posted 17 Feb 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 5
Running on empty? Maintaining momentum as KM matures
Securing the resources and support to launch a KM programme is a huge a challenge in any organisation, but just as difficult is sustaining momentum once the initiative reaches a certain level of maturity. Focusing on recent events that suggest something of a midlife crisis for KM at the World Bank, our cover story looks at the issue of KM sustainability and reports on a number of case histories that demonstrate both the possibilities and the pitfalls. By Jerry Ash
The recent revelation that the World Bank has shut down the last remaining vestiges of the knowledge-management unit built by Steve Denning in the late 1990s has sent ripples of concern throughout the KM community. So far, though, reports from within the bank have been sketchy, based more on rumour than reality. What follows is a factual account, and analysis, of the rise, fall and future of the bank’s KM support structure, and the impact recent developments are having on its continuing knowledge-management programme.
Originally designed by Denning, knowledge manager at the World Bank from 1996 to 2000, the initial KM programme is still used today as a model by organisations looking to launch or expand their KM initiatives. But the suggestion that the original World Bank model is undergoing dramatic change and facing something of a midlife crisis is as significant to the architects and managers of other established programmes as it is to those who are just developing KM strategies.
In order for KM to be directly linked to the business process, the ideal location for any initiative is in operations. That’s where the World Bank’s KM unit was when Denning announced he would be departing. Then a decision was made to move the unit’s functions to the World Bank Institute (WBI), a small programme connected to only about 500 of the bank’s 10,000 employees. KM was declared ‘embedded.’ The KM unit, no longer directly connected to operations, withered and was finally put to rest.
In the broader KM community, leading practitioners have been saying for some time that knowledge-sharing initiatives will have to integrate into the business processes of an organisation if the values they embody are to endure and connect to the critical success factors of the enterprise. The most radical thinkers predict KM will eventually disappear as a distinct and separate discipline, becoming simply a process, a natural way of working within the existing structure of an organisation. Others say embedding KM is one thing; having it disappear into the woodwork is quite another – a programme without the sustained nurturing of an organisation-wide unit faces the risk of inertia.
The three years of isolation at the WBI, and the failure of leadership to continue the all-out championship of KM envisioned by the original architects, resulted in the disappearance of a KM support structure at the corporate level. Where the principles of KM were embraced, the programme continued. Where KM was not yet established, there was a fading system promoting and supporting knowledge management. Eventually, an analysis by the bank’s investigative arm concluded that the overall effectiveness of the bank’s KM programme was falling.
Few in the KM community dispute the need to embed knowledge sharing in the way a company works, but most worry it will be absorbed, not embedded, and eventually disappear if it moves entirely into other disciplines not connected directly to the overall business process. There are good reasons for concern. KM carries with it an entirely different mindset than the operational practices of the industrial past or the personnel focus of traditional human-resource management. KM even differs sometimes on the concepts of training versus learning, a distinction that is evident in many corporate cultures that have not yet altered management practices to meet the demands of an on-demand knowledge-based environment.
Regardless of these real perils, most KM champions see an even more perilous future if their initiatives do not go mainstream. Many independent KM programmes have failed because they did not succeed in gaining broad support from the executive and management hierarchy or from people in the workplace.
One of the key issues in the current shift of responsibility for KM at the bank to a board chaired by the CLO is that it does not return the KM unit to the operational structure where the original architects believe it belongs. The future of the KM programme at the World Bank depends now on decisions yet to be made by those who have taken up the reins.
The future of KM at the World Bank lies in the details.
The core knowledge services were moved from the bank’s Information and Solutions Group to Core Operational Services in 1999. The central KM Board was disbanded that same year. A month before Steve Denning was to leave the bank, it was decided that the programme would be moved to the World Bank Institute. Bruno Laporte was hired in December 2000; the move to WBI took place in 2001 and Laporte became de facto knowledge co-ordinator in a small operational unit to provide knowledge leadership for all 10,000 employees worldwide. However, there continues to be considerable horizontal linkage at the bank and, as part of his WBI responsibilities, Laporte also serves as a member of the bankwide Learning Board, which was created three years ago. The Learning Board was created to refocus attention and resources on staff learning, which had been somewhat neglected during KM’s rapid growth period.
About two years ago, Laporte’s manager, Karen Millett, director of the knowledge programme within WBI, and CLO Phyllis Pomerantz decided to join forces with the objective of making reliable, high-quality learning and knowledge readily accessible to bank’s operational staff. They developed the idea for a Knowledge and Learning Environment (KLE) to bring learning and knowledge resources together and ensure their continual use in bank operations. To test the idea, they asked IBM to do an independent scoping of the programme and its feasibility, which was completed in the fall of 2003.
