posted 1 Jan 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 4
In a relatively short space of time, and with limited
resources, Smith & Nephew has succeeded in creating a knowledge-centric
intranet for international marketing and sales staff within the company. Simon
Hudson explains how the tool has developed, and offers his advise on what traps
to avoid, and which elements of the system have worked well for the
It seems that, in the information age, we are faced with
something of a paradox. On one hand, as managers and as companies we are
expected to be more effective, produce better results and use no more resources
than before. On the other hand, the amount we are required to ‘know’ to achieve
this exceeds practical learning limits. Time spent learning could be spent doing.
If only we could access the information we need, when we
need it, we could improve our efficiency and effectiveness and so deliver the
continuing growth that is expected.
We are entering a phase of ‘just in time knowledge’.
Training is no longer a sustainable instrument to keep up with developments.
Fortunately the problem comes with the germ of a solution,
in the form of knowledge management as a discipline and its embodiment in
various personal processes, many of which may be technology-enabled.
Drivers and issues
In our particular case, as a large, many tiered global
company, we faced our own ‘unique’ set of problems (unique only in that they
are set against the background of the particular structure and culture of our
Large amounts of data and information exist within the
Much of the desired information is isolated
Country offices do not have access to full information to
Speed of access to information is low
Much effort is spent recreating or re-searching for information
Key information sources are people, many of whom are
highly mobile personnel, often out of office for weeks at a time.
A survey within the international marketing department in
early 1999 revealed that information requests from our country markets took up
to 10 days to complete; 20 per cent of queries
also went unanswered even though the required knowledge was known to
exist in the organisation.
In addition, we had limited intelligence gathering,
analysis and dissemination, with no defined process and limited reporting
structures. As a consequence, management often did not have easy access to the
information if needed to support good decision-making.
It was these issues that we hoped to address through the
introduction of knowledge management approaches, the most visible being the
creation of a global intranet.
We started the process by defining what we hoped to
achieve. The intent was to:
Share information and market intelligence
Make information available when and where needed
Simplify and accelerate access to information
Improve the mechanism for associating items of information
to allow patterns to emerge and hence new inferences to be drawn
Improve robustness of the company’s intellectual capital
(so that it could be retained irrespective of people leaving or travelling).
This objective was set against a common set of constraints
Low level of executive buy-in/interest, largely due to the
breadth of other important projects concurrent with this one
Limited technical infrastructure (two prototype intranets
existed, one was limited to a single geographical site in content and reach and
had minimal uptake; the other had some good content, but was pitched at a very
general level and was not being driven throughout the organisation).
Concerns and opportunities
There were several issues we had to face in establishing
the knowledge management approach.
Firstly, we had to rethink the usual approach to managing
information as a consequence of the nature of information we hoped to store. We
had attempted, in the past, to store such information in the classic relational
database. This assumes that the information to be stored and the relationships
between the types of information can be predefined. This traditional IT
approach had failed, as the types of information we wished to store had
elaborate and chaotic relationships with other items of information - it defied
pre-emptive classification. In this respect I tend to think of this as being
knowledge, rather than simply information. This issue was summarised in a
colleague’s observation that "IT is a large part of the problem, but only a
small part of the solution".
Another issue was trying to find a balance between the
three key aspects of knowledge management, especially where intranets are
It isn’t just about technology (though it is very
seductive to many of the people involved)
It isn’t just about the information itself (though some
people make a living selling it)
It isn’t simply about what people know (knowledge that is
not applied and built on is of minimal value unless you are entering a quiz).
It is about using technology to allow people to
apply knowledge to meet business needs.
We had concerns about ongoing knowledge management and
especially document management. How could we ensure that the desired
information was being captured, evaluated and eliminated once its usefulness
had expired? How could we create global access and use in a fragmented
infrastructure and organisation?
What we did
Initially we undertook various forms of research. Most
significantly we attended a knowledge management conference, organised by Frost
& Sullivan. This proved to be of immense value, exposing many questions and
issues and providing an opportunity to create the mind space that we used to
build our approach. A number of key areas of learning stood out from the
There were many more questions than answers - even among
those companies with successful intranets.
The approach to content validation on intranets was
divided into two camps: Those that had an ‘open door’ policy - i.e. little or
no content validation; and those who used a system of ‘gatekeepers’ - i.e. all
content passed through the hands of one of more individuals for approval,
before being published on an intranet. The latter approach produced slow
content approval and high stress levels among the gate-keeping individuals.
The system for document management on intranets also fell
into two camps: Those who applied an arbitrary and draconian document
management policy (such as deleting all documents over two years old); and
those who had no policy at all. The latter case usually turned out to be a
delayed form of the first option, as an arbitrary mechanism for controlling the
number of documents tended to be applied once the intranet became too large.
I will address our solution to the second and third points
later in this article.
We also spent time discussing what else had been attempted
within our organisation, particularly within our research company and with the
people who had been involved in the existing intranets.
