posted 19 Jan 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 5
Banking on collaboration
In a bid to encourage knowledge sharing in the legal department, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development developed an online tool to collect and disseminate legal information.
By Paul Byfield, legal information specialist, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
Knowledge management (KM) can be a difficult concept to implement at the best of times. It depends on a combination of people, culture, management, budgets, technology and, most important of all, the willingness of teams and individuals to share their knowledge. If you can overcome all of these challenges, then implementing a KM project is easy…
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is an international financial institution of more than 1,200 staff based in the City of London and 32 offices in 27 countries across Central and Eastern Europe and into Central Asia. It was established in May 1990 with a mandate to “… help build market economies and democracies” in those countries.
The bank’s shareholders are the 60 member countries, which are not limited to Europe – the US, Japan and Canada are major shareholders as well. The staff profile is also unique, with employees drawn from different member countries. This makes for a very culturally diverse organisation that is rich in both knowledge and expertise.
The Office of the General Counsel (OGC) at the EBRD is the bank’s in-house legal department. It has the unenviable task of ensuring that the bank minimises its legal risks when making institutional or commercial decisions. This means that the lawyers – 55 in total – have to have full access to legal information in all 27 countries in which the EBRD operates; this is a huge task that cannot be undertaken without significant effort.
When I joined in 2000 it was obvious that the department, while keen to improve its KM infrastructure and processes, did not have all the necessary resources in place to capture the immense amount of knowledge retained by staff. The department already had a well-used system to manage its in-house documents and forms relating to the administration of operations, but it did not have a comprehensive system to share legal knowledge on different countries.
Nevertheless, these shortcomings were well-understood by senior managers in the department and the knowledge team therefore enjoyed genuine high-level support from the start. This made a real difference. Senior management was involved in shaping the early stages of our strategy, supporting technology implementations and providing feedback on demonstrations. We were also able to get advice from them with regard to internal processes and procedures.
This was valuable as the KM strategy that emerged was multi-faceted, involving consultation with staff, software procurement and, ultimately, the implementation of collaboration software to help various staff at the bank to share their knowledge more efficiently.
However, the high-level support we enjoyed did not necessarily make the KM implementation easy, given the comparative scale and complexity of the task. Lawyers tended to focus on their respective operational work and, while they were keen to improve their own country knowledge and KM environment, they did not feel that they had a lot of time to devote to departmental knowledge-sharing efforts.
This is a common KM problem. Obviously an important factor in the strategy was to convince them that KM was directly relevant to them and beneficial to their everyday work. Another key driver was the management’s enthusiasm for publicising and marketing the department’s legal knowledge to the rest of the bank and, ultimately, to an external audience.
The department already had some internal tools that we could use to publicise its new commitment to knowledge sharing and also to encourage the lawyers to play a greater role in shaping the outcome of the overall project. Each lawyer working on banking operations also has responsibility for one of the bank’s countries of operations; this means, among other things, that they are responsible for maintaining a ‘digest’ of specific country law information.
These are fairly lengthy documents that provide a detailed overview of the legal environment in each country the EBRD operates. These documents are primarily used within the OGC to provide lawyers with answers to specific questions when working on banking operations.
However, at that time the staff in most other departments within the bank (for example, bankers, economists and environmental specialists) were largely unaware of the existence of these documents.
We thought that we would therefore start by putting them online and promoting them; it would be an ideal way to also publicise and promote the merits of KM in the organisation, without requiring a major up-front investment. The digests could also be used as an initial point of reference for the non-lawyers who wanted to check the legal background of a particular subject – for example, the rights of company shareholders in Albania. The user would, therefore, be able to read the relevant section of the digest before consulting the lawyer for a more detailed analysis of the legal status and how it should be applied to the specific project.
The documents were added to the bank’s intranet (with the necessary caveats, of course) giving the department an almost immediate, but informative and authoritative, presence on the bank’s intranet – a quick and easy win for the KM team and one that clearly demonstrated to all the positive role that KM could play.
This was a relatively straightforward process because we already had a finished product to work with; we did not have any incumbent technical or budgetary difficulties to overcome – the intranet, ably managed by the bank’s web team, is a mature and well used product with a good level of coordination and maintenance. The bigger challenges came later on when we considered developing and implementing a system to enhance departmental knowledge sharing.
