posted 5 Sep 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 1
Putting people first
In order to be effective, any knowledge management initiative must take into account the central importance of people and their knowledge to the future success of the organisation. Tony Sheehan describes how Arup put ‘people-centric KM’ at the heart of its efforts to create Arup People, a firm-wide application that has already proven its value many times over.
Today’s business environment demands results faster than ever. Decisions must be made rapidly through electronic communication, placing considerable pressure on the individual. In the construction sector, engineers, architects and contractors must be constantly aware of past experience, yet must also seek to incorporate an ever-growing pool of new ideas in order to innovate faster than the competition. Failure is not an option. Global competition ensures there are few second chances – it is an age of ‘right first time’ or ‘never again’.
In the face of such challenges, knowledge management promises much to organisations seeking to be as effective as possible. Unfortunately, the potential benefits of knowledge management are not always realised – the knowledge management field remains ill-defined and often misused by consultants and technology salesmen alike.
Much of the confusion relates to an obsession with the capture of explicit knowledge rather than a desire to mobilise tacit knowledge. Godin has highlighted that, in times of change, we can no longer think of our companies as machines, with fixed targets and optimised processes. Instead, we must recognise that our firms are ‘living, breathing, changing organisms’, constantly changing and optimising themselves in the face of a changing business environment. In parallel, our skills databases can no longer be static, historic repositories – they must become living collections of signposts to people, their expertise and their interests in order to create opportunities for improved business performance.
In today’s organisation, therefore, effective knowledge management requires us not to focus excessively on process-centric knowledge management, rather to recognise the key role of people and their knowledge to current and future performance of the organisation. We at Arup call this ‘people-centric knowledge management’. In seeking to achieve people-centric knowledge management, Arup has developed Arup People, a firm-wide tool to assist in the freeing up of our tacit knowledge. Arup is a global design consultancy with 7,000 staff active in over 70 countries, famous for projects as diverse as the Sydney Opera House to London’s Millennium Bridge. We differentiate on the innovation and creativity of our people, which demands us to be aware of what we know in as much detail as possible. The aim of this article is to reflect on the development, applicability and benefits of Arup People to our firm.
The evolution of Arup People
Arup’s approach to recognising people, their interests and skills, has gradually evolved over the years as the firm expanded in terms of numbers and global reach. When the firm was small, experts were ‘known’ due to personal networks (still a powerful mechanism for many). As the firm grew, a collection of ‘recognised’ experts was written up into a paper-based ‘yellow pages’ that, with further expansion, was simply transferred to the intranet.
The need for a fresh approach was highlighted when it became clear that:
- Current Arup networks were little use to those new to the firm;
- Existing tools were inappropriate;
- Content was all too often out of date.
The new approach recognised that the only person capable of maintaining a current list of skills was the individual. It also sought to combine structured data collection (to facilitate retrieval) with free text (to allow the broad expertise of the firm to be revealed and to facilitate emergence of new skills areas). We quickly realised that, given the pace of change, there is no longer a definitive list of Arup skills – it changes daily, and any new approach must reflect this.
An evaluation of knowledge management products in this space revealed a widespread misunderstanding of the concept of tacit knowledge, and no product that could fully match our needs. Arup, therefore, decided to create its own solution and initiated a project to match its needs.
The primary objective of Arup People was to produce a simple web template, giving every member of staff a personal intranet home page where they are free to declare their skills and interests, maintain a list of their regular internal contacts and upload web links and documents. To deliver innovation effectively requires us to bring the knowledge of the right person to bear at the right place at the right time. The personal page is, therefore, both for personal reference and to share with others. All of this information may then be browsed or searched within the applications web interface.
The page consists of four key areas:
- Contact details – address, telephone, e-mail etc;
- About me – containing everything from broad expertise to interests and social pursuits;
- References – a quick and easy way to share documents (such as CVs) with the rest of the firm;
- Contacts – helping us to map networks and discover experts;
Arup People provides a template for personal home pages, which, when aggregated, forms an Arup-wide profile.
