posted 1 Aug 1997 in Volume 1 Issue 1
Developing a Knowledge Management
Victoria Ward, Chief Knowledge Officer, Natwest Markets and Jane Alexander discuss the implementation of a Knowledge Management structure in Natwest Markets, the investment banking arm of Natwest Group.
The Knowledge Management team at NatWest Markets is tiny - just seven people trying to improve the productivity of 7,000 NWM employees around the world.
When we started work on this project in January of this year our task seemed formidable. But we have been surprised at how much has been achieved in a very short period of time, largely due to the unexpected enthusiasm for greater knowledge sharing that we have uncovered in many areas of the business.
Our program has already changed and expanded in response to demand and this has taken us into parts of the organization that we would not have predicted at the outset.
Our initial plan was to concentrate on carrying out a series of pilots. We were keen to avoid a 'top-down' approach and wanted to stimulate ideas for better knowledge sharing from within the business units, rather than attempt to impose any ideologies from on high. This would be systematic experimentation with the aim of creating a ripple effect as new ideas and tools for knowledge sharing began to spread throughout the organization. We saw our role primarily to be that of a catalyst for a series of initiatives which would be driven by businesses within NWM.
We received 14 suggestions from within the firm for the first 'wave' of piloting.
We were particularly keen to choose pilots which were about delivery to clients in some shape or form, rather than ones concerning reorganizing the internal workings of the organization.
We eventually chose a product pilot and a sector pilot because they cut across each other and were designed to tackle contrasting issues.
A proposal from Global Structured Trade Finance (GSTF) became our first product pilot. With staff in the UK, India, South Africa, USA, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Italy and Canada, this business had a clear need to manage its global information flows. There was a concern that some deals were being turned down or lost because of a lack of information about the group's combined abilities. It also had a committed champion - the managing director was already looking at ways of creating an environment which would encourage knowledge sharing.
Our sector pilot selection was the PharmaGroup - this involved those interested in pharmaceuticals, including corporate finance, equity analysts and Wood Mackenzie research as well as a wider investment banker audience. This was attractive since it operated across traditional organizational barriers and so aided the development of a new community of interest. The aim of the pilot was to examine a range of methods to stimulate innovation and, in particular, make more use of pure industry research and client knowledge. It was not seeking to collate information that was already available, but to extract tacit knowledge from individuals who may not have realized that what they knew was of value to others.
Piloting in this way would allow us to conduct small scale experiments that would test the technology without making major commitments, and help us to determine the correct level of resources needed for effective knowledge management. Any new working practices or databases that developed in the pilots could later be used or adapted in other parts of the group. As these spread they would help to change the whole culture of the firm to one of knowledge sharing.
It was important to emphasize to everyone at the outset that knowledge management is not just about introducing new technology. Even more important is the creation of new roles for people to make any new technology work. Piloting would help us define a set of co-ordination, editorial and training roles to help ensure that initial content was of high quality and that it was refreshed without involving lots of administrators. A change in people' s behavior was required. They need to see contributing to knowledge sharing as a worthwhile part of their job, not an added burden.
The only problem with the piloting approach was a danger that the pace of change would be too gradual, affecting too few people, and cause the knowledge management program to lose momentum. We decided that the optimum size of 'community' for a pilot was around 50 to 70 people and that they should be in more than one location.
The GSTF pilot involved six months of fairly intensive work before three new knowledge sharing tools were developed and available for all the staff in the group. There were three new databases:
|the Experiences database detailing skills and experiences of all staff;|
|the Product Innovations database listing new products, deals and structures; and|
|the Opportunity database giving an insider's guide to potential new deals.|
More important was the role these 'tools' played in creating new editorial roles and maintenance values. They represented the first small step towards changing the culture of the group. They won us interest and credibility, giving us some real wares rather than theories to sell, but also raised issues of overburdening individuals with yet another set of tasks in a busy day. Close connection with solutions became a key part of the persuasion process.