The lawyers in the department work on a large number of deals throughout the year and have to be fully aware of the legal requirements of all 27 countries of operations; the banking operations lawyers are not specialists. That is to say, they do not solely work on projects in a given sector or country, but are given a wide portfolio of projects, so there is a lot of information that they need to absorb and use.
One of the main concerns considering this breadth of work is to ensure that lawyers do not have to ‘re-invent the wheel’ and learn and re-learn information that might already be available – in one form or another – elsewhere in the organisation.
This was the crux of the department’s wider KM initiative. Advice given by a lawyer, the information used and decisions made should be recorded and made quickly and easily available for use again by other lawyers. This process should be automatic (not necessarily in the technical sense) and, indeed, has since been shown to greatly enhance lawyers’ efficiency and improve the accuracy of their work.
After our early success with the country law digests, we realised that we had to formulate a comprehensive strategy (the ‘KM action plan’) to maintain momentum and embed KM more deeply within the department. This 16-point plan listed key tasks that needed to be implemented, the majority of which are ongoing initiatives. This meant that we had to define certain tasks and key messages, which would hopefully help encourage further support for our work, too. The messages had to set out tasks that could provide real benefit to the lawyers in their project and country-law work in order to gain their approval and support – without that, the initiative would fail.
The main elements of the KM action plan included:
A review of current information resources;
An analysis of the different types of requests made by lawyers to establish what sources are needed;
Establishment of desktop access to core online-information products for lawyers;
The implementation of procedures to enhance collaboration with other information units in the bank.
In the past, KM has been considered by many non-practitioners – and software vendors – as a largely technology-based initiative requiring the investment of vast amounts of money to be successful. This belief was obviously very popular with IT directors, who normally took control of such projects, but our experience suggests otherwise. As previously stated, “KM depends on a combination of people, culture, management, budgets, technology and most important the willingness of teams and individuals to share their knowledge”. It is the people who are the key drivers in any knowledge-sharing exercise.
So, we started by interviewing all the lawyers as part of our KM action plan. This was not established as an isolated exercise, but has been carried out on an annual basis in a bid to gain their regular feedback and, ultimately, their ongoing support.
The lawyers were interviewed so that we could understand exactly how they work and what they needed in order to help them work most efficiently. We used this feedback to write a report to management with our findings and as the basis for the technical centrepiece of our strategy – the design, implementation and content of a knowledge-sharing database, called OGCNet. This, we hoped, would act as the catalyst for further analysis and discussion for KM in the department and organisation.
As part of this initiative, we also needed to source the correct software to enhance the department’s KM capabilities. This was driven by the need to look at a wide variety of systems (including existing in-house databases). The parameters were fairly narrow as we were restricted by budgetary constraints. However, after a fairly lengthy selection process, we tested and selected Lotus QuickPlace, IBM’s collaboration tool, because we felt it fitted all of the criteria below:
A browser-based service;
A system that could be set up without any IT support;
Access via either the local area network (LAN), or over the internet with a username and password;
The ability for all documents on the system to be added to the database in full text or as attachments with an abstract for searching purposes;
The ability to create one central or main QuickPlace database, augmented by several (as many as required) ‘collaboration work spaces’;
Easy access at any time for users to the main QuickPlace database and as many ‘work spaces’ as necessary (subject to security permissions, of course).
A small pilot group was established to participate in a two-month trial. This group included some less confident IT users so that we could test the system’s user friendliness. The success of this trial, along with collaboration with other groups outside of the department who were also considering the implementation of knowledge-sharing tools, helped us to make a firm decision.
Once we had decided what software we were going to use, it took us a further six months to design and populate the database with a sufficient range of documents and data before we were able to market the service to users within the bank, and to start conducting training sessions. The database was named OGCNet, simply because we wanted something short and easy to remember.
The interviews with, and feedback from, the lawyers directly influenced the design of the system. What they wanted was something simple and easy to use – nothing too flash. This feedback enabled us to implement the basic design with confidence and relative ease. Lotus QuickPlace itself is relatively straightforward to implement, too, although implementing the individual user needs and, in particular, taking care of security, took a little longer.
