posted 8 Mar 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 6
Bringing knowledge and information management to two distinct organisations, Simon Mills shares his lessons from his work with a fast-moving telecoms giant and a 300-year-old financial institution.
By Sandra Higgison
As Simon Mills well knows, knowledge management (KM) and information management are inextricably linked. In his work at two very different organisations, Mills has shown how these practices can create immense value for all audiences, from individual salesmen and knowledge workers to the teams that support the setting of interest rates in the
Starting his KM journey ten years ago, while looking to improve information services and quality management at telecoms giant BT, he now leads information management at the Bank of England, the UK’s central bank responsible for issuing currency, setting interest rates and maintaining financial stability.
Originally responsible for the information needs of a small part of BT’s sales force, Mills inherited the task of managing the quality system. “We had been accredited to BS5750 [the British standard for quality management] and were picking up corrective actions on our control of the technical documentation used by our systems engineers,” he says. “I set up small libraries around the country for BT employees to find and use these manuals.”
Mills’ KM experience grew from here as he began working on a process that mailed the latest product, campaign and promotion news to BT’s account managers around the
By calling an automated-response system and keying in the reference number of a particular document, users received the information they needed by fax. “All the news was scanned into the system,” he says. “So instead of sending out weekly envelopes stuffed with paper we simply mailed the reference lists. We worked on the principle that people are responsible for working out what information they want and pulling it from the system when they need it.”
But as the volume of news and use of the system grew, people started making requests for information they had seen in the past on a particular product or deal. Mills’ team had a printed index of all the documents and their reference numbers so they could locate specific stories, but it was cumbersome for them to maintain and share.
In the early 1990s, in search of a solution, Mills visited BT’s laboratories at Martlesham, near
Information and reward
Due to the company’s near-constant state of organisational flux, which Mills likens to the form of a jellyfish, his remit broadened to support a greater portion of the corporate sales force from a service and marketing perspective. Following the changes, Mills took on the task of managing the sales-automation system, which he renamed ‘knowledgenet’ and reshaped into a tool that he says enabled true knowledge management. In particular he was interested in what information sales people could provide back to the business and how they could use that knowledge or intelligence more proactively.
The company already captured published competitor intelligence, bought news services and generated customer profiles. Mills’ work aimed to improve sales performance by freeing up this information and making use of employees’ knowledge of their customers and prospects. “We wanted to help people find other employees who had worked on similar projects and had relevant knowledge to share,” he says.
As account managers logged their sales opportunities on knowledgenet, the system would automatically generate a pop-up window with links to further information on that particular prospect and product, as well as contact details for colleagues who had won or lost similar deals in the recent past. “We were encouraging knowledge sharing around successes and failures, which is very hard to do.”
To promote use of the system and demonstrate BT’s commitment to collaborative working, Mills’ team ran an incentive programme through the tool. “We could track whether users accessed the contact details that knowledgenet gave them,” he says. “If they did, we had an incentives agency call to find out if they had contacted Fred, for example, whether he had given them any information and how useful it had been. If they said it was of value, we gave Fred a small financial reward.”
And the incentives didn’t end there. “We also tracked the opportunity belonging to that account manager. If BT won the sale then Fred received 0.5 per cent of the first year’s revenue, up to a £2,000 limit,” says Mills. “We created rewards for knowledge sharing.”
Despite being able to track activity on the system it was hard to measure the impact of knowledgenet on sales performance. From his experience with knowledgenet, Mills learnt that people would never say they were given knowledge that they didn’t already have. Rather, they would say that it reinforced what they already knew. However, from the opportunities logged that used the information generated, Mills could see that the win rate improved by a significant percentage.
Although BT had many initiatives focused on increasing sales, knowledgenet succeeded in demonstrating that the organisation wanted people to collaborate to win business. It also encouraged sales people to register their opportunities earlier as they knew that they had received collateral that would help them close the deal. Unfortunately, knowledgenet came to an end when BT bought a new packaged customer relationship management (CRM) system, which could not deliver the same functionality. Even so, Mills’ work was recognised for its innovation and he cites knowledgenet among his biggest achievements.
1694 – a good year for banking
Attracted by the opportunity of working with an organisation that relies on knowledge in a very different way, Mills left BT to join the Bank of England as head of information management in 2003. “Information is central to the bank’s two core purposes: monetary and financial stability,” he says. “Except for banknotes, the bank doesn’t manufacture or sell anything; it makes high-profile decisions that are very information intensive.”
