posted 1 Jan 1998 in Volume 1 Issue 3
Building at Shell
Dr Marcus Speh, Senior Adviser for Corporate Information Technology, Shell International examines Shell's concept of the Knowledge Community and some examples of the change issues involved in building them.
Computer-mediated communication can help create and sustain relationships and communities. Often, these communities are called 'virtual communities' because their members relate to one another via electronic media and are separated in space and time. At Shell, we are interested in a particular kind of virtual community - communities which manage their knowledge. Building Knowledge Communities is an important phase in the KM Framework for the Shell Group.1 The motivation of this article is to share some of our thoughts around the Knowledge Community concept and a couple of examples which illustrate the change issues involved in building them.
The central task for the organisation in this phase is to provide mechanisms for Knowledge Communities to assemble and disassemble. A Knowledge Community can coincide with a traditional group in an hierarchical organisation: a project team, a department, a group of people gathering for a discussion meeting etc. However, the concept is more powerful because a Knowledge Community can be virtual in the sense that it transcends the boundaries of traditional communities not as an exception, but as a rule. Some of these boundaries are: different place and time, different motivation, different skill set and expertise, different gender, and so on. Isn't it true that a group of sales people and a group of engineers are two distinct communities with a minimal overlap of useful knowledge - after all, the sales force is responsible for customer knowledge, while the engineers are responsible for resolving customer problems at the technical level only? Wrong - in actual fact, a Knowledge Community which includes both members of the sales force and members of the engineering communities can be an important driver for product/service innovation: their best practices combine knowledge about the customer with knowledge about the customer's problems and about the whole process of resolving a customer issue.
As a general rule, looking at the interface of two 'traditional' communities who have well-defined knowledge bases and turfs, can be a useful exercise for the KM practitioner. In fact, the knowledgeable and experienced members of most communities do know better than to isolate themselves: they often generate a lot of knowledge and satisfaction from crossing institutional boundaries as individuals. In the knowledge managing organisation, individuals and communities alike are given opportunities and methods, to do systematically what mostly happens only informally.
In practical terms, Knowledge Communities are built with the help of a variety of steps. Examples include:
|creating virtual best practice centres, serving as places to amalgamate best practices from previously separated communities; Knowledge Communities can be motivated to 'brand' themselves within the company - and you can use the healthy competition arising from their race towards becoming the best Knowledge Community to further the cause of KM;|
|setting up global project teams consisting of people from different communities; the intellectual property teams which have been set up in some chemicals and pharmaceuticals companies may serve as an example: here, patent attorneys, researchers and marketers are put together in teams; and the globalisation in Shell's Chemicals business is driven by a global management transition team which operates as a virtual team;|
|creating links with external providers of knowledge; either professional services or - often very productive - the extension of a team by an expert external to the company who is not a consultant, but works with the community to improve his/her own knowledge (or just because it's fun to leave one's box!). NB: before you can establish these links (which are common in research communities) you may need to check with your legal department on intellectual property and copyright issues.2|
|encouraging pioneers and knowledge champions (and giving them a proper IT infrastructure); these are two important roles which deserve an article on their own. Champions are the nuclei of Knowledge Communities. These are the people who lead by example - ideally, they are the hierarchical leaders as well; pioneers can be new employees who are bringing something with themselves from the outside world which could be exploited by the culture (but which may be hard to detect for people very comfortable with the old world);|
|leading the Knowledge Community by example and through active participation (yes, there is 'inactive' participation too); to make KM work at the community level, leaders must be seen to live by their own word. If they deliver a talk at a conference, if they pull material together for a board meeting, they need to be seen to contribute the packaged knowledge which may have resulted from these activities to the Knowledge Community knowledge base;|
|hand holding can be provided by knowledge professionals - I have written about that in an article in the October/November 97 issue of Knowledge Management. These professionals can facilitate, help structure activities and add an important element of continuity to the journey of the Knowledge Community;|
|providing interesting new tools; there are a number of environments around which can very effectively support Knowledge Community building. To select only one which has been 'tested' informally on the Internet for over a decade: MOOs (an object-oriented version of multi-user dungeons or MUDs, developed originally at Xerox PARC) are such an environment. MOOs are now employed for distance and group learning. A small US company, Method (www.method.com), creates scenario-based MOOs which can be used to glue communities and learn by role-playing;|
|organising a KM 'Knowledge Community' - a community of KM practitioners as the custodians of the enormously valuable knowledge of implementing KM across the organisation.|
This is only a selection of what you will recognise as a very wide area of potential measures. Many of them are untested in the context of a systematic approach to improving the management of corporate knowledge, a lot of which resides in Knowledge Communities. But they are well known to every one of us, too, because we are social animals and coming together for purpose is our speciality as a species. A discussion of the substantial body of research done in this area is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article.3 However, most of it is not directly interested in KM, but in understanding virtual communities for on-line commerce.
There are many examples of working Knowledge Communities in Shell at present. For the purpose of this article, I have chosen to very briefly introduce only two of them which, in some way, are at opposite ends of the Knowledge Community spectrum.
Shell's Expatriate community is probably the oldest Knowledge Community of the company. What may be the largest collection of corporate expatriates in the world is a dynamic group of experts, a living organism of knowledge. A lot of care has been invested over Shell's long history into building this Knowledge Community, and other global companies have undoubtedly developed similar mechanisms to cope with the shortage of skills in technically challenging areas. However, the recent transformation of the company has led to a situation in which 'growing one's own timber' is not sustainable anymore. As a result, more and more expertise is available only at one or two arm's length - through experienced hires who may not be long enough in the company to be integrated in the expatriate community, or even only through contractors. In other words, this Knowledge Community has become fragile and vulnerable to changes. To strengthen it and 'package' the enormous number of lessons learnt during its creation and service to the company is a big challenge for Shell. This case may serve as an example for a powerful networked community of people which needs to re-engineer itself to be of lasting value to the future organisation.
In Shell's Oil Products business, an Instrumentation Customer Service Centre is established on the Shell Wide Web (Shell's Intranet), which functions as a single window to instrumentation expertise around the Group. A customer can find out who the relevant expert is, contact him via e-mail, ask for technical advice, find relevant best practices and search for current knowledge in his area of interest. Other options include links to related (Shell specific) Vendor web sites, and to research and training departments. Most importantly, the virtual community of instrumentation experts in this example transcends the 'official' experts - the customer service centre is actually run by the customers themselves who do not have to go through a central bureau for advice and solution, but who can now shortcut and go to the 'real' expert who is most likely to be one of them who has solved the problem in the past. The importance of the central service centre remains as the virtual centre of excellence which keeps records of all the packaged solutions and provides a framework for the customers of the centre to meet and discuss in a newsforum on the website which is moderated by one of the central experts. In addition, the service centre has employed a 'knowledge manager', a veteran in the area of instrumentation, who spends several days a week going through the databases and the electronic correspondence, packaging solutions for later use. The concept is now taught to members - simply by adding a short KM module to every course organised for members of the Knowledge Community.
Within the Shell Group KM Framework, Knowledge Community building is the next step for a whole lot of communities who have understood the importance of managing their knowledge and have started to get basic tools and methods in place to get going. Whether or not KM can be sustained as a communal 'pull' effort, carried by the needs and the contributions of the many, is a real stepping stone for the success of any KM initiative in the organisation.
Dr Marcus Speh is a Corporate IT adviser in Shell International. He can be reached at: