posted 28 Aug 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 1
Case report: Oracle
Page the Oracle
Fast growth and multiple acquisitions can put a strain on any corporate knowledge management programme. But Oracle shows how such challenges can be dealt with.
By Jerry Ash
Scalability is considered to be a highly desirable property by software engineers because it enables the easy expandability of a system, network or process, allowing it to handle growing volumes of work with minimum extra effort and cost. Scalability, unlike excess capacity, provides just enough capability, now, with the ability to add more as required.
Without scalability, a software product would either be limited to the current scope of work or designed with a costly excess capacity built in, based on an unknown future need. If a software application is limited only to the task at hand, then it becomes obsolete during periods of growth without scalability. If it is not scalable, the user has to shut it down and install a newer package with greater capacity.
The concept of scalability has gone beyond software to virtually every facet of an organisation where rapid growth is expected. Scalability, not capacity, is favoured because it keeps an organisation both lean and agile.
So here’s the question: Is your knowledge management (KM) programme scalable? This report should give you something to measure against.
Oracle Corporation was founded three decades ago as a database-software company – one of a slew established at the time to develop databases based on the-then new idea of relational database technology. Today, relational databases are the norm and Oracle is the runaway market leader. It is also number two in enterprise applications, behind Germany’s SAP, and the second-largest software supplier in the world after, of course, Microsoft.
And maturity has not slowed the company’s growth. A combination of organic growth and acquisition has helped to increase Oracle’s workforce from 35,000 to 66,500 in the past three years.
As a result, Oracle’s KM strategy has had to evolve fast, not only to meet the needs of this influx of newcomers, but also to support the strategic demands of the business. What is more, the KM strategy has been implemented on a global basis through aligned KM practices, establishing a connection among staff across the company’s four geographic regions: Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA); North America (NA); the Latin American division (LAD); and Asia-Pacific (AP).
With such growth and acquisition activity, it has been necessary for Oracle to adopt a dynamic and rapidly evolving organisational structure to meet the challenges of its ever-increasing portfolio, further complicating the KM strategy.
The organisation itself has the typical software industry lines-of-business structure, such as sales, support and consulting. But as well as that, there is an increased focus on specialisation across product and industry sectors. “The need for specialisation has demanded that we put in place strategic groups that have a thorough understanding of specific industries, such as communications, the public sector and financial services,” says Stuart Storr, head of KM for Oracle EMEA. “Take a look at our financial results and you’ll see that we’ve been successful in bringing this all together at the customer.”
Professional communities in Oracle supplement its organisational structures to provide collaborative learning-environments, which are largely focused on product and industry specialisation. Oracle has had strong community programmes for a number of years; however, what ‘community’ once meant to one part of the organisation and/or region was fundamentally very different from another. Various mechanisms were provided to establish connectivity:
Distribution lists for e-mail exchange;
True community efforts to develop a collaborative continuous-learning environment for knowledge sharing and best practices.
With the workforce nearly doubling since 2004 and a growing awareness of a need for enterprise-wide knowledge sharing, a consistent approach was required to provide operational efficiency and a true collaborative-learning environment on a global scale.
The desire to create a consistent industry environment and a deliberate engagement model with the sales, pre-sales and consulting resources globally resulted in sponsorship to create global industry communities. While the key objective for the communities is to develop industry specialisation, the needs of such a programme have to take into account how to create a scalable proposition that can stand the test of time, particularly if the programme is to provide the desired consistency.
“Given that many industry communities existed across the globe in their different forms, defining what a global community would look like needed to take into account the blending of different community forms into a single global programme. This was handled by creating a framework for the existing regional communities to operate within,” says Karen Eden, director, business planning, industry communities, communications and KM.
“At no point did we ever believe we owned any community,” says Eden. “It has, and will continue to be, owned by the people within it who define its culture. In truth, this means that each industry community serves the members who are working in the particular industry. After all, they are the specialists; they are hired for what they do and respected for that. We are responding to their needs with this model.”
“Customer focus is achieved through building critical mass, specialisation and co-ordination, regardless of which country the customers resides,” adds Storr.
In his view, the days of the stand-alone country model are long dead. It is no longer practical to expect small countries (and even some of the larger countries) to have in-depth expertise across the full range of the Oracle portfolio. “Specialist teams work across country boundaries. Sometimes, these will operate at a fairly local level across just a ‘cluster’ of countries, sometimes at divisional level; sometimes it is only sensible to have some teams at the global level to provide the level of expertise required to serve our customers.”
The questions, then, have been, “How do we share knowledge today? How do we find out whether anyone else has implemented the solution today’s customer requires? How do we get the right information into the hands of the local account staff in, say, Poland?”
The communication tools, the knowledge repositories and professional communities are evolving to provide scalable solutions to help meet Oracle’s global strategy.
“The key point here,” Storr points out, “is that the KM framework is independent from the organisational structure, so it doesn’t matter if the organisation changes.
People can still use the same framework.”
This is a huge advantage for an organisation that continues to expand fast, operating in a competitive marketplace and which must continually strive to focus its resources and efforts on the needs of its customers. “When staff from an acquired company come on board, there’s a huge learning curve for them in terms of understanding how their new employer works, where to go for information, who to talk to about this or that. Where do they start?
“As well as the usual induction programmes we have in place, there is the underlying KM framework that enables them to more effectively find their place in the organisation and get up to speed more quickly in performing their new roles in Oracle. They can join communities, find content, refer to our product and solution strategies and so on – all by using the common tools and infrastructure we have in place.”
Communities are key to the process. Integrating the knowledge of acquired products and services through industry communities accelerates deeper industry specialisation and collaborative learning across the organisation.