Finally, we assessed what type of knowledge and
information we held within our part (International Sales and Marketing) of the
organisation, which elements would lend themselves to storage on an intranet,
and which areas to prioritise based on a combination of value to the business
and ease of creation. This gave us a valuable working list, which provided some
quick wins and some high value wins. It also allowed detailed discussion with
our IT department to establish a potential technology platform for meeting
these needs and identifying a capital cost and project plan.
This learning was set out in a white paper, which was
circulated for comment and widely presented to the department and other
potential stakeholders. Within this we identified a number of important aspects of our approach:
We intended to shift the communication paradigm from push
to pull (although we have now moderated this to provide a balance between the
two). This can be considered to be changing the culture from ‘know it all’ to
‘know it when...’ and would reduce ‘death by email’. (I was receiving upwards
of 70 emails per day at this point, so was somewhat motivated by this issue.)
We intended to create an intranet as a central business
communication tool, with the IT systems that support it being treated as core
Everyone is personally responsible for their own data,
with no central gatekeepers.
By default, all published information would be available
to everyone in the company (though restricted access to documents would be
supported when necessary).
We were lucky enough to have a professional Lotus Notes
developer on contract. He was central to our progress, both by developing the
applications themselves and also by helping to define the art of the possible
(and continues to be a driving force for the evolution of our intranet
strategy). On the basis of this and many other factors we selected Lotus Notes
and its Domino web server application as our technology platform. In
particular, the free-form nature of Notes lent itself to storing the rich,
document-centric information our research had suggested was needed.
I attended an intensive one-on-one Notes training course.
This allowed me to understand the abilities and constraints of the application,
improving the ability for our developer and I to work together. Ultimately, I
was able to do most of the user interface design and maintenance while our
developer created the core capabilities of the intranet applications.
Significantly, we did not follow traditional IT project
planning, implementation and documentation processes. As what we were trying to
achieve was rather different to any project completed by IT, it was agreed that
a more freewheeling approach was valid. Consequently our development cycles
were very short, typically of the order of 2-4 weeks for first release, with
upgrades occurring on the fly. This is very much the paradigm we see today in
Internet developments, enabled by the server-thin client model (in that only
the application on the server needs updating for everyone to have access to the
new functionality). Now that the intranet is established we are introducing
more rigorous controls, as users have come to depend on a stable, recognisable
Our intranet is built on a number of discrete document
databases, including the following components:
Knowledge-base - This was conceived as a general
‘document’ store, holding news, marketing information, competitor information,
general product information, multimedia, presentations and virtually any type
of content not stored in a dedicated database. The content of this database is
provided by everyone/anyone in the organisation. Any document is given one or
more types of categorisation by the author when it is entered. Consequently,
various documents are able to be associated with each other in different views.
Thus a document about a particular new product launched by a competitor to
tackle a specific clinical problem could appear in a section to do with that
competitor, in a section on new products or in a section about that clinical
problem, even though the document was only entered once. The assumption is that
different users have different needs and approaches to browsing for
information. The different views or sections were designed to cater to these
needs, allowing a richer means of creating associations or identifying patterns
between otherwise isolated pieces of information. It is also important to note
that we set the knowledge-base up so that only the author and anyone he or she
nominates is able to change their document. However, anyone is able to create a
response document to an existing document, expanding it, critiquing it or
connecting it to other documents.
Yellow Pages - This is our people database, with a
photograph, location and responsibility information, areas of knowledge and
skill, contact information, plus a brief biography. It is really useful for new
starters who need to put names to faces, and also is a primary means of finding
telephone numbers and other contact information across our extensive
international organisation. Individuals maintain their own entries, though we
created most entries for them using information gathered at various marketing
meetings and via email.
Dictionary/thesaurus - This started life as a simple
acronyms database, yet it has evolved into an extensive dictionary of business
and clinical jargon, complete with images and links to related terms.
Market research library and clinical papers library -
These two components hold title, author, publisher and other reference
information, plus abstracts and/or tables of contents for all the physical
reports and papers we hold. Increasingly, we purchase reports electronically
and therefore publish the whole document online. User permissions are used to
manage any copyright restrictions. We also purchase a number of external
reference databases of market information from Espicom Ltd, which are
replicated regularly from their servers to ours.
Marketing materials - We maintain an extensive range of
marketing give-aways, products and related literature, plus product and
clinical photography. All these are now available to browse and order online.
The image library is especially useful as it allows PowerPoint size images to
be downloaded across the intranet. We have disallowed transfer of the print
ready versions of the images, due to their very large size (20Mb+), but these
can be requested on CD ROM, while the smaller downloadable version is adequate
for print agency mock ups.
What works well
A few thoughts on what has worked well for us:
We addressed the issue of gatekeepers by eliminating them.
We have placed the responsibility for the content on the author/publisher of
the information. This has been maintained by a combination of training,
visibility and peer review (the author of the document is visible on every
document) plus the introduction of a reliability rating, assigned by the
author, which indicates how robust the information is. Although this approach
has met with some resistance (we are a highly regulated industry, so there is
an expectation that we have independent quality controls on most things), we
have experienced very few incidents where poor information has been posted.
