posted 1 Nov 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 3
Community building at MWH
Launched 18 months ago, MWH’s knowledge-focused intranet is based around the user, rather than the technology’s capabilities, and is focused on enabling communities of people with similar interests to share knowledge with each other and across the company as a whole. Andrew Cowell and Sarah Grimwood explain some of the lessons they have learnt from their experiences implementing the solution. [WEB ONLY ARTICLE]
MWH is a widespread international organisation. We have some 6,000 employees in 45 countries around the world. Services are offered from over 160 prime offices, with many additional project offices set up locally, and some employees working in teams within other organisations.
The MWH intranet, KNet, is primarily a tool for finding the right people to talk to and communicate with at MWH. This can be within focused groups that deal in particular areas, known as knowledge communities, or, as in the case of online learning and announcements, across the whole company.
There is both structured and unstructured data in KNet. The key features are that both can be located with a search functionality and that no data exists without an author – who can often be of more value to the searcher than the information. At MWH we realise that we cannot codify all we know so we need to put our people in touch with each other and make that process as simple as we can.
People need to know what to expect from an intranet and how to use it. Search and feedback are two powerful mechanisms for finding and developing good content. However, the system will fail if staff members do not know how to use the available tools, however good the content may be. Training and help have therefore formed a vital part of our formula for building a strong company-supporting intranet.
Knowledge-based organisations also need to foster learning and development, and the intranet is a highly effective medium for teaching across the company.
Every project needs different combinations of expertise
MWH provides water, wastewater, energy and environmental engineering services to towns, cities, water utility companies, industry and government organisations. This involves planning, design and construction of major water supply, drainage, waste-water treatment and pollution control works, in a wide variety of geographical areas, climates and cultures.
There is no textbook solution to the range of problems the company is faced with: every project is different, although elements may be similar to past projects. Nor are the company’s experts located in any single headquarters. Expertise is spread around the world, with national experts located in many countries. Our many local offices are essential for providing on-the-ground responses to our clients and know-how regarding the best cultural solution. The company pools its best and most appropriate technical knowledge – from wherever it is located – alongside local understanding to solve problems or questions necessary to complete the work.
We see ourselves not as one, inflexible, global monolith, but as a grouping of worldwide offices. KNet has enabled us to draw on the complete company’s expertise to provide individual tailored solutions.
Information is not knowledge; knowledge is not wisdom
The MWH intranet is there to connect MWH’s knowledge and expertise as effectively as possible so that it is available to everyone. However, on its own, an intranet can’t deliver anything but data. The biggest asset we have at MWH is our key staff, both technical and commercial, and their relationships with other people. The fundamental objective for the MWH intranet is that it supports individual staff, their teams and relationships to tap into the knowledge and wisdom of people.
The MWH knowledge-management initiative is called KnowledgeNet. This consists of knowledge communities (knowledge centres and knowledge bases) as the focus – with a supporting intranet, KNet. MWH launched the intranet concept 18 months ago, in 2001, as a new approach to knowledge management.
This time it’s different
This was the second time we’d tackled knowledge management. The previous initiative in the mid-1990s had failed to gain momentum and we believe that this was because it was system-led, focusing on the IT approach. The KnowledgeNet approach recognises the importance of community members to the success of KM and has adopted a people-centric approach, giving them what they need to help them do their jobs. KNet connects people allowing them to exchange their long-acquired expertise and puts it at everyone’s fingertips. It could be said that the MWH approach to content management is to manage our tacit knowledge.
KNet: the tool for our KnowledgeNet initiative functions
KnowledgeNet’s key role is to drive MWH’s vision of using its global position and knowledge management to export best practices around the world. Our strategy is to deliver our best practices locally to clients and then to learn, from that application, to develop them further within our communities. The intranet has to support that strategy, the knowledge communities, their communication and development.
KNet supporting communities
KNet’s development started in June 2000, was launched in test version within six months and released to a large part of the company just four months later. Two years on everyone in the company has access to KNet but we are still developing and learning, and will continue to do so.
Knowledge communities page
The first element of KNet was a homepage for each of the knowledge communities. Each of these knowledge communities is given its own website template that they manage within this framework. We created a basic template so that general users were able to see some familiarity between the knowledge community sites. For example, they all have a list of members, a team plan and a discussion area. But we also wanted to give a sense of freedom so that each knowledge community owns its site: every community can set its own editorial and author rights. The knowledge community manager controls membership of the knowledge community.
All content on KNet has an owner. This is very important because we believe that when people search for information the data they find as a result is often not as valuable as discovering who wrote it.
Critically, a knowledge community’s knowledge is not limited to that community but is available to everyone in the company. Every member of MWH’s staff has reader rights to all information in every knowledge communities via their PC or laptop.