The report card
At about the same time that Millett and Pomerantz began their discussions, the bank’s independent evaluation group, the Operations Evaluations Department (OED), assessed the relevance of the bank’s KM initiative and the effectiveness of activities undertaken to achieve its objectives. Overall, the OED found the bank had made more progress in establishing the architecture to support the knowledge initiative than in creating the work processes and governance arrangements for carrying them out. As a result, the strategic intent of making knowledge sharing a way of doing business and empowering clients had been only partially realised.
OED’s report found the bank needed to move deliberately to embed knowledge sharing into core operational processes and to manage its knowledge services in a way that would yield a measurable return on investment. In order to more fully realise the knowledge initiative’s potential to enhance bank operations and empower clients to meet their development goals, the report recommended these three courses of action:
Management should define clear responsibilities and accountabilities of corporate, network and regional units for integrating knowledge sharing into the bank’s core business processes; ensure that incentives are aligned with responsibilities, especially at the task manager level; and, establish a strategic approach to bank participation in existing as well as new global knowledge initiatives;
Network and regional units should link their knowledge-sharing activities to lending and non-lending processes. For this, networks should set clear objectives for anchors (small central groups in each region), thematic groups (the bank’s term for community of practice) and advisory services’ support of operational teams. Regional/country units should make explicit the knowledge objectives and strategies of ‘country assistance strategies’ and projects;
Outcome objectives and supporting performance indicators should be set and procedures established for monitoring and evaluating bank knowledge-sharing programmes and activities.
Following some of the recommendations of the OED report and the IBM scoping exercise, the Learning Board began to put together a strategy to bring learning and knowledge together.
The first step in this process was to hire a programme manager, Jan Weetjens, whose sole job is to implement the new, integrated knowledge and learning programme. The initiative began moving on a two-track strategy. First, it made a successful business case and received funding for a ‘state of the art’ learning-management system, which would lay one of the technological foundations to give staff access to learning and knowledge at their fingertips. Second, it sponsored a bank-wide ART (Accelerating Results Together) exercise on the knowledge/learning idea. At the ART, it was recommended that knowledge-sharing and knowledge-dissemination activities directly linked to bank operational activities should be brought under the aegis of a reconstituted ‘knowledge and learning board’. Client-focused KM activities and ‘Global Knowledge Programmes’ would remain with WBI.
In a parallel exercise that concluded last July, the Global Knowledge Learning Department in WBI, under which the original KM programme had operated, was restructured, with its staff absorbed into other WBI departments. As a follow-up, the Learning Board, together with the ART work teams, began focusing on seven areas of work driven by the following questions:
Integration: operationally, how can the bank be sure to apply the best knowledge as an integral part of tasks managed and carried out by teams?
Transfer: how can the bank continually capture and apply knowledge and learning from its operational work?
Resources: what resources are needed to make that happen? Which activities need revamping or strengthening? The board, with full senior-management endorsement, is undertaking an expenditure review of all existing knowledge activities;
Accountabilities: what are the key responsibilities and performance indicators, all the way up to senior management?
Governance: what is the best governance structure to define strategy, establish specific policies, allocate resources, monitor implementation and resource use, and evaluate impact to present?
Core skills: does the bank have the right skills in its teams now? How will skills be developed and improved? For example, how can the bank make the most judicious use of senior people in specific areas to best leverage tacit knowledge?
IT: what are the electronic solutions needed to support the bank’s work? Challenges include strengthening the bank’s search engine and the way knowledge and learning is available on staff desktops.
Senior management endorsed the recommendations from the ART process in October 2004 and work on the seven areas is ongoing. The CLO continues to formally report to both the vice president of HR and the vice president of WBI, ensuring close integration between client and staff learning and knowledge activities. In practice, the office of the CLO has a fair amount of autonomy, but receives regular support and guidance from the two VPs and from the bank’s managing director, who receives regular updates on the learning and knowledge programmes. The structure and composition of the yet-to-be named knowledge and learning board is not yet complete, but staff is working on a set of profiles and criteria to be certain KM is fairly represented on the board.
For her part, Pomerantz is extremely positive about the merger, although she does not consider herself a knowledge guru. “What I have is many years of operational experience in development, and I am passionate about providing our staff with the tools and knowledge they need to work in partnership with our developing country clients to improve the lives of the poor.” She says learning and knowledge management have to be tightly linked to business objectives and strategies, incorporating them into the everyday work of front-line staff.