Naturally, OGCNet is browser-based for ease of use and management, with an underlying architecture that was kept as simple as possible. The simplicity of the system proved to be a popular aspect of it as the lawyers wanted to be able to find and retrieve the relevant information as quickly as possible.
This is the basic structure of OGCNet:
Link to 27 countries of operations (then subdivided into five or six further types of information):
- Country-law website reference table;
- Newsletters and other publications;
- OGC sources of information;
- EBRD/ non OGC sources of information;
- International treaties signed.
Other countries (for example, the UK, the US);
Subjects of interest to the lawyers:
- EU accession;
- International law;
- Money laundering;
Regional and general newsletters.
The nature of the lawyers’ work was reflected in the design of the database; as stated, the lawyers provide legal support relating to banking operations in the bank’s 27 countries of operation. A section of the database was therefore dedicated to the storage of information for each country. This was further populated with pages representing specific types of information that the lawyers use on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis. The database was also subdivided into subject types, such as arbitration or European Union accession rules.
A vital knowledge-sharing component of the software is that it enables the user (with editor or manager level access) to notify a specific user or groups of users when they have updated the database with information. This aspect of the database encourages greater collaboration between the lawyers, the other project specialists and the KM team. It also enables the database to be used as a current awareness tool as well as a repository of up to date information.
The database was finally launched to the whole department in June 2003 by the general counsel of the EBRD, ensuring a high-visibility launch that generated interest not just throughout the department, but across the whole organisation.
To maximise feedback we used classroom-based training with groups of up to six staff members at each session. Each user had access to a PC and were able to follow on-screen training relating to access, navigation, searching, adding new information and notification procedures. By inviting feedback at the same time, we gleaned several suggestions from the lawyers about how we could improve OGCNet. The whole idea of training, in our view, is not just to ‘indoctrinate’ the user but to gain feedback on how we can improve the system's design. Training in small groups was also a deliberate policy as people are often keener to ask questions and offer suggestions and criticism while working in small groups. We found this feedback invaluable.
As OGCNet is browser-based, we are also able to monitor usage using a tool that allows us to conduct statistical analysis of what users have been accessing – and what they have not. In 2005 I was able to use this data to identify users who had not been using the database on a regular basis; this was due to a few reasons, either a lack of confidence when using IT systems or because they preferred to work in other more traditional ways.
As with most IT implementations, there was a flurry of use straight after the launch, followed by a noticeable dip after this initial phase. We wanted to try and minimise this by arranging further refresher training, again in small groups to encourage optimum feedback.
OGCNet is now a firmly established knowledge-sharing tool, both within the department and by a number of regular users in the rest of the bank. This wider use was the result of further marketing and training to users outside of the department for the purposes of expanding its scope, content and relevance. The usage statistics for 2005 demonstrate that the bank-wide marketing of OGCNet was a success – there were 394 visitors to the database, 191 of those visited more than once with an average of 5.5 visits per user.
The project in its most tangible form (the construction and marketing of the database) has now been concluded, but there remains an ongoing KM initiative within the department. This is crucial to the department and should be important to any KM professionals working in complex international environments.
After OGCNet, we started working on a revision to the 27 country-law assessments (CLAs). These documents are concise country-based assessments of the bank’s five focus areas relating to legal reform (capital markets and corporate governance, concessions, insolvency, secured transactions, and telecommunications). This is an ongoing collaborative exercise involving several units and culminating in the publication of the CLAs on the bank’s website.
From the start of the KM project, we had to overcome some challenges, but very few of these were technical issues. The main challenges related to encouraging interest and maintaining enthusiasm for the project during implementation, training and the initial period of use. Implementing a KM project is never easy, but when faced with difficulties, the KM professional has to use the resources at his disposal to ensure that focus on the project is maintained and enthusiasm is not wasted. It is never a purely technical exercise and concentrating on the needs of individuals or groups of people who can have the most impact and input is an important and vital component of the task.
Paul Byfield is a legal information specialist at the European bank for Reconstruction and Development. He can be contacted at byfieldP@ebrd.com.