posted 1 Oct 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 2
Captured, not confined
Global organisations are beginning to assert their role within the knowledge economy, but employees are often reluctant or ill-equipped to share what they know. Sandra Higgison explains how Aon is using case studies to capture, share and re-use knowledge, and charts the development of a knowledge-conscious culture at the company.
Accustomed to my role as an outsider looking in on knowledge-management projects, the past few months have left me feeling akin to a teenager with an access-all-areas, backstage pass at the hottest gig in town. The analogy breaks down somewhat as I try to equate Aon’s KM department to a rock band, but it’s been an eye-opening few months to see how knowledge and information are captured, shared and re-used in the flesh. As a firm specialising in risk management, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, as well as human-resources and management consulting, Aon is proving itself as a leading knowledge-based organisation.
Aon has already contributed case studies on its taxonomy development and communities of practice to Knowledge Management, so I will focus on how we capture and share knowledge across the UK organisation by creating case studies, the challenges we face and our plans for the future.
Managing knowledge at Aon
Aon’s supportive and forward-thinking board members believe in the importance of knowledge management for the global success of the firm. However, like many of its peers in recent years, Aon has felt the pinch of an unforgiving economy and challenging insurance market. In addition, the firm is coming out of a period of internal change, which has involved organisational restructuring, the divestiture of various business units and preparation for regulatory control by the Financial Services Authority in January 2005. Operating against such a backdrop means that no initiative has the luxury of simply being ‘nice to have’. Just as every client-facing department must meet targets and demonstrate bottom-line impact, the KM team and its champions across Aon face equal pressure to deliver value.
The greatest challenge for anyone working in a KM role within insurance is the traditionalist nature of the industry. Not only is an insurance broker’s work based on personal contacts and relationship building, which can sit uncomfortably with KM goals that encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing, but the industry has also displayed a remarkable knack for resisting change. While the business world rapidly embraces the internet and electronic communication, a stroll around the Lloyd’s building in London transports you to a bygone age. As Dennis Mahoney, Aon’s CEO, said in a recent interview in The Daily Telegraph, “If I had any hair left, I would pull it out. You can walk around Lloyd’s and still see literally thousands of men and women walking around with huge armfuls of files. Why? It is crazy. I despair.” Even though Aon has made considerable headway with technology that enables brokers to create policies and transfer information online, there is still some way to go before a culture that has become engrained over hundreds of years fully embraces change.
At Aon, the objective of the KM programme is to ensure employees can easily find and use the company’s best knowledge and information to meet clients’ business needs. The KM team must therefore manage the company’s knowledge and information to ensure people can easily find the right documents, information and expertise.
The value of knowledge capture
Of the 52,000 people employed by Aon around the world, over 7,000 are in the UK. The organisation’s current structure is based on six main divisions. Within these there are over 30 business units with their own departments and specialist areas. It is therefore not surprising that one of the firm’s major challenges is ensuring that all parts of the organisation know what the others are doing. This is not unique to Aon, but it is an ongoing issue that requires changes to deep-set working practices, cultures and mindsets if people are to share their knowledge or look beyond their part of the business. Enhancing our internal communication and knowledge sharing creates a better-informed and more effective workforce that can successfully anticipate and meet our clients’ needs.
Aon’s knowledge-capture work aims to harness information that will be of value to others in a rich but concise format that maximises its re-usability. We know that client-facing staff do not have the time to document their experiences or, indeed, the writing skills to engage the rest of the organisation if they tried. The knowledge-capture team was formed to fill this void. By sharing and re-using Aon’s knowledge, we hope to:
- Increase the organisation’s, and its clients’, awareness of the solutions we offer;
- Allow people to learn from examples of expertise, good practice and brand behaviours in action;
- Reduce duplicated effort;
- Make best use of our intellectual capital;
- Help staff generate more client-focused proposals.
