posted 18 Dec 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 4
Profile: Ash Sooknanan
The knowledge: Ash Sooknanan
If you’re struggling to understand what it means to live in a knowledge society, Ash Sooknanan is on hand to help. Drawing on his KM experiences working at the Bank of Montreal and Canada’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, he is putting the finishing touches to his debut book, Knowledge Shock.
By Sandra Higgison
Knowledge management (KM) is common sense. Academics and KM thought leaders can spend hour upon hour discussing possible definitions or creating complicated equations that measure its value, but at its very core, KM is simply a bunch of activities and tools that help organisations and individuals access, use and make sense of what they know or need to know. Turning common-sense ideas into reality, however, can be less straightforward.
After building one of many large IT systems at Canada’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) in the early 1990s, Ash Sooknanan spent a week putting all his documentation, programme notes, reports, templates and best practices into a Lotus Notes database. To him it made sense to find a way to share things that could be re-used by other developers. As employees across the WSIB cottoned onto the value of sharing, the system grew and became known as the Intellectual Capital KnowledgeBase (ICK).
Although he didn’t realise it at the time, this was textbook KM and it caught Sooknanan’s attention and curiosity. Twelve years later he is taking time off from his KM role at the Bank of Montreal to finish his first book, Knowledge Shock. His curiosity remains strong although many of the questions he seeks to answer have changed.
Despite his family’s early aspirations for him to become a minister at his local Presbyterian church in Trinidad, most of Sooknanan’s 30-year IT career has been spent in Toronto, Canada. Since adopting knowledge management as his field of work he has broadened his focus to take in its role and impact on organisations, society, people and even the global economy, the results of which will soon be available to us all. His book, Knowledge Shock, which will double as a thesis for a Masters degree, began as a case study on KM practice that has expanded to give everyone, not just knowledge managers, the opportunity to see how knowledge affects the world in which we live.
When Sooknanan began work on ICK, many of Canada’s large cities were talking about recycling. “We had the three Rs,” he says. “Reduce, re-use and recycle. I started thinking about the green theme and wondered whether we could do something similar with our work in IT and reduce how much time we spent building systems.” At the same time, the WSIB’s chief information officer (CIO), Valerie Adamo, was asking the team to find ways to leverage its successes. ICK met all these needs and was based around three major components:
- Accelerated solutions knowledgebase (ASK): a repository for all the company’s procedures and methods;
- Staff empowerment and enabling knowledgebase (SEEK): for documents such as human resources (HR) department forms and policies;
- Knowledge capital knowledgebase (KNOCK): to help employees find people and resources with specific areas of expertise.
Instead of going after the vice presidents and senior managers, Sooknanan asked who actually got the work done and was pointed towards the branch secretaries and executive assistants. “I showed them how they could add their memos and minutes to ICK and explained the benefits. As these documents would be stored electronically centrally anybody who needed them would have access and could search for them with keywords. Once they understood what was in it for them they were more likely to change the way they worked.”
As ICK became part of the organisational furniture, demands for information from outside the WSIB began to snowball and he soon had to start turning down invitations to speak. “The University of Toronto invited me to talk to its students about our work and entitled the session ‘the next killer portal’. At that time I didn’t even know what a portal was,” he admits. These events gave Sooknanan new perspectives on the opportunities the WSIB could grasp. “It was great to be there among these organisations and knowledge-management practitioners,” he says. “As the WSIB is a public sector organisation we could show what you can achieve without a big budget and by offering recognition as an incentive to share knowledge and contribute.”
Knowledge management gained a secure footing at the WSIB with the creation of the KM practice and Sooknanan was keen to see where it could take the organisation. In 2000 the practice received a silver medal in the Government in Technology Distinction Awards and by 2001 it was looking at KM on a wider scale. “We wanted to see if we could tie together our IT systems and databases with those from Ontario construction associations and the Ministry of Labour. We all focused on workplace illnesses and injury but often gave differing statistics. I wanted to see if we could use KM on a wider scale.”
It was during this time that Sooknanan accepted the role of senior KM consultant at the Bank of Montreal. “I had worked at the WSIB for nearly 15 years and enjoyed it all,” he says. “But I hadn’t experienced knowledge management in the private sector and I was given the most wonderful opportunity.” In 2001 the bank failed to meet all its performance targets and was looking for ways to improve revenue growth and reduce expenses. It launched Ideanet, an enterprise-wide performance-enhancement programme, to generate ideas from its 33,000 employees around the world.
Sooknanan and his colleagues built a system to enable staff to post their suggestions on a discussion forum. This was pioneering work for the oldest bank in Canada. Ideanet launched in 2002 and during the 18 months it was live it received more than 10,000 ideas from the bank’s employees around the world. “People came up with simple ideas that could help the organisation, such as changing fresh flowers to plastic and asking ATM users whether they want a bank slip rather than providing one automatically,” he says. “It was great to work on such a collaborative project.”