The new databases are suitable for replication in other parts of the group. They were never intended to be seen as the finished products of our knowledge management program, but we hoped they would provide a launch pad for future developments.
Their immediate effect was on the knowledge sharing of only 70 people.
Just before the official launch of the PharmaGroup pilot, its primary champion left NWM. We felt it was impractical to proceed on a full scale pilot without his involvement, although work did continue on a client contact planner which is now in use and ready to be copied in other areas. As well as getting previously tacit knowledge into the public domain of the group, this also allows people to put forward ideas and suggestions for forthcoming client meetings in which they are not directly involved. The consequences of the champion's departure underlined the key importance of people to any pilot and taught us the portfolio lesson - you need to hedge your bets, since there are bound to be failures.
Our activities with GSTF and PharmaGroup were teaching us a lot at the same time as developing worthwhile tools - but we needed to do more. It soon became clear that we had to find ways of making a fairly immediate impact on larger groups of people, ideally the whole firm.
Piloting was 'drilling' into the organization to provide depth of experience. This was invaluable but we also needed to gain breadth of experience - we had to put everyone at NWM on the 'knowledge map'.
Knowledge management axes
At this stage we found it very useful to focus on axes (see Figure 1) - piloting was moving us down the vertical axis, but we also needed to move along the horizontal axis. These concepts helped us to define where our project was going and how it was placed within NWM. Such metaphors also allowed us to create a simple language to convey how pilots and other projects fitted together, both to ourselves and to others.
The Collins Dictionary gives several definitions for 'axes'. We
found two of them particularly pertinent for knowledge management: in mathematics
an axis is 'one of two or three reference lines used in coordinate geometry
to locate a point in a plane or in space.'; and in botany it is 'the main central
part of a plant, typically consisting of the stem and root, from which secondary
branches and other parts develop.'
Figure 1 - Knowledge Management axes
Therefore 'axis' implies both a precise reference point for where to locate something when you need it, and the central heart of a system which allows evolution to take place around a central growth.
So how could we move quickly along the horizontal axis, finding a way of improving the knowledge management of the whole firm? We didn't want to centralize any existing information for the sake of it. We needed to create something new.
The Green Book
The answer was to create a directory of the expertise within NWM. It has been dubbed the 'NWM Yellow Pages' and 'The Rough Guide To NWM', but actually goes by the more prosaic name of 'The Green Book' by virtue of the color of its cover.
The rapid growth of NWM, largely through acquisitions, meant that a large proportion of employees had been with the company for a very short time. They did not know who or where to turn to for advice or information outside of their immediate network. The Green Book helps to fill this gap in the firm's knowledge management.
With The Green Book no one at NWM should be more than two telephone calls away from identifying the individual or the piece of information that they need.
The Green Book helps users find short cuts to the expertise or database or document that they are seeking by putting them in touch with the person who can guide them.
And there is a hidden agenda. En route to the piece of information being sought, we hope that the user will be attracted to other expertise which is available. And that this, in turn, will trigger new ideas about ways of combining knowledge from different areas into new product offerings.
Our first Green Book is very deliberately a working draft, designed to solicit response on how it should evolve, from those listed, its contributors and users.
This prototype was compiled as quickly as possible in order to secure the involvement of the businesses so that we could create a more permanent structure together.
We have been heartened and encouraged by the response to The Green Book. Many people are so enthusiastic, that, even before the launch of the working draft in July 1997, we already begun to register interest from all over the Group. Indeed, The Green Book has started to win them over to more active involvement in the knowledge management program: it opened some doors which had previously looked firmly closed.
And it has already sparked others into action. The Media and Telecoms team, which is a global community across NatWest group, have already published their own sector guide. We hope to see a whole series of these developing.
The third dimension: connectivity
Having progressed along both the vertical and horizontal axes we then sought a way of linking these together to give us a third dimension and create more critical mass. It soon emerged that one of the missing links comprised a group of key people - knowledge co-ordinators.