Julia Cotter joined Aon in October 2002 as knowledge-capture manager to pioneer this function. Information and know-how is now captured in case studies and online libraries of information about Aon solutions, and are shared via the Knowledge Exchange (KE) intranet, internal magazines and newsletters, and poster campaigns and videos that are displayed in reception areas.
The case-study database on the KE has grown steadily since the start of 2003 and currently features over 200 stories from across the organisation. Although not a revolutionary method of capturing and sharing knowledge, case studies are a powerful and flexible resource that is simple but effective. The main objective is to capture knowledge from front-line staff in formats that enable easy re-use of valuable information. Case studies give employees access to real-life examples of how Aon helps clients manage risk and wins business over the competition. Case studies also show how different divisions and offices around the world work together effectively, and highlight innovative internal processes and working practices that can be replicated elsewhere. They are written in a variety of styles and formats, and shared both electronically and in hard copy. Case studies are used within proposals to existing and potential clients, as sources of learning and benchmarking material, and as news stories published in internal and external media.
When writing case studies, we reflect the original participants’ voices as much as possible to describe the main learning points from a piece of work. We recognise that within most companies, case studies follow a rigid format that simply describes problem, solution and effect. They tend to be written in ‘corporate speak’, a language that fails to fully convey the participants’ experiences and lessons or engage the reader. We see little value in this approach. Our objective is to keep knowledge alive, which is why Aon employs two journalists, Alistair Dunsmuir and myself, to source, capture and create these stories.
Sourcing stories from around the organisation is one of the challenges we face. Like HR, corporate communications, and finance, knowledge management is a shared service at Aon. As a centralised function sitting across all divisions, the team has a great view of the organisation’s operations. This is an ideal position for collecting and sharing information with people at all levels and from all areas of the company. To identify potential case studies we:
- Keep abreast of the latest announcements about client wins and account retentions;
- Network with account directors, project managers, retention leaders, heads of global practice groups (Aon’s communities of practice), divisional managing directors – basically anybody directly involved with clients and account teams;
- Hold regular information-sharing meetings with the corporate and internal-communications teams;
- Attend senior-management meetings and workshops to find out who’s doing what. For example, at a recent leadership forum, delegates were asked to give examples of how their teams had recently collaborated successfully, listened to the client, leveraged Aon’s expertise or gone the extra mile. We then followed these up to produce full case studies;
- Are nosey. Akin to networking, we are constantly seeking potential stories when we meet or speak to people from across the organisation.
There are times, however, when, despite our most persistent efforts, people will resist sharing what it is that makes them shine. This is not uncommon if deals have been won but cover has yet to be placed with underwriters or if client confidentiality is paramount, which is often the case with Aon’s counter-terrorism, political-risk or credit-insurance teams. Making it public that a particular company has employees insured against kidnap and ransom, for example, would not be wise and may even void the policy. However, although it is becoming less of an issue, we often find ourselves having to educate people about the benefits of sharing their knowledge, what they will get out of it and why it is important. This is a challenge in an industry where an individual’s success is traditionally measured on their personal knowledge and contacts.
Since case studies have become more prominent on the KE and around Aon, more people have begun to value the kudos associated with having their work featured in this way. As deals are signed and successful projects wrapped up, it is becoming common practice for some team leaders to call us about their work. Hopefully this will continue so that, instead of dragging information and stories out of people, we can simply turn their experiences into explicit knowledge that others can easily share and learn from.
Once a potential case study has been identified, we interview the main people involved and, if possible, the client. These sessions are recorded and stored digitally. Although we don’t currently use these recordings, we have plans for them in the future. As with any interview, asking the right questions is crucial to capturing as much information about the interviewee’s work as possible. We often find that interviewees are modest about their role and the value they have added, or do not realise that other people will find their experiences useful. Probing questions and flattery can reveal some real information gems. Perhaps we should also invest in a couch for our interviews and promote the therapeutic benefits of our work, as some people seem to use these sessions as an opportunity to let off steam.