Ideas were passed on to different groups of people depending on whether they related to human resources, IT, finance or to a local or head office. These groups would examine the suggestion, do a cost-benefit analysis and determine the return on investment. “It was a huge group effort. At one point we had more than 300 full and part-time people working on the project. Once ideas had been vetted and reported on they were passed up to senior management.”
Ideanet was part of a wider programme to examine the organisation’s processes, to improve its efficiency and effectiveness and contribute to the bank’s financial plan and profitability. A report produced by the Ideanet Programme Office in October 2002 attributed benefits of CA$94.2m to the initiative. The key lesson Sooknanan takes from this experience is that KM must help solve real business problems if it is to receive the support it requires.
Since Ideanet closed the team has worked on many initiatives, which include examining the effects of Canada’s ageing population on the bank and the different ways people pass on their information and knowledge. Another major project was to create a roles-based portal for the organisation. “We had three or four areas that employees would visit for particular kinds of information. Now the content they see is tailored specifically to their roles and needs.”
Right now, however, all this hands-on work has been put to one side as Sooknanan focuses on completing the first draft of his debut book. It’s been a long time coming as he has wanted to live KM in both the public and private sectors before writing about his experiences. Not only that, but from what he says the book’s remit is more ambitious than most corporate KM titles. “I want it to be something that everyone can identify with, not just people who work in technology or knowledge management.”
The book starts by defining what knowledge is and gives examples from some of the great philosophers, such as the ancient Greek trio of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. It looks at the different ways knowledge has been captured over time, from writing on cave walls and papyrus to publishing books and periodicals to text messages and the internet. “The University of Berkeley in California did a study in 2003 that said that all recorded information is doubling every 18 months, which explains why we all suffer from information overload. But the book takes it a step further to say that after information overload comes knowledge shock.”
Sooknanan says that knowledge shock affects us all as we struggle to balance our lives. “Information may be doubling every 18 months, if not sooner, but we still have only 24 hours in a day in which to deal with it. The book explains why organisations as well as individuals should care about knowledge management. One phrase I use repeatedly is that we can use the knowledge we have acquired to survive or die, whether that’s to avoid a global disaster, fight disease or save the environment. We can make the choice to use it or not.”
Sooknanan tells us that we have to start thinking for ourselves as we learn to live in a global knowledge economy. “We let the media decide the news for us and choose people we trust to govern and tell us what is important.
We’ve given up much of this freedom because of a lack of time and information overload. So if we’re told that there are weapons of mass destruction, we believe it. When it turns out to be untrue we get knowledge shock. We must realise that we are also responsible because we put our trust in someone else’s care and allow others to determine what’s best for us.”
The message Ash says he is trying to get across is that if we don’t understand who, why and how knowledge is controlled we’ll get left behind. “Due to rapid developments in our communications, technology and transportation, we have problems we never faced in the past. Illness can easily spread from one side of the world to the next, Sars in Beijing one day can be at your doorstep in Toronto the next and if an oilfield blows up in Iraq today we’ll be paying more for gas tomorrow. We live in a changed world and we need to learn how to deal with it.”
Listening to the enthusiasm with which Sooknanan describes his work, it’s easy to see why his peers voted him one of the top-six knowledge leaders in 2001. This accolade has stayed with him and has driven much of his work. “After completing the knowledge management system at the WSIB I had a short illness,” he recalls. “I returned to work within three months but it made me question what I would have given back to society should something have happened to me. If somebody finds value in the book and it makes a difference, then I’ll have done my part.”
Helping companies and individuals grow by managing knowledge is not Sooknanan’s only skill. As his mother says, he has a green thumb, and his front garden has received awards in the Toronto mayor’s blooming contests. Even though he didn’t become the minister his family wished him to, he does preach sermons of a different kind. Not all are about KM as he also helps teach web skills, and coaches and mentors dozens of people who come to him for advice. As he says, passing on our knowledge, experiences and skills is something we all need to do. It’s just common sense. n
Ash Sooknanan can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Ash(ram) Sooknanan
Place of birth: Rio Claro, Trinidad and Tobago
Education: Rio Claro High School, York University, Ryerson University, Royal Roads University (MA in progress)
Employment history: Barclays Bank of Trinidad & Tobago (now Republic Bank), Hudson’s Bay Company, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), BMO Financial Group
Personal strengths: Organised, dependable, articulate, innovative, caring
Must improve: Finding time to spend with those close to me and doing the things I would like to: writing, poetry, painting
Can’t live without: My passion for knowledge
What I do to relax: Gardening, music and time with my pet Jack Russell dog, Spike.