posted 8 Mar 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 6
Masterclass: KM culture
Sustaining the KM culture change
Implementing knowledge management is easy compared to the task of making it stick. Nick Milton explores some of the techniques for ensuring a permanent change in culture.
By Nick Milton
In the February masterclass, we talked about a staged method for implementing knowledge management (KM) in an organisation. We described how implementation can be seen as a series of organisational decisions, where each decision is made on the basis of evidence gathered in the previous stage.
We also touched on the concept of a management framework for KM, which we argued needed to be set up and introduced to support sustainable knowledge management during the operational stage. It is this framework, and the structures within the organisation that need to be put in place to sustain it, which forms the basis for this second masterclass.
It should be stressed at the outset that the frameworks you establish to sustain KM will be applied late in the implementation journey. Before reaching this point, you will need to have demonstrated the value of KM, proved the concept, gained the advocacy and tested the toolset. It may be several years before you are ready to start embedding the sustaining mechanisms.
The importance of sustaining the culture change
The introduction of any new management system into an organisation requires a change in culture. For example, the introduction of a customer-relationship management (CRM) system will demand culture change in terms of the way staff interact with clients. But if any change to a new management system is to deliver value in the long term, then there needs to be a way of sustaining the culture – of making sure that behaviours stay changed, the processes are carried out and that people do what they are supposed to do.
Even with long-established practices, such as financial management, there are always the unscrupulous that try to avoid good management practice and ‘cook the books’. But here, there are clear standards that define acceptable financial management. Any company that wants to operate in the marketplace must abide by those standards. If the rules are broken, there are sanctions and punishments, as some of the directors of Enron and WorldCom have found out to their cost. These rules, standards and sanctions help ensure that good financial management is widespread and sustained, despite a few bad apples.
As yet, however, there are few – if any – standards, rules and sanctions for KM. If knowledge management is to be sustained, it will be sustained by processes internal to the individual organisations, as well as by the enthusiasm and belief of its practitioners. However, this enthusiasm is not endless and KM implementation often falls into a familiar pattern:
Knowledge management is introduced with a fanfare and management support;
The implementation team is established, with budgets and targets;
It delivers some successful, high-profile pilots in particular areas of the business, and introduces some new technologies and processes;
The implementation team realises that implementing KM enterprise-wide will be slower and more difficult than anticipated;
Management loses patience and declares victory anyway, prematurely closing down the implementation team;
KM continues for a while, sustained by enthusiasts and champions, but never becomes an established management discipline and gradually fades away.
Why does this happen? Why does knowledge management so rarely survive the departure of the implementation team? Is there something that we can learn from the implementation of other successfully sustained management practices? We think there is – the concept of a sustaining framework for knowledge management.
The concept of a framework
We introduced in the previous class the concept of a ‘management framework’, otherwise known as a ‘governance framework’ or ‘governance system’. This refers to all of the management and organisational elements that need to be in place to ensure an asset (in this case knowledge) is managed properly and with rigour in a sustained manner.
Looking at it another way, if you are a manager and you want to get something done in your organisation, you need to get three things in place. First, you need to make it very clear what you want done. Second, you have to give people the tools and the training to do it. Third, you need to check that they’ve done what you want.
These three elements make sure the job gets done. They form a management framework for mowing the lawn. The same three elements are needed in a management framework for KM.
Management disciplines are sustained, because there is a framework to sustain them. Again, if we look at financial management, everybody in the organisation is clear on what is expected of them. They know that they will have to prepare budgets at the start of any significant piece of work. They know they will have to do cost tracking as the work continues and will have to balance the books at the end of the job. They will have the tools to do these activities, such as data from a SAP enterprise-resource planning (ERP) software system and spreadsheet software, and they will have the training they need. They also know that management will be checking that they have done what they’re supposed to do and there may well be periodic audits to check compliance against expectations. Whether or not employees believe that financial management is a good thing, the company has put in place a framework to ensure that it happens.
Imagine if a similar framework were applied to knowledge management. Imagine if the staff in your organisation knew that they had to do a ‘knowledge budget’ at the start of any significant piece of work. Imagine they knew that they would have to do ‘knowledge tracking’ as the work continues and ‘balance the knowledge books’ by capturing their learning at the end of the job. Imagine that they had the tools to do these activities, and the training to use the tools, and also that management will be checking that they’ve done what they are supposed to do.
Whether or not the individual employees believes that knowledge management is a good thing, such a management framework would ensure that it happened.
The management framework we recognise for KM therefore contains the following elements (see figure one):
A set of clear corporate expectations for how knowledge will be managed in the organisation, including accountabilities for the ownership of key knowledge areas, and the definition of corporate standards for KM;
A knowledge-management system, providing the means by which knowledge can be managed. This is not just an IT system, but a holistic management system, which will include:
Roles for knowledge management;
Processes for capturing, organising, accessing and communicating knowledge;
Technologies for capturing, organising, accessing and communicating knowledge.
