, copying in all members, and the job is done.
Life settles back to normal. EXCEPT...
The person on leave returns, keen to get back and add value to the organisation, and opens his e-mail inbox. Bear in mind he can now add no value to the discussion, which by the time he is back in his office has been concluded. But, nevertheless, there is the whole e-mail trail for him to catch up. Of the 22 people in the group, roughly half have contributed to the resolution, on average 1.5 times. That means he gets:
· The original information;
· 21 x 0.5 x 1.5 = say, 15 e-mails;
· The final outcome; and, probably
· A reminder from the electronic mail manager that his inbox is full and will be locked unless he deletes or archives some of the messages.
Yet – that is how we used to do business.
By employing collaborative techniques, we now conduct our business better.
As an alternative, one of them instead posts the request for a consensus view into the relevant community of practice (CoP) and alerts all members of the group that it’s there, and that they are expected to contribute to the discussion if they can.
The discussions are in an open area (generally) and so anybody can watch it develop. So – if one of the group members thinks it a good idea to include somebody else, all that is needed is to point that person to the CoP, rather than forward an ever lengthening trail of e-mail messages.
Furthermore, others just idly browsing may also add value to the discussion. For example, a project engineer might post a remark like, “I remember we had that question crop up when I worked on the Canadian project. I’ve invited Joe, who was the discipline engineer there at that time to comment – he’s in
As a result, the discussion is further enriched by this form of informal ‘knowledge brokering’. In addition, the trail in the form of a ‘threaded discussion’ resides in the CoP, rather than on 22 shared computer drives.
In essence, the difference is that the old work methods depended upon e-mail, which is a ‘push’ technology – other people push e-mail at you whether you want it or not and at a time that suits them. The collaborative way is a “pull” technology. You are a discipline engineer; therefore you visit the CoP to see what’s going on.
It is important not to miss the central point here.
Collaboration is not just about saving people from tidal waves of e-mail. For the old method only involved the 22 people in the group in
In moving to collaborative methods, we can now draw upon more resources, more easily, irrespective of time zones. With a collaborative approach, everybody can contribute positively, even those that the instigators are not initially aware of. It is not just about tidying up e-mail; rather, it is about the difference between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ technology.
The ‘push’ technology of e-mail can result in a form of electronic tyranny. The objective for the professional engineer under such tidal waves of e-mail can become distorted from the need to provide a thoughtful, measured and professional response to simply getting the e-mail out of the inbox at almost any price. Frequently he or she will be tempted to do so at the unacceptable price of giving a lower quality response.
Using the new ways of working, including collaborative portal technology, can help free users from e-mail tyranny. Unsurprisingly, with every freedom there is an associated responsibility. It is the responsibility of users to select what they need to see, and ‘pull’ the information needed from a single source. The techniques and technology ensure the users see only the latest information, which should increase the quality of response.