While knowledge management is not explicit in his job title Mills recognises it is a large and important part of his activities. Having inherited a library, archives with records going back to the bank’s formation in 1694, a document-management system and an under-used intranet, Mills was given free reign to devise a three-year information-management strategy. Among other things, it looked to improve the bank’s use of these technologies.
Mills is proud to see how these information tools have become valuable channels and resources for the bank. “When I joined, the intranet was an unrealised resource that had no uniform design, was out of date and wasn’t used for key communications. It didn’t really have a purpose,” he says. “There had been an attempt to implement a content-management system and raise standards of design, delivery and structure but it had failed as different areas of the organisation didn’t buy into it.”
The document-management system had similar issues as it had been rolled out in a ‘siloed’ fashion and lacked important usage policies. “As there was no retention schedule, folder structure or records-classification strategy the system was getting bigger and bigger as every document was kept forever. Now we have records-management policies in place we are able to retain information for an appropriate period.”
To manage these technologies, Mills has a small team that looks after the library and archives, manages projects, is responsible for delivering change, and supports and develops the bank’s core tools, such as the search engine, content-management systems and some elements of Microsoft Office and Outlook.
Comparing his role and challenges at BT with those at the Bank of England, Mills says there are enormous differences. “BT needs to keep ahead of the developments in the world around it and has developed a culture where people are comfortable with change and reorganisation. At the bank, however, the drivers are different. Unlike a corporation, it is not focused on the bottom line or profits but by the excellence with which it delivers its core purposes.”
Looking back at his first six months when he was carving out the bank’s information strategy, Mills describes it as a fantastic phase of work. Equally, however, he says it was an unsettling period as he got to grips with the bank’s culture that encouraged him to take his time and do a thorough analysis rather than push him for delivery.
“When I was at BT I would give presentations saying that the best route to sharing tacit knowledge was to get two people talking; that’s what a sales force wants to do.
Here it is completely different. Decisions or comments can’t be made until people have seen the report or document with everything written down and have performed a thorough analysis.”
While some might see this as an impediment to promoting new ways of working, Mills is optimistic that his plans to introduce elements of social computing will be well received. His initial three-year strategy is coming to a close and his outlook for the next chapter is to focus on the more tacit side of knowledge management. “I’m hoping that Web 2.0 will provide a platform that will help us increase the number of connections between people in the organisation.”
Mills has taken a number of lessons from his experiences at BT and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, as the bank is affectionately known. “It is critical that you base your knowledge-management decisions and priorities on your audience or customer base. Also, always look for the areas where you can add value, however limited. Tackling information management or knowledge management in an organisation is a huge elephant. It’s always good to have a vision but it can be hard to achieve and get sponsorship if you don’t have something concrete to focus on.”
Some knowledge management stalwarts may frown to hear that Mills’ team reports to the head of IT, however there are advantages to being in this position. “I’m not interested in whether something is technology based or not, I’m only concerned with whether it adds value. From this position we can ensure that the systems being developed and implemented actually meet users’ requirements. If a new version of Microsoft Word is being rolled out, we can look at the new functionality from the knowledge-workers’ perspective and see if it brings benefits. In some ways we provide the connection between IT and employees. It’s a role that is often missing.”
As Mills plans the information-management strategy for the next three years, he has a clear idea of what he’d like to be looking back on by 2010. “I’d like to see the bank changing some of its analytical processes to realise the opportunities that Web 2.0, social computing and new forms of collaboration can bring. Having tools that let people discuss the research they’re doing will be incredibly useful.”
While Mills recognises that change may not happen quickly in an institution that is more than 300 years old, he can draw on his experiences from BT and build on his successes to date to ensure the bank reaps the rewards from the tacit side of knowledge management.
Simon Mills can be contacted directly by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Simon Mills
Place of birth:
Employment history: Data Connection Ltd (software developer) 1985-91; BT plc 1991-2003; Bank of England 2003-
Personal strengths: Interested in new ideas; focused on practical, measurable change
Must improve: Coming up with impressive answers to questions like this
Can’t live without: Coffee
What I do to relax: Swim, travel...or as little as possible