The real value of the case studies lies in the many formats we can create and the different ways they are used. All stories will initially appear as concise articles of no more than two pages. They are also crafted in a variety of styles to suit user needs. Project managers and account directors integrate ‘case bites’ into client proposals. These are shorter, punchier pieces of about 100 words that can be used in reports and presentations to demonstrate our capabilities within a potential or existing client’s industry. Case bites give us credibility by showing clients real-life examples of our work with their peers, which increases their confidence in our ability to deliver on proposed renewal rates and suggested captives or benefits. We recently began working on a new format of case study that is more prescriptive and follows the ‘problem, solution, effect’ model. Stripped of everything but the bare facts, these case studies are written within a template and are used by telesales teams to describe how Aon has solved particular risk-management and insurance issues.
Creating case studies is one thing; getting them published and used by people is another. Before they can be published they need to be approved by all the parties involved. Having experienced similar issues when commissioning and publishing articles for Knowledge Management, I didn’t anticipate any problems here, as many case studies are for internal use. However, the battle is getting the relevant people to spend five minutes reading through the articles and then making amendments.
We have a frustratingly large folder full of stories that have yet to be approved. The team is waiting for authorisation to distribute electric dog collars to every person we interview, only to be removed when case studies have been signed off. I can only assume the request has been caught up in red tape.
Once case studies have cleared these hurdles, they are published on the KE and in Aon’s internal magazines and newsletters. They also appear externally, with the client’s approval, in the relevant trade press. For example, a story on how Aon won a deal to provide BSkyB with insurance services has been converted into a case bite to appear in client proposals, used in two employee-focused publications, and published externally in insurance and broadcasting media.
All case studies are stored as PDFs on the KE. To help employees find stories relevant to their needs, they are searchable by client name, industry, business issue (such as pay and benefits, product recall, or fraud and error), the Aon business unit involved, region, and whether they are for internal or external consumption. The taxonomy behind this classification reflects that which is used throughout the organisation. Stories are published via our content-management system, which allows us to tag them with keywords so they turn up in relevant searches. The case-study database is audited every six months.
Paul Campbell, strategy-support analyst in Aon Risk Services, is an enthusiastic case-study user. He looks for relevant examples of Aon’s work as a matter of course to include in proposals as proof points. “Previously, proposals would go out with a list of projects, not even client names or with any further details, as credentials,” he says. Before the advent of our knowledge-capture initiatives, project teams had trouble collecting relevant information about Aon’s work within the timeframes they worked to. Today, with the KM team in place and an easily accessible repository of case studies at hand, they can be quickly pulled together and used as necessary. In a recent proposal to an international engineering contractor, Campbell used a number of case studies to increase the document’s interaction with the client. “They made a big difference by raising the brand and client’s perception of our ability to deliver,” he says. “Case studies can also be references for clients to follow up, once again increasing their confidence in our work.”
As we receive positive feedback on our knowledge-capture abilities, we also recognise that we have to come up with new ways to encourage people to read, learn from and re-use the experiences shared. The KM and internal-communications teams work together closely. One of our current projects, partly a spin off from our knowledge-capture work and illustrating yet another way we use case studies, is a multi-phased campaign highlighting information about Aon that most people are unaware of. We are creating a series of posters called ‘Did you know…’, based on facts the KM team has gathered from around the organisation. Examples include: every Bond film, from Dr No through to Die Another Day, has been insured through us; there’s a 66 per cent chance that the toast you had this morning was baked by a company insured through us; and up to 40¢ of every $1 spent on aviation reinsurance premiums pass through us.