It includes volunteered (‘what I’m good at’, ‘what I’m interested in’) as well as validated content (‘what I officially do’), but is careful to differentiate ‘validated’ and ‘volunteered’ content when searching. Upkeep of pages is addressed by assigning each page with an expiry date, after which the page is returned to the owner to check currency.
Previous paper knowledge directories within Arup had been centrally controlled and edited. This resulted in content unintentionally becoming a single person’s (or several people’s) opinion of who knew what, which also tended to have a bias towards that person’s geographic location and experience.
The initial electronic version matched this paper philosophy but was revised to enable the individual to volunteer content, in effect giving every member of staff an entry in the directory. Location, length of service and personal contact network are now removed as barriers to becoming both recognised as a valid contact and finding the right person to talk to. The tool allows quick and easy access to all of the firm’s knowledge, and allows quick and easy visualisation of our global skills base.
Realising the benefits
One of the commonly quoted weaknesses of this type of tool is that people fail to fill them in. Various ‘soft’ techniques were successfully employed to overcome this concern, ranging from competitions to build inter-office enthusiasm, prizes for the best pages and encouragement to key senior staff to lead by example.
It has been suggested by some that formalised ‘skills audits’ are required to validate skills. Arup People has highlighted that trust in staff negates the need for this formalised approach – a slight reality check at appraisal was all that was required to ensure completion and to minimise the chances of unrealistic claims of expertise. This may not be true for all organisations, however; each firm will have to find their optimal position on the validated versus volunteered spectrum.
Many benefits could be claimed of Arup People. Some are intangible – improved social networking has been one benefit that, although hard to justify in commercial terms, has significantly improved motivation and job satisfaction. Other benefits impact directly on business performance – effective mapping of our skills has enabled us to identify common interests throughout the firm, bring people together and even to successfully ‘seed’ growth of new communities of practice. Monitoring the effectiveness of these areas over time has also allowed us to assess the feasibility of new business areas and prioritise investment.
One simple example, however, justified the project. One of our people in Hong Kong received a call from a client seeking specialist advice for a project in New York. While on the phone, he used Arup People to identify the single best person to match the client’s needs, and was able to forward a CV that had been ‘volunteered’ by the individual concerned. The client recognised our capabilities and awarded us a major contract on the spot – a contract awarded whilst the individual in New York was asleep.
The tool has really started to mobilise and exploit our global tacit knowledge, creating a considerable return within months of roll-out.
As we look to the future, Peter Drucker has recently suggested that:
- Knowledge will be a critical resource;
- Knowledge will transfer more effortlessly than money through the internet;
- The knowledge society will be incredibly competitive;
- IT will allow knowledge to spread near instantly.
In the face of these changes, some knowledge management practices will become a given, embedded in organisational practice rather than regarded as a new field. The early signs of this trend are already in place, with knowledge management standards available in the UK and Australia, and the subject of discussion in the US and through ISO.
Other aspects of knowledge management, particularly in relation to mobilising tacit knowledge will, however, be differentiators in the marketplace. Those firms able to exploit the future generation of knowledge tools to free the full capabilities of employees will be well positioned for success.
Achieving successful knowledge management in practice is, of course, as much about the willingness of people to use technology as much as the quality of the tool itself. An appropriate culture is also key. While it is possible to ‘force’ people into completing knowledge profiles or to push content to them, this approach is far from sustainable. In practice, the future success of any knowledge management system relies on creation of a ‘culture of critical enquiry’. Individuals must seek knowledge and must perceive a benefit for themselves as well as to the organisation if successful knowledge management is to be achieved. Creation, and indeed maintenance of such a culture is far from easy, but is essential to the success of any knowledge management effort.
Tony Sheehan is group knowledge manager at Arup. He can be contacted at: tony.Sheehan@arup.com