In Eden’s view, scalable means handling change and growth gracefully; adaptability that can change focus; the capability to respond to newly developed and acquired solutions; and, the ability to deliver speedily to accelerate both learning and response times.
Given that many industry communities existed across the world in different forms, defining what a global community should look like needed to take into account the blending of different community forms to a single global-community programme. This was handled by creating a framework for regional communities to operate within (see Figure One).
“In the past, people have been used to operating within their distinct regional community-environments,” Eden says. “To progress to global industry communities, we are driving a transformation by implementing a global framework. Presently, the consolidation and alignment of processes, portals, communication tools and newsletters is establishing transparency to a single, global community-practice and environments to develop collaboration, content development and propositions for industries.”
This model ensures that strong cultural dynamics and established networks are afforded the time to evolve to global communities where barriers and boundaries encountered in the past are broken down to create global transparency around industry collaboration and best-practice sharing.
“Some industries, of course, are more able to respond better to globalisation efforts than others,” says Eden. “In industries like communications and life sciences, the proposition lends itself to a globalisation effort and transitions faster than that of government, justice and public safety, where localisation requirements limit globalisation capability.”
Less really is more
“Globalisation provides the impression of more,” says Eden. “The fact is, less really does equal more. Fewer portals, less e-mail, fewer newsletters, less content, less travel, less cost equals faster access to content, richer content, less time wasted searching, filtering and working through unnecessary information.”
Streamlining infrastructure and content has been a key element in global alignment to deliver consistent industry messaging. So far, Oracle has successfully launched global industry communities with more than 10,400 members around the world, as well as global community portals and global consolidated industry-newsletters.
Supporting roles, such as community leaders, knowledge managers and communication professionals, sit within their industry group. Each global community has a leader and regional communities also have leaders; more often these are the strategic sales-lead for that industry.
Creating cross-regional industry taskforces to deliver a single, global industry portal and newsletter has provided greater clarity for the industries globally.
“Programmes as large as this bring an incredible diversity of resources from all over the globe,” says Eden. “Cultural dynamics, regional organisational influences, localisation requirements, to name but a few, were very apparent during the set up of this programme and highlighted many of the cultural differences.”
Oracle’s experience highlights the different ways in which communities can be organised and how that organisation needs to adapt as the company gets bigger and its business strategy adapts and changes. At the same time, it also highlights how core knowledge management tools can not just aid such business changes, but are integral to their success. There are a number of particular lessons that stand out for Oracle:
The company drove the adoption of its global communities by engaging with staff at a variety of levels: portals, communications, training and collaboration tools, among others. This also helped establish credibility among (and demand from) people who, by their very function in Oracle, are highly productivity and delivery focused;
Spreading the inconvenience of working across time zones has been essential to make it work. This has leveled the playing field in sharing workload and inconvenience;
Senior-executive sponsorship for event attendance and training definitely accelerates collaborative engagement and member participation;
Leveraging the success of the early adopters has encouraged further staff uptake for the programme;
Community effort needs to be focused on business goals in order to drive behaviours.
At Oracle, the success of communities relies on the leader and senior sponsorship, with members working as part of a dynamic virtual-team. Social-networking tools have provided access to resources and information within the normal working practices at Oracle (e-mail, My.oracle.com, Oracle University). Member motivation begins when direct value is given.
One member complimented the programme this way: “I have just used my industry community to answer urgent questions posed by my customer. The response I received was excellent. Within 24 hours I had more than 30 responses with some great info and additional collateral. We have already answered the customer’s question. I am now sifting through the info with my team and will add the relevant content to the portal.”
Eden says that developing a virtual working environment, particularly in the community arena where there are no hierarchical influences, requires some strong virtual-leadership skills, as well as credibility and influence skills to encourage and draw out participation from the membership. Oracle is investing in a virtual leadership and working programme to enable the workforce of the company to make the most of working virtually.
Different educational media provide relevant timely content to improve the skills of community members. For example:
Recorded events – recorded webcasts; downloadable MP3 and MP4 audio and video provide online learning;
Live webcasts – regular global and regional events enable direct interaction, while distilling specific experiences and best practices. Integrating across lines-of-business activity to these events drives participation, as does the inclusion (on occasions) of partners and customers;
In-class events – regular in-class regional training-sessions are held each year.
“These regional events provide opportunities for people to get to know their peers and to develop trust to ensure that virtual working can function at its best in between face-to-face opportunities,” Eden says. “These events always generate the most enthusiastic feedback. This, of course, could be because people still feel the value of the direct-engagement model.”
Behind the eyeballs
Yes, people prefer face-to-face because they are used to it, comfortable with it. It’s second nature to them because it has always been their primary means of communication.
Of course, finding complementary ways to collaborate outside of face-to-face meetings is essential for scalability and efficiency. Occasional events, separated by large periods of disconnect, just will not do. No one can afford to wait until next year’s event to learn, look for or discuss the need for an answer to a burning question that may or may not be found behind the eyeballs in an occasional physical setting. If people are not scalable, they are limited by being on the outside of a virtual world burgeoning with people with answers.
Oracle’s KM programme has helped to improve the scalability of human interaction at the company. The architects have taken into account human sensitivities, devising a strategy that dovetails with the way people work that also works with Oracle’s structure and way of doing things.
Yet at the same time, they have had to work with the twin challenge of rapid growth and globalisation – and that’s quite some achievement.
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework, http://www.kwork.org, and special correspondent to Inside Knowledge. He is author of the Ark Group’s Next Generation Knowledge Management series. To order any of the three volumes, contact Adam Scrimshire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jerry Ash can be reached at email@example.com.
Karen Eden may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, while Stuart Storr can be reached by e-mailing email@example.com.