The posters appear in Aon offices and reception areas. They have been a success as the facts stick in people’s minds, have become talking points and are incorporated into client proposals and marketing material. Subsequent phases of the poster campaign include photos of, and quotes from, well known clients telling us why they value our services, and photos of account teams that have performed exceptionally well. Slowly but surely, it is becoming harder for Aon employees to claim they don’t know what other divisions are doing. As Cotter says, one of her most satisfying moments was after Aon’s Top 100 forum, an event for the company’s 100 most senior managers, where the posters were displayed. “I kept hearing people discussing the ‘did you knows’ as I walked around the offices,” she says. Perhaps not surprisingly, the facts that relate most closely to people’s everyday lives, such as Aon’s involvement in your toast, petrol and plumbers, seemed to work best.
While we continue to gather stories from around the organisation, we have plans for increasing the reach case studies have across Aon to raise the number of people using them as part of their daily work. To make the case studies more prominent and usable, we will link an individual’s PeopleFinder profile – an online tool enabling employees to search for specific individuals, skills, expertise or departments – to stories they have been involved in and case studies will link back to the relevant people’s profiles. In addition, we hope to take a leaf from Amazon’s book by suggesting other case studies to users that are related to ones they access, and allowing people to rate how useful they find them.
Alongside our formal knowledge-capture work, the KM department itself is integral to the collection of Aon’s knowledge. As we meet people on a daily basis from every part of the business, at every level of seniority, the eight of us in the UK KM team have a huge amount of knowledge about the company’s operations, experts on any particular subject and the latest gossip. While we have made it as easy as possible for employees to search for relevant case studies on the KE and flag their specialist skills and areas of expertise on PeopleFinder, some employees prefer to ring us directly to help them find what they’re looking for. We don’t plan to stop or discourage this. If relevant case studies don’t exist, employees often call us or drop by our office as they know we can source and write them on demand. Consequently, these are the people who often later come to us when they have ideas for future stories.
In addition, we often find ourselves telling people about similar projects underway in other divisions that they had no idea about or sharing information from other departments that could be relevant. The KM team also keeps an eye on Aon’s discussion area on Lotus Notes. The forum allows people to post questions about where they can find sector knowledge or research, make enquiries about experts or ask specific questions about issues they’re currently working on. We answer any queries we can by pointing people to resources on the KE or suggesting who they should speak to. Regardless of how we use technology to disseminate knowledge, for some people there is no substitute for a quick chat with the person they know can help.
Now that Aon’s knowledge-capture foundations are in place, we can focus on enhancing and improving these initiatives. One idea in the pipeline is to leverage the information we capture within the case-study interviews. As we record our conversations with people, we hope to select and use soundbites that can be streamed on the KE alongside the written case studies. Aon is an organisation that values personal contacts and relationships. Although we have accomplished the important first step of capturing knowledge in written formats, we know that oral delivery would add yet more richness by reflecting the culture of the organisation and insurance industry as a whole. We also hope to broadcast a weekly audio stream via the KE on our latest client wins and success stories. We envisage inviting different business leaders to speak to the company about their work and the latest market trends. Such a broadcast would replicate the success of a fortnightly conference call held by Aon Risk Services in the US.
The team also hopes to start a series of story circles to capture yet more of Aon’s knowledge, where whole teams get together to discuss their experiences. This would allow us to capture richer information and spread information about big deals and innovative working practices around the company as people bounce stories off one another. Story circles will be harder to manage than one-to-one interviews and will require greater facilitation, but the end result will be incredibly valuable. With considerable time demands already made on our client-facing staff, we anticipate a real challenge in getting a whole team together in one place at one time. We hope that the lure of a free lunch will get around this. Calling these sessions ‘story circles’ may also be an issue, as it may be too fluffy a term for our city brokers and high-flying consultants.
Capturing information and knowledge to make it accessible to the whole organisation is only half the battle. We are focused on gently reshaping a silo-focused culture that is traditionally known to resist changes to working practices. We hope that in the not too distant future, all Aon employees will actively share knowledge across divisions, take time to learn from other departments and use Aon’s full quota of strengths and experiences to improve their service to clients.
Sandra Higgison, case study author, Aon, email@example.com