In MWH we are keen to manage the volume of e-mail traffic sent around the company. To avoid blanket e-mails and target queries to the people most likely to know the answers (or be interested in the discussion and able to learn from and apply it) we had already established a number of e-mail discussion groups. Some were more active than others. We decided to take these discussion groups into the knowledge communities by linking them to existing discussion groups and setting up new groups for new communities. We encouraged community managers to look for similar knowledge communities to establish if they could share the same discussion group. In this way we get a greater cross flow of information between groups. The discussions are all stored in the community sites for future reference. Links to all new discussion topics and responses are sent via e-mail to all those registered on the group. Anyone in MWH can subscribe.
Communicating in real time
The communities can conduct most of their business through their knowledge community site and discussion group, but often a real-time exchange of ideas is needed. KNet includes a Sametime Meeting Centre that allows any staff member to set up web meetings where all types of document can be shown over the company network. This is generally used in conjunction with telephone conferencing or video conferencing for planned meetings with participants in many locations. If there are just two people who wish to chat over a problem or share a document the SameTime Connect tool meets this need. Of course, these facilities are not just for knowledge communities but also for project teams.
Finding out who’s who
One of the most frequently used means of communicating and sharing information is still the telephone. A key part of KNet is the Phonebook, which gives office address, phone, fax, mobile numbers and e-mail links to every member of staff. The Phonebook also contains photos and a link to all CVs.
CVs are currently held as searchable Word documents, which are maintained by local office-administration staff. However, we will soon be launching a new database application to give individual members of staff information control.
The information that exists in KNet is largely unstructured with no keywords or attributes to assign. This is because people think in different ways, so however we decided to categorise information it would be illogical to somebody else. Staff members trying to locate data or individuals to talk to therefore need a powerful search mechanism to find what they want or who they need. The search engine on KNet is one of its most vital components.
Another reason for having unstructured content is that it takes time and effort to input data with rigid categorisation and keywording. It becomes a friction in the system that puts people off contributing. A powerful search tool allows data input to be quicker, easier and more likely to happen.
Importantly, a search in KNet it also shows the author of every document found. So the user can see who is the most active contributor in that topic area and contact them directly.
Directing and monitoring feedback
The knowledge strategy of MWH is to improve what we do through what we learn by applying what we already know. Feedback is a mechanism for capturing learning but all too often feedback disappears into a black hole and no-one reacts to it. However, on KNet everything has an owner (or custodian) and therefore feedback (whether it is a document, an application or even KNet itself) is directed to the relevant person. This gives us the opportunity to improve applications and KNet functionality through feedback suggestions. There is a central record of all feedback, which is open to all staff and information officers monitor its progress to resolution.
Facilitating training and development
Developing MWH staff is a fundamental part of the KnowledgeNet activities. On KNet we provide a site where staff can view all the in-house training courses available, both regionally and at local level. Staff can see the course descriptions, dates, availability of places and can register online.
Many courses are not day-long sessions in classroom settings but short information updates on new products or systems. Online training sessions are run through KNet and by conference calls.
KNet also offers access to video clips of presentations from our annual technology conference and other technical talks given by our experts.
Forum for job vacancies
Developing a company that operates on projects and grows through knowledge sharing means that people will be needed in new areas and will move around. Allowing that to happen in a more open way is now possible through KNet. We have a site that allows job openings to be posted, lets staff express their interest and tracks progress on filling the position.
Balancing the call for more content against information overload
Many people complain of information overload but still they cry for more specific information. Our approach is to look at what information is of value to MWH’s business, and focus on those content areas.
KNet will never include everything that MWH has ever done, or documented, and the line has to be drawn with care. The areas of structured data that we believe will be of benefit to us are:
- Marketing materials;
- Track record (project descriptions);
- Contacts (staff, clients, suppliers and partners);
- Best practices (processes and tools).
These are the areas we are focusing on as the most useful information for our users. All of these are still related to our people strategy in that each one will put staff in touch with people who know about our market, track record, best practices or contacts.
Encouraging staff to use the intranet
Prior to KNet’s introduction, MWH in the UK developed a tool ambitiously called the Global Framework. This provided a storage place for best practices (how to design and manage projects, step by step) and linked them to processes. This application has now been incorporated into KNet and will link to the knowledge communities. Custodians of the tools within the Global Framework can discuss what should be done to develop and improve our best practice in that field.
We found that by introducing the new intranet to staff, the most successful venture was to put this tool, that had been used elsewhere, on the intranet. It was trusted and an invaluable part of people’s daily work, and within a few days KNet’s regular users in the UK increased by a factor of ten.