Both the pilots and The Green Book introduced to NWM the vital role of knowledge co-ordinator: for example, these are the people listed in The Green Book who can provide expertise about where the expertise is. They can help to identify and refresh information on the expertise in their particular area which may be a specific business area like GSTF or a community with a common interest, like the PharmaGroup.
They do this in addition to their existing roles, which means they are working from within the business groups rather than adding another administrative layer. Each business area determines who the most suitable people are - they may be a business head, an investment banker or a secretary. The key requirement is not their seniority, but their ability to act as a navigator for outsiders.
Over time it's hoped these knowledge co-ordinators will form their own community of common interest, providing mutual support and advice for each other. They play a crucial support and communications role for the whole knowledge management program; providing feedback on the real-life effects of what we are doing and on the successes and failures of all the new tools being developed in the pilots. This creates another key piece of the program - storytelling.
We have already conducted brainstorming sessions for the first volunteer knowledge coordinators in London using a collaborative, anonymous technology. This has created a platform of shared understanding about common obstacles to knowledge sharing and the goals to which we should aspire.
The importance of this knowledge coordinator role was not something we had envisaged at the start of our program, but it has proved a vital link for helping to spread the ideas of knowledge management throughout the organization and provide short cuts and connections. Connectivity becomes the third dimension, which emerges from the first two.
The importance of the knowledge coordinators underlines the fact that effective knowledge management is about people and changing their attitudes and working practices, not about introducing new technology.
The technology is simply the enabling tool to make some of these changes happen more easily. But the critical thing is to change the culture, to make knowledge sharing the norm.
An unexpected development has been our involvement with the library. Again this moves us along the horizontal axis, impacting on all users of the library. The experience of getting The Green Book assembled led to the knowledge management team being given the task of reconfiguring the library, changing it from a store of information to a source of knowledge and innovation. Our aim is to recreate it as a profitable, dynamic, high profile Business Intelligence Service.
The goal is to convert information to intelligence by expert filtering, editing, archiving and researching as well as dealing with specific searches or requests.
Piloting - the second wave
While we have had more success than we anticipated along the horizontal axis, we have also made good progress down the vertical one too.
The second wave of piloting attracted more than 30 proposals.
We only had the resources to implement 8 to 12 more pilots at this stage so we had some serious weeding out to do.
Criteria for choosing pilots
|committed, enthusiastic champions (our experience of the PharmaGroup pilot showed us how critical such people are);|
|a clear local business purpose;|
|a good mix of analogue, digital and cultural knowledge tools which can be developed for reuse across NWM;|
|a healthy mixture of targeted experimentation and recycling and developing previous pilot tools;|
|interconnections with each other to increase the ripple effect across NWM; and|
|sufficient distribution so that failures can be well contained and understood.|
We have created a very focused tool to push pilot proposals as close as possible to areas of substantial potential pay-off - either from the innovation/product development potential, or because they drive at supporting risk management. This tool consists of a 'solution space' (see figure 2) and a systematic pilot debating document which forms the basis for discussion between potential pilot champions and the knowledge team. Through this collaborative document, the precise purpose, boundaries and anticipated payoffs of the pilots - together with the necessary resources - can be debated at the outset, so that we understand our intentions from the start: what we are doing, how, why and where.
Figure 2 - Knowledge management 'solution space' The main lesson we have learnt so far is that knowledge management is all about people and their working relationships. We are attempting to expand each individual's network of contacts until it covers almost the entire firm. The expertise of the organization lies in the people who work here. It must be shared and re-used to improve productivity and create more commercial opportunities. We're not trying to create a fancy new database to contain all the facts and figures that staff may need to know; we're trying to take them to new people and new sources of knowledge and opportunity by the shortest route possible.
When describing her involvement with the Experiences database for the GSTF pilot, knowledge coordinator Cecilia Oram hit the nail on the head:
'One chap was going through the database with me and saying 'it's all very nice to know, but wouldn't you get that out of talking to the person anyway?' Now, the objective is to pick the person you didn' t know was there.'
Victoria Ward is the Chief Knowledge Officer at NatWest Markets. She can be contacted at: