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posted 29 Feb 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 6

Why KM’s work is never done

When the knowledge-management team at Ernst & Young began its journey in 1996, it envisaged working itself out of a job within five to ten years once it had inculcated a knowledge-sharing culture within the firm. Eight years later, Tina Mason explains why this may never happen.

Building a knowledge-sharing culture is a challenge for any professional-services firm. Their very existence depends on the knowledge and expertise of the people they employ, which is all they have to sell. To be successful you must therefore develop and exploit your organisation’s knowledge and expertise. However, one of the first challenges is asking individuals to share their knowledge. As many people consider this their personal power, giving it up goes against every instinct. Despite this obstacle, we have largely done it. Surely this means that the knowledge-management team (the parts of it devoted to cultural change) has nearly worked itself out of a job by now and a knowledge culture must be embedded throughout the firm? Making such assumptions is not difficult. After all, Ernst & Young is part of the ‘big four’; it is recognised around the world for having successfully implemented knowledge-management practices; and it is one of only ten organisations to have appeared as a winner in all six, annual Global Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises studies.

However, there are a number of reasons why this is not the case. There are flies in the ointment or, more aptly (if you think of culture as something that grows in a petri dish), imperfections in the environment. Staff turnover, time pressure and technological progress all have an impact. We have realised that a full-time knowledge team, concentrating on core behaviours will continue to be essential. The team needs to tie knowledge into the firm’s business strategy, get the leadership banging the drum for knowledge and make it very personal. Our work here will never be done.

A little knowledge history

In 1995, Ernst & Young UK was in the middle of a huge programme of change. This initiative was led by our new chairman, Nick Land and involved a fundamental change in the behaviour of everyone in the firm. It had to radically transform the way the leadership communicated with more junior levels, and emphasise ‘soft’ characteristics such as agility and continuous improvement. One of these characteristics was ‘sharing knowledge’.

Our UK chief knowledge officer, Tim Curry, was appointed late in 1995, and by 1996 had built a small team that was tasked with rolling out knowledge management,  whatever that meant. The knowledge-management team is responsible for improving the quality of knowledge contained within our systems, and for ensuring that people are connected with the right knowledge (both people and documents). Our US colleagues were 18 months ahead of us, so we committed to using the same model as they had, which gave us some fundamental principles, functions, processes and technology to build on. It didn’t take us long to work out that the bedrock of a knowledge-rich organisation is its culture and knowledge-sharing behaviours, and so we started with a strong emphasis on culture. While we focused on culture, we were also frantically trying to build an infrastructure, as there is no point in having 7,400 people ready to share knowledge if there is no means of doing so. We then had to source the content, as there is no point implementing a fantastic infrastructure if there is nothing in it that people want. We had, and still have, five clear knowledge principles:

  • Delivering value – We deliver outstanding value to our clients by deploying the
    collective expertise of Ernst & Young worldwide;
  • Sharing knowledge - We contribute to and enhance Ernst & Young’s knowledge by sharing all our learning and experience within Ernst & Young’s knowledge community, willingly and without restriction or payment;
  • Protecting the firm’s property – We acknowledge that everything we create in the course of our work belongs to the firm. We accept responsibility for protecting Ernst & Young’s knowledge, maintaining its integrity and maximising the value received for its use;
  • Confidentiality – We recognise our obligation to maintain the confidentiality of client information;
  • Other people’s intellectual property – We respect the intellectual-property rights of others and obey all copyright laws.

At this time, the team thought that it would take five to six years to embed these principles in our people and create a new set of knowledge-sharing behaviours. We thought that our job would then be done as everyone would understand the value and benefits of knowledge sharing, it would be built into our daily work and we would only need a few technicians to keep the infrastructure up and running. I now believe that we were hopelessly idealistic.

Imperfections in the environment

We have identified three main issues that are obstacles to achieving our knowledge culture:

Staff turnover – Our business is entirely people driven; we sell our people’s knowledge and experience. However, as is normal in our industry, our staff turnover is 22 per cent. With over 7,400 people, that is 1,600 new joiners every year. We need to embed our knowledge-sharing principles in all of these people. Not to mention 1,600 new employees to train how in using Ernst & Young’s knowledge tools.

You might argue that if we reduced turnover, the task would not be as large. However, those 1,600 new joiners also bringing new knowledge with them, or new challenges to old knowledge. This adds at least as much value as the old knowledge and experience we have lost.
Time pressure – Our people care about serving clients. If you ask an Ernst & Young employee, you will find they believe that time spent away from their clients is less valuable than time spent with them. Some aspects of knowledge sharing are not client facing, such as lodging a document on a database or sharing expertise with another team, so getting knowledge sharing on the agenda is a constant challenge.