Learning about searching: provide many routes
Development of the global framework provides some interesting lessons in how employees find best-practice tools. People who are not familiar with a topic area usually start with the process flow chart and locate the tools that support the activity they wish to carry out. Those already familiar with a subject know which tool they want and will look for it in the listings by discipline or function area. Others may well go to the search and pull up a selection of tools.
We’ve learnt to provide a variety of routes for people to locate what they need to use.
To give selective views to tools we also categorise by region so that people can filter out tools that are not going to be applicable to their geographical area. Also, if we have specific confidentiality in a region we can restrict access. This has been a difficult content-management issue: first, to ensure that categorising is done correctly, and also in the programming behind the database to give the correct access routes.
This application and content has become rather complex and demanding to manage and maintain. The principles are sound but we need to develop the management.
Who controls it all?
KNet has a number of people who control content and development. The main principle for content management is that each document has an author and each application has an owner. The level of content ownership is set at the lowest level because it these people who know what the correct information is and are best placed to respond to feedback. KNet has a team with a development leader and a content leader. Information officers (IOs) are in place in each region and help manage the feedback, make announcements, offer online help and liaise with users on a variety of issues. In the UK, our IO has also been involved with new application development and the training of staff. Fundamentally, the IOs are managing the day-to-day running of the intranet, making it easy for people to access and use. They are not managing its content, which is entirely the communities’ responsibility.
When new applications are being considered people from the relevant business units are drawn together to map out what they want from the application. That is then developed into a document for the developers to work from. All developing content areas must have a business need.
Overall direction is provided by our four KnowledgeNet leaders, one from each of MWH’s key geographic business regions. This team directs the development of KnowledgeNet and, with our IT strategy and IT implementation Directors, KNet. The leaders also have an important role as evangelists in their region, ensuring that people know what’s available within KNet.
Setting up new systems
It’s not only our users who learn: in developing KNet we’ve learnt many lessons ourselves. One of our philosophies has been that if the solution constrains people, or is difficult to use, then it will be abandoned. Allow people to be human, even if it means you have to work harder to generate the IT solution. It’s also essential not to be blinkered by what is easiest for the software. Technology should do what the users need to support their changing work patterns in this knowledge economy.
A by-product of this community approach is that each part of KNet is as good as the individual people contributing to it. So we remind people that they only get out of the system what they put in. There are no magic IT operators providing the data to be accessed behind the screen. The intranet is not our knowledge; it is the vehicle for our knowledge.
Our most important lesson as developers is that we will never finish this project. Development is (and has to be) continuous, as people, times and the company move forward. Eventually we may find we have evolved into something quite different. But it will be because that’s what the users have made it, and what is best for our business. We have learnt so far:
- Don’t develop data management in isolation. We tied our intranet development to our knowledge strategy, which in turn developed from our business strategy;
- Don’t lead your KM strategy with IT. Having the knowledge communities (our users) as the focus gave us some direction for our intranet development that we as leaders could focus on and communicate to our staff;
- Accept that people do not want to be constrained by how data is entered or stored. Invest in search tools rather than rigid software. A lot of the data in KNet is unstructured. We do not want to straightjacket people so that they give up on entering data. A rapid search capability is so important for people finding data. Staff will give up looking if information is not found rapidly. And we didn’t forget to teach staff how to search to get the results they want;
- Put in tools people need and use. We put in some frequently used tools to draw people in. Our success has been in making people want KNet more than KNet wants to find users. One example we have used is to get e-mail into the intranet, as a place everyone needs to go regularly;
- Remember that people are different. Not everyone thinks the same or uses the same words. Provide multiple routes to information with search tools. This eliminates frustration and increases database use;
- Discussion is a good tool. Discussion is people-focused, and it highlights individuals who are active and willing to contribute in an area. We live with the downside that it generates a lot of unstructured content;
- Develop as you go. You can deliver more technology than people can cope with, so there’s no need to wait for a finished intranet before going live. Users cannot cope with too much in one go and their feedback can guide development;
- Accept that development will never end. There is unlikely to be any stage where we can say we have finished: development is continuous. There is always more to do as feedback comes in and technology changes;
- Give individual staff ownership to the lowest level. Managing content centrally is slow and costly, and central staff members are often not the best-qualified staff to do it. This also gives the project buy-in from staff;
- Provide the framework and the strategy, not a rulebook. The role of intranet leadership is to provide a framework within that people can develop their connections and learn. Only structure what you must for reasons of access restrictions and links to other data;
- Manage people’s expectation – Some people believe that an intranet should hold everything a company knows, in a neat codified form ready for their use, and that it will appear by magic in front of them. This is unlikely to be the case. It certainly is not the case at MWH.
Andrew Cowell is engineering manager at MWH. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Sarah Grimwood is knowledge co-ordinator at MWH. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org