A tighter link between staff learning and knowledge management, she believes, will help employees understand and better utilise both knowledge and learning resources. “When you are a staff member on the front line, you don’t know if something is a ‘learning object’ or a ‘knowledge object’,” she says. “All you know is that you need access to high-quality, reliable (and in our business, frequently complex) knowledge, information and lessons.
“That’s the spirit in which we are bringing together the work and governance on staff learning and knowledge management,” she says. “We want to shine the spotlight on both and shift more of the resources for both closer to operational teams. We are not looking for budget savings on these; on the contrary, we are trying to reinforce them for our front-line staff. That reinforcement naturally means some shifts in some people’s work. What we want to insure against is the growth of activities that are purely ‘supply-driven’ without a clear linkage to our business needs and objectives or to our front-line staff and clients.”
Laporte agrees. He emphasises that all the original key champions of knowledge management at the bank continue to be champions and deserve tribute: James D. Wolfensohn, president, who originally proposed the KM vision; Steve Denning, for giving KM the initial boost and high profile; Frannie Leautier, VP of WBI; and, many other champions across the organisation.
“All that passion is still there,” Laporte says. “Now we’re pushing the envelope. We’re not only looking at integrating knowledge and learning within the organisation, but also at using knowledge-sharing approaches to support sustainable client-capacity development.”
The road ahead
There is probably no other KM programme in existence more critical to the mission of an organisation than that of the World Bank. For the bank, KM is not just a way of doing business, but the business itself. Helping enterprises and governments leverage knowledge in resource-poor countries is as much the bank’s major deliverable as lending and granting money. That was Wolfensohn’s vision when he originally funded the programme and it remains his vision today. Unfortunately, Wolfensohn announced during the first week of 2005 that he would not seek re-election to a third term when his current stint ends in May.
After Steve Denning built the framework for the original programme and then left the bank four years later, the initiative lost momentum and financial support because the programme failed to justify its existence. There were pockets of achievement where front-line units embraced the strategy, but many others only paid it lip service. Where KM became part of doing business in the field, it was naturally embedded. Elsewhere, however, knowledge management is a long way from being a natural way of working, and in those cases KM continues to need top-level leadership.
The World Bank’s decision to move the primary responsibility to a reconstituted knowledge and learning board has already been carried out. But as Pomerantz puts it, “The proof will be in the pudding 12 months from now.” Whether the decision is the beginning of the end or the start of a new beginning depends heavily on choosing the right direction and on the level of passion at the bank’s senior levels and at the top of the new structure. The seven areas of work identified for the knowledge and learning board appear to be a good start, but knowledge management at the World Bank is clearly in a state of flux. Only time will tell whether the decision to disband the organisation’s core KM function was in fact the right one.
SIDEBAR: BP learns environment for sharing needs continuous nurturing
BP’s merger with Amoco in 1998 brought two KM teams together, but in a rush to complete the merger in 100 days, the KM teams were disbanded and knowledge management was declared “embedded”.
During the merger, management decided it had bigger issues to resolve than KM. Though the merger created a need to re-embed KM in consolidated operations, the decision was made to shut the support teams down. Kent Greenes, who headed the BP team, went off to head up KM at SAIC and most of the rest of the KM specialists chose to exit the company. Geoff Parcell and Chris Collison, who co-authored the book Learning to Fly to provide an account of the construction and growth of a first-class knowledge-sharing programme, became the last of the team to remain at BP.
Under the new arrangement, knowledge management was the responsibility of the head of technology, who tried to get the heads of business streams to act as a steering group. There was, however, a lack of appetite, although where KM was strong it stayed strong because people believed in it; it was the way they worked. In that sense, it was embedded.
“We focused the new KM approach on business imperatives, such as better use of capital in major projects, in operations excellence and in health and safety,” Parcell says. “Generally, we didn’t call it KM but that’s what it was.” Nevertheless, after Collison left, the company felt it could also spare Parcell and loaned him to another organisation. During Parcell’s 18-month secondment to the UN, he helped develop approaches for sharing responses to the HIV pandemic on a global scale. When he returned to BP it was with “fresh eyes”.
Meanwhile, when management sponsors moved on, they were not replaced and others had different priorities. “More than that,” Parcell recalls, “some had a feeling that networking was not delivering value, that networks had become clubs where people met to chat.”
Since the merger with Amoco, BP has also bought Arco, Aral, Castrol and TNK, among others. The corporate mix has resulted in many ways of doing the same activity and BP has begun to see it needs to reintroduce standards and guidelines. Approaches that were taken for granted were to be relearnt; and, the learning is taking place in multiple directions.