A person or team monitoring and measuring the application of KM to make sure that people are delivering what is expected of them and applying the system in the way that they are expected to; to identify the need for new interventions to improve the KM system; and, to ensure a continuous improvement in the ability of the organisation to manage strategic knowledge.
Let’s look at those three elements in more detail.
1. Clear corporate expectations
Senior management in the organisation needs to make KM expectations clear by explicitly stating what needs to be done and by whom. They need to write these expectations down and keep reinforcing them by what they say. They also need to ensure these expectations do not get weakened by, or conflict with, other organisational structures and goals.
One clear way to define expectations is to define an in-house standard for KM. What does it mean in practice? What is an acceptable level of KM activity? Does every project need to hold a ‘retrospect’ or only the big ones? How frequently should after-action reviews be held? Are ‘peer assists’ a mandatory requirement or optional?
Once the implementation team has tested and piloted the components of knowledge management, they need to sit down with senior management and decide what the internal corporate KM standard is going to be. For example, in oil giant BP every drilling project over a threshold value is required, as the KM component of operating standards, to:
Develop a KM plan;
Capture lessons during operations;
Hold a learning review at the end.
These expectations are written out clearly and have been rolled out to all drilling staff.
The KM standard needs to be set at the right level. It needs to be just sufficient to deliver the required value, without loading too many onerous processes onto the business. The standard may need to set different levels of KM activity depending on the scale of business activity. BP drilling, for example, requires lower levels of KM activity for oil wells valued at less than $10m, than it does for wells valued at more than $10m. Production or service areas of your organisation might need different KM activities from project-organised areas. The key, however, is to be clear about what the organisation expects in terms of KM activity for each area of the business.
Along with clarity on standards, comes clarity on accountability. By accountability, we mean, whose job is it to ensure the KM standards are met? Or to put it another way, if an area of the company is not up to standard, who is in the firing line? Senior management will need to establish one or more chains of accountability, so everyone in the organisation knows what is expected of them. We say ‘one or more’ chains – in many organisations there will be three chains of accountability, as shown in figure two.
There will certainly be a chain of accountability in the line organisation – the organisation of business units that ‘do the work’. Here, the accountability will be about compliance to the KM standard in operational work. For example, the head of the European division may be accountable for KM compliance in
In a matrix organisation, there may also be a chain of accountability in the functional or support departments. Here the accountability is likely to cover the ownership, maintenance and deployment of the company knowledge base. The head of marketing, for example, will be accountable for making sure that the company’s marketing knowledge is managed and maintained and will ensure that the individual subject-matter experts, and community facilitators, are doing their job properly.
Finally, there will be a set of accountabilities for the KM support team. These will include accountability for maintaining the KM system and for operating the monitoring and maintenance aspects of the management framework.
In Implementing a Framework for Knowledge Management, Gibby et al explain how the chain of accountabilities works in the framework for the BP major projects area, where project managers are accountable for knowledge management in their project teams, and functional networks are accountable for maintenance of knowledge of a more strategic nature.
Senior management can be clear about what they expect in terms of knowledge management, by publishing standards, and by setting clear accountabilities. They also need to make sure that their expectations for knowledge management are supported by what they say and do. For example, they must assign the time and resources needed to manage knowledge. They must also make sure that the reward and recognition system in the organisation is supportive of knowledge management. There is no point, for example, in expecting high levels of collaboration from the business units, and at the same time rewarding internal competition by sponsoring ‘factory of the year awards’.
2. KM system
At the same time as making their expectations for KM very clear, senior management must make sure that staff in the organisation are fully equipped to deliver against these expectations. They need a KM system. They need technologies, processes and roles that will enable knowledge to be managed.
The complexity of this KM system will vary considerably. Small organisations, co-located in a single office, may be able to use very simple tools and processes to manage their knowledge. When I operated a local KM system in BP Norway in the mid 90s, it was initially paper-based and supported by simple end-of project learning reviews.
A large multinational, on the other hand, with hundreds of thousands of staff spread around the globe, will need more sophisticated systems, with custom-built technology and well-defined processes. No matter how simple or complex the system, we have found that there are a few principles you need to consider to make sure that your KM system is complete in terms of enabling the flow of knowledge around the organisation. These principles are described below.
Learn before, during and after
This well-established model stresses the points that KM activity needs to be linked to business activity. Before any significant piece of work, the team needs to learn. Similarly, they need to learn as work progresses. Finally, they need to capture and share their learning after the activity is finished.
However, each organisation needs to determine for themselves the answer to the question ‘before, during and after what?’ Should it be before, during and after each project? Each project stage? Each manufacturing and production cycle? Each encounter with a customer? The answer to this question will help you with your definition of KM standards, as well as with your KM system.