Related to this point is that there are many demands competing for people’s attention. If management says you must spend time developing client relationships, you must learn more about other parts of the firm, you must keep technically up to date, you must share knowledge, you must counsel your people, you must read the FT and you must win a new assignment, then something has to give. If the knowledge team stops paying attention, then it might be the knowledge sharing that is ignored.
Technological progress – Technology develops quickly. At E&Y we are on version 6 of our knowledge intranet (the KWeb) and it is only seven years old. Some versions were indistinguishable to the end user from the previous ones but several required detailed training and new ways of working. How can we ask people to absorb all this change while also doing their daily work? The answer is that we can’t. Only the most dedicated and enthusiastic can keep up.

Environmental imperfections

It seems to take us a long time to make our people understand that when we talk about knowledge sharing we mean you. There isn’t a special knowledge mole that tunnels under the office and somehow finds all there is to know and saves it onto a database. It’s you. There isn’t a knowledge hawk that magically spots any errors in he system, reports them to headquarters and then fixes them. It’s you. If you are a knowledge manager, you will recognise this conversation:

“The knowledge in the system isn’t quite right. Only yesterday I was looking for X and it said that X was red when I found out recently that in certain circumstances it could be said to be maroon.”

“Oh, how interesting, and did you tell anyone that the write up on X should be updated to show that it isn’t always red?”

“No.” Puzzled look. “Am I supposed to do that?”

Countless examples like this exist, where people with valuable knowledge do not realise that it is their duty to share it with others.

Another example that shows a lack of progress here is E&Y’s history of submissions, the term we use for documents contributed by our people to the KWeb. Years ago, we set a target of two documents per client handler per year. We have only achieved that target in one month over the last five years. This is partly because we still have a great deal of work to do on knowledge culture, partly because of the time pressures mentioned above, and partly, no doubt, because we have not encouraged people enough. We also tried offering incentives to increase the level of submissions with cash prizes, non-cash prizes and with recognition. They all worked in the short term – measured in weeks – but none of them lasted in the long term. Despite this, we have decided not to lower our sights because we do not believe that two documents per person per year is unreasonable if we can get the culture right.
Although we have hurdles to overcome, Ernst & Young has undoubtedly succeeded in changing the way people behave in relation to knowledge. My experience suggests that this is due to four key factors that are essential to embedding a knowledge culture:

Applying resources to knowledge

In 1996, as a new knowledge team, we asked a network of enthusiasts to get involved in knowledge. We had various roles to fill, some were content-related and some were more about winning hearts and minds. We suggested that 200 hours a year would be enough.

Those enthusiasts were the founders of our knowledge culture. Their enthusiasm transmitted itself to their business units and the principles of knowledge sharing started to spread. However, within a year we requested a budget for full-time knowledge managers for the first time. It is just not possible to inspire a completely new knowledge culture without having a significant number of people who wake up caring about knowledge every day.

Returning to the point about competing for people’s attention, someone who only has 200 hours a year to spend on knowledge will inevitably spend whole weeks on their ‘real’ job, however enthusiastic they are. During those weeks, people who are less enthusiastic will assume that it was yesterday’s initiative, that it doesn’t matter anymore and that they can revert to their old behaviours.
We have found that it is important to nurture your networks of enthusiasts because you need them. But you must also make sure that you get budget for full-time knowledge people.

Getting the leadership to lead

I know you have heard this before, so I won’t go on about it, but none of this is possible without leadership and sponsorship from the very top. In 1995, Nick Land adopted knowledge sharing as one of the new characteristics of Ernst & Young. He appointed Curry, tehn a senior partner, as chief knowledge officer. Land often talked about knowledge sharing during the programme of change and he still talks about it today. Curry has become an acknowledged expert in knowledge management but, more importantly, he is present at senior-management meetings and does not let anyone forget the importance of knowledge-sharing behaviours. Curry also leads by example: he is a practised searcher of the KWeb, he runs sophisticated newsfeeds on all his clients and contacts, he submits documents electronically, and he organises knowledge-sharing workshops on topics where he has expertise. He really believes that we are a more client-focused, efficient, profitable business when we practise good knowledge sharing.

At a local level, the message has permeated well enough for business leaders to take it seriously. They allocate budget to knowledge management and they speak about knowledge when they are talking to their troops. It matters.

Of course, I can’t pretend that every person or even every member of management at Ernst & Young is an active sponsor of knowledge management. And although the weak sponsors here form a small minority, none of these are blockers. This isn’t bad for a business where knowledge is really the only asset any individual has, and sharing it inevitably reduces your potential for personal power.

Tying knowledge management to the business strategy

Our leaders don’t promote knowledge for its own sake. It is a cornerstone of our business. It has to be tied to the business strategy. Explicitly if possible, but implicitly if not.