Where this has occurred the ability to immediately update the information
(without recalling hundreds of emails or paper copies) has proved effective.
Nevertheless, we are introducing digital signatures and may introduce a
structured gatekeeping concept in future, (although the gatekeeper will be the
author in most cases!).
The issue of document management has been tackled by the
introduction of a document ageing method. This requires that the author assign
an ageing rate value to each document (between 0.25 and 60 months), which works
in conjunction with the reliability value to give the document an individual
document lifetime. When a document expires it can be deleted, archived or
referred to someone for review. The default is to delete the document.
Typically, news items (for instance) have a reliability of 3 and an ageing rate
of 2 months, and are set to delete on expiration - these documents are
automatically removed from the database after six months.
We have found it best to give users what they need rather
than what they want. Don’t spend too much time deciding on the intranet
functionality by committee. Our experience is that there was no correlation
between the things users said they wanted and their desire to use them if
available. Instead, we used our knowledge of our co-workers daily needs as a
guide to prioritising content. We then promote and monitor usage.
We carefully monitored the balance between push and pull.
Initially we tried to eliminate most of the push behaviours, but we discovered
that users liked receiving an email to prompt them to do something or alert
them to the existence of information. Our compromise has been to email links to
the information they may want. This reduces the amount of data travelling over
the email network and encourages users to look at other related documents while
using the intranet to retrieve their linked document.
From the outset it was intended that there must be multiple
ways to find/access any piece of information. Initially it was expected that
the various views that Lotus Notes allows would offer sufficient ease of
access, but we found that, beyond about a thousand documents, this method began
to break down. To counter this we have added a top-level search engine, which
is able to search all (or a user selection) of the databases that drive the
site, plus an automatically generated document reference number (it is now
possible to simply advise someone to look for document KBS1946, for instance).
We also introduced the concept of the SIP, a Special Interest Portal, which is
one or more pages built by a user, hosting links to documents, databases or
views relevant to their area of responsibility; a product manager, for
instance, can create a mini-site for their product. The main site portal has,
to date, been revised four times to accommodate the increasing complexity of
Pitfalls and failures
There have been a number of things that have not worked
well for us:
Our use of Notes plus browser is not ideal, as users have
to use two interfaces; a browser to retrieve information and Notes to enter it.
Ideally, all interactions would be through the browser, although it has not
proved possible to enter rich (formatted) text, multimedia, graphics and
multiple attachments through the browser. This will be addressed with future
Users are confused about having to log into the browser,
after they have already logged on to the network.
Discussion groups have simply not been used by our group,
despite a good understanding of their potential value. Email remains the
preferred tool for non-real-time communication.
Branding was an issue for us; we did not establish a
strong intranet name/brand, with the result that users are confused between the
portal, the intranet, Snip (our high level corporate intranet) and the
Traps we have managed to avoid are:
Poor ease of use. We have been consistent in the look and
feel of all the areas of the intranet, but the complexity of the information we
are storing continues to challenge our ability to design good navigation
Planning for perfection. We didn’t expect a perfect
system. Instead we have allowed room for evolution; things which work well
initially will degrade as the knowledge system expands, while other approaches
that are unnecessary or unworkable to begin with become viable later. Don’t
expect every facility you provide to be used by the users, even when they have
requested that feature. Also don’t expect everyone to use it - there will be an
adoption curve (classic Gaussian distribution in our case).
Deferring investment until business or IT conditions are
‘more favourable’. It is so hard to provide a good P&L argument for managing
these intellectual assets. Our initial intranet development was inexpensive
enough that we have been able to justify it on instinct, build it, learn from
it, use it and can now re-engineer it based on that learning.
It is extremely easy to publish copyright protected
materials to an intranet, especially by copying items from the Internet. We
have adopted a practice of using a short abstract and a link to the source
document on the Internet.
Beware the 5 Syndromes:
‘Not invented here’ syndrome
‘It’s your database’ syndrome
‘It was good enough for my father and my father’s father’
‘I haven’t got time’ syndrome
‘It’s not my job’ syndrome.
We have, in a short space of time and with limited
resources, been able to build a sophisticated intranet tool capable of storing
many types of corporate knowledge. This tool supports many of the activities
undertaken by the marketing teams around the globe, allowing our teams to spend
more time acting and less time learning or requesting information. In the
process we have learned much about the complexities of the knowledge we deal
with daily, exposing potential new processes for improving our effectiveness
and increasing the demand for similar (and better) solutions elsewhere in the
business. Where previously intranets were below the radar screens of IT and
most of the executives, they are now being pursued as important business tools
that enable the front end of the business; this attitude change is a reflection
of our corporate shift towards a knowledge managing culture.
Finally, don’t underestimate the effort involved in
changing the culture of your organisation. We expect it will take two years
before the intranet and knowledge management are unconsciously integrated into
daily practice, but the signs are excellent that we will achieve this.
Simon Hudson is e-marketing and strategic intelligence
manager at Smith & Nephew. He can be contacted at: email@example.com