People, process and technology
This is an old message, but a very important one. If you are going to enable the flow of knowledge around your organisation, you need people (whose role is to ensure that this happens and happens well), processes (for capturing, validating, packaging, accessing and sharing knowledge), and technology (to store, find, share and communicate knowledge). If any of these three are missing or underdeveloped, knowledge can get ‘stuck’ somewhere between the supplier and the user of the knowledge.
Connect and collect
Again, this is an old but very important message. Knowledge can be transferred from person-to-person by ‘connecting’ the people and enabling them to communicate and exchange knowledge through dialogue. Knowledge can also be transferred from person to person by ‘collecting it’ in written or recorded form, storing it and enabling knowledge users to search for it.
The first method is highly effective and the second method can be highly efficient. The first is ideal for knowledge that requires a lot of background context in order to understand it or for knowledge that is rapidly changing (and so is out of date the moment it is written down). The second method is ideal for knowledge that is established and secure, such as procedures and best practices. Both of these methods of knowledge transfer need to be part of your KM system, as both have their own individual and crucial role to play.
Even using the principles above, different organisations will develop different mixes of process, roles and technologies that fit their own structure, their own work processes and their own performance management and measurement systems. Just make sure that your processes and technologies are robust, that the roles are well defined and that people have the training they need to apply the system.
Monitoring and measurement
Monitoring and measurement are key to the long-term sustainability of knowledge management, and the KM culture. What gets measured, gets done. What doesn’t get measured, gets pushed to the side by other ‘more important’ work. Measurement shows that the company is serious about KM. There would be no point in setting standards, if there were no measurement against those standards.
There are three main areas where you might consider measuring; compliance, activity and output:
Compliance measurement involves measuring degrees of compliance with the KM standard. How many parts of the business are up to scratch? How many projects are doing what they are supposed to do?
Activity measurement looks at the KM activity that is taking place. How many lessons are being entered into the lessons databases? How many questions are being asked and answered on the community forums? How frequently are the company best practices being updated?
Output measurement looks at the results of the KM activity. Are costs decreasing? Are projects being completed to budget and on time? Is the bidding process more successful?
Together with monitoring and measurement, comes reward and sanction. Parts of the business that perform well in knowledge management should be rewarded and parts that choose to ignore their KM accountabilities should face some form of sanction. If there is no sanction against opting out of the system, then effectively the organisation is sending the message that KM is optional. In an increasingly busy world, optional activity does not get done.
Any company that is serious about knowledge management needs to be serious about sanctions. The late, great Melissie Rumizen, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Knowledge Management, among other achievements, described the KM culture in pioneering pharmaceuticals company Buckman Laboratories as follows: “Our approach is far more stick than carrot. We say, ‘Sharing knowledge is your job. Do it!’ As a reward, you may keep your job”. People react differently to this attitude and many consider it rather hard-line, but you can imagine how embedded their KM culture has become. In the Buckman way of working, KM is not optional. A combination of clear expectations from the CEO, a significant investment in technology, communities and supporting roles, measurement, and serious sanction for non-compliance, has contributed to a KM culture within Buckman that has lasted well over a decade.
The supporting organisation
You sometimes hear people suggest that the KM implementation team should look to ‘do themselves out of a job’, and that the final aim of KM implementation should be that KM is fully embedded in the business. An end to implementation, with KM full embedded, are laudable aims – but this should not be taken as implying that there will be no requirement for a long-term KM support resource.
Every other form of asset management has dedicated support. Financial management is supported by the accounts department, people management by human resources, brand management by marketing, and so on. Even if your company is too small to have an entire department to cover these functions, there will be someone whose job it is to keep an eye on that area of business.
The same is true for KM. Even after the KM system is designed and rolled out and implementation is considered complete, you need a person or group to maintain momentum. Their main tasks will be to keep the system going (updating technology, training people in the processes, coaching individuals with KM roles, and so on), running the monitoring and measurement activities, crafting the long-term KM strategy and making any interventions needed to sustain KM. Part of the reason for the longevity of KM within BP drilling is due to the presence of a KM support team for the past ten years.
Buckman Labs is not alone in having sustained a KM culture since the 1990s. The drillers within BP, Shell and other oil majors have been equally successful, as have the engineers in Schlumberger and Halliburton, some of the big car manufacturers and even the military sector.
In each case, a combination of clear senior management expectations, an effective and complete KM system, monitoring of KM activity and the presence of a KM support organisation, has contributed to sustained success. When one of these is absent, KM will fail in the longer term. However, with a robust management framework for KM, the culture change you introduce during implementation can be sustained well into the future.
Nick Milton is director of KM consultancy Knoco. He can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.