“In projects and drilling we recognise we need to get better at tapping into lessons learnt from previous projects at the local level,” Parcell says. “But people in leadership positions still feel KM has become instinctive and needs no central resource, only local application. I think the environment needs continuous nurturing and adaptation to the changes in the organisation, in strategic goals and in the external environment. We need a common framework and language at the highest level across which knowledge gets shared. So, if we are sharing drilling techniques, perhaps it’s okay to keep it within the drilling function. If we are sharing knowledge on selecting a drilling location, then other functions have a stake in the decision - geologists, economists, environmentalists.”
Interdisciplinary KM may be on the comeback trail at BP, and Parcell believes there is a need to manage what the organisation knows about knowledge management. “Only then will we truly learn to fly,” he says.
SIDEBAR: Clarica/Sun Life merger spells death to knowledge programme
The story of KM at Canada’s Clarica life-insurance company is an example of just how badly things can go awry. The initiative was highly renowned and was led by celebrated KM thought leader, Hubert Saint-Onge. Nevertheless, the last vestiges of the programme had disappeared by the end of 2004.
Even as Sun Life negotiated to acquire Clarica in early 2002, Saint-Onge privately predicted that Clarica’s KM programme would die rather than be expanded to provide KM leadership to the combined organisation. Saint-Onge prepared to set up a private consulting practice. His colleague, Debra Wallace, with whom Saint-Onge co-authored Leveraging Communities of Practice for Strategic Advantage, decided to stay on. She watched the obliteration of just about everything that had been done at Clarica to implement a knowledge and learning strategy.
According to Saint-Onge, “These efforts require a lot of work to put in place, but are relatively easy to dismantle. After the Sun Life acquisition, it was not about decentralising; it was about dismantling. The new owner never really took the time to understand what was being done and why. Then and now, the knowledge and learning effort was seen as an unnecessary expense lacking justification, pure and simple.”
Wallace, who left Sun Life a year ago to join Saint-Onge in his consultancy, explains that part of the knowledge and learning team was dismantled in January/February 2004, with the remainder effectively wiped out at the end of last year. “A couple of team members were moved into the organisational-effectiveness practice in HR,” she says. “A few who saw the handwriting on the wall moved into training positions within the business lines over the last half of 2004. But of the people who are left, none is functioning at a strategic or management level. The succession of senior executives who replaced Saint-Onge never did understand what ‘knowledge’ is. So while Wallace tried to keep the principles alive, she was fighting a losing battle. The focus of the strategic-capabilities unit basically became HR-issue driven, based on the needs to manage the integration with Sun Life.”
Saint-Onge adds a broader view on the sustainability of KM during times of organisational change: “I have seen decentralisation in a number of companies that had a good start, and then came to feel the issues were looked after and that they could ‘devolve’ the central KM group. In most of the cases I have seen, it has turned out to be the end of the evolution of the knowledge platform. My sense is that you can devolve at one point but it has generally been done at too early a phase. In any event, it should always be done with a well defined and highly co-ordinated governance structure, dedicated specifically to the development of the knowledge platform and its utilisation by business segments.”
SIDEBAR: Xerox looks forwards to next phase for KM
Xerox institutionalised a knowledge-sharing programme ten years ago and launched its broader KM programme in 1996-97. It built its programme around one director for leadership and guidance at the corporate level – Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate strategy, who was given additional responsibilities as chief knowledge strategist. In the subsequent seven years, Holtshouse became a KM icon. The programme evolved as originally intended with a very small corporate-leadership role and heavy, direct implementation in operations.
To be successful in his solitary role, Holtshouse had to promote KM throughout the operating units or it would have died from lack of interest. Eureka, the knowledge-sharing system in the service group, is still alive and well after ten years in operation. Over 85,000 solutions have been entered into the system over the years, all on a voluntary basis. Xerox also has a new customer system up and running to continually sense and respond to any problems customers may have. This customer network – a little over a year old – is being rolled out to major accounts now. The KM programme thus continues to be successful at an operating-unit level.
According to Holtshouse, “The tackling of KM projects is not a focus at the corporate-leadership level now. The operating groups already know how to continue doing their part after years of practice, and I spend my time focusing on concepts for the knowledge workplace of the future and knowledge-work productivity, which is, of course, also an element of KM. The current focus on new expressions for KM through knowledge-work productivity, personal-knowledge workspace and the future of the workplace is starting small at the corporate level and more heavily at the operations level. This area of interest is in the early stages of development.”
Xerox continues to participate in selected KM events – like Ark Group’s own KM Europe – but, in Holtshouse’s words, “We do not offer KM consulting services since the market never really developed in the US. I would say we are focused on a maturity strategy now as it relates to KM institutionalising what is useful, and looking into the next phase around knowledge-work productivity.”