When Ernst & Young was first undergoing its programme of change, knowledge sharing was listed as one of the six required characteristics of the firm. These six characteristics were so important to the programme that they were used in every process we undertook. Take the firm’s strategic-planning process: every business unit had to use a template organised under the six headings. This meant that every business unit had to have a knowledge-sharing section in their strategy. Imagine the effect this had. Even the feet draggers had to present their knowledge-sharing strategy to the chairman. In terms of embedding this culture, we could not have asked for more. All the other significant internal processes of the time had to have a knowledge-sharing section – internal communications was often organised with a knowledge-sharing section – everywhere you turned, you were faced with knowledge sharing.

Eight years later, our strategy has been refined several times and knowledge sharing is no longer mentioned explicitly. We must make do with it being included implicitly. For example, one of our goals is to be recognised as providers of excellent client service in our chosen markets. How can we do that without a first-class, knowledge-sharing culture supported by great infrastructure that contains high quality knowledge? Quite simply, we can’t. One of our characteristics is to be client centric – a horrible term for a great quality. Again, how can we do that without excellent knowledge support? We can’t.

The other way that knowledge can be tied into the business strategy is at the day-to-day level. Wherever possible we have tried to implant knowledge directly into the way each of our service lines works. Our tax people have to search the tax precedent collection before they give any advice, which ensures that our knowledge is widely applied, innovative and current. Our transactions-advice people have to log what they are about to do before starting work (and in Ernst & Young we can enforce this by building a system that won’t give you a job code until you have given it the knowledge).
Another subtle way that we tie knowledge to strategy is that our full-time industry-knowledge managers physically sit with the partners leading the charge in that industry. This gives a strong signal that knowledge is a core part of the firm’s client-driven strategy.

Making it personal

You may perhaps have detected my frustration above when I described the fantastical knowledge creatures that many people believe perform all of our knowledge-sharing activities for us. Well, the most successful way we have found to address this is to make knowledge very personal. It sounds obvious but it is hard, and sometimes expensive, to do.

First, we must continue to embed individual knowledge objectives into everyone’s goals. Our submissions problem would disappear at a stroke if everyone had a target and there were sanctions for not achieving it. Personally, I have a target of eight submissions a year, which I will achieve, but if I had a target of 28 and my pay rise depended on it, I suspect I might be able to achieve that too. Other knowledge objectives might be broader – organising peer group knowledge-sharing sessions, collecting lessons learnt and leading practices from particular situations, assisting in the quality control and clean up of knowledge bases, and assisting with knowledge training.

The second and more expensive method that we have recently adopted is a coaching approach to knowledge tools and behaviours. Some joiners receive one-to-one coaching at their desk from a seasoned knowledge person. By the time it is done, the new joiner’s workspace is configured so that the knowledge they need is easily accessible. News and information tracks are set up on their key clients, an appropriate knowledge community intranet may be set up as their homepage and they will have a helpline sticker on the edge of their screen. Unsubtle perhaps, but effective. We have just instigated a mandatory knowledge-induction session for all new hires, which we have found slightly less expensive and worth the investment. This is a one-to-eight session, rather than one-to-one, but has the same underlying objective: the joiner must leave enthused, excited and impressed with our knowledge philosophy, content and tools, and confident that they know who to ask.

My final example illustrates one of our themes: that knowledge isn’t just about technology, it is about getting smart people in a room together and making them talk to each other. There are countless examples of this up and down Ernst & Young but I will highlight our industry groups, which coincidentally picks up all four of the key messages I have just outlined. Our knowledge manager wanted to equip our industry-specialist partners with examples of issues and topics that would interest target companies. In preparation for the meeting, she met them to find out what they had been discussing with clients, summarised their stories and collected all their presentations and documents. Needless to say that at the meeting the client partners concerned (all smart people of course) were in a room together, talking animatedly and interestedly about their colleagues’ conversations with clients and building on their knowledge of the sector. Afterwards, the knowledge manager summarised the meeting and made all the material available (suitably sanitised to ensure client confidentiality) on the KWeb. An example of knowledge sharing at its best, illustrating that:

  1. You need to apply full time-resources to knowledge (a part timer would not be able to interview all the partners, collect papers before the meeting and summarise the discussions);
  2. Knowledge sharing works best when the industry leader sponsors and supports the practice. In this case he attended the meeting himself; 
  3. You get high levels of interest and participation when the knowledge collected and shared supports a key strand of the industry group’s business strategy, which in this case was to develop deeper relationships with target companies in a complex and dynamic sector;
  4. Personal knowledge sharing (in this case, a face-to-face meeting) is more powerful than any other kind of sharing.

This is why the job of maintaining a knowledge-management culture will never be done, even at Ernst & Young.

Tina Mason is head of the knowledge-management team at Ernst & Young’s Center for Business Knowledge in the UK. She can be contacted at tmason@uk.ey.com

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