posted 10 Jun 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 9
The knowledge: Carla O’Dell
As president of APQC and the impetus behind the organisation’s International Benchmarking Clearinghouse, Carla O’Dell has had a unique perspective on the development of knowledge-management principles and practices since before the term was even coined. She talks to Simon Lelic about her KM journey so far, and her take on the issues that will dominate the discipline in the years to come.
Carla O’Dell is a busy woman. Our conversation was first arranged over a month ago, but still O’Dell’s assistant and I have only managed to find 30 minutes in which to squeeze an interview. That her schedule is so full is hardly surprising, however. As president of the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), she has a lot on her plate. APQC is an internationally recognised, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to process and performance improvement. The company has itself just been named in the top ten of the 2003 Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises awards for North America. And in addition to her day job, O’Dell is a celebrated author, speaker and industry commentator, regularly appearing in the business press and on television. We have a lot to cover in half an hour.
O’Dell herself has been instrumental in taking APQC to where it is today. It was under her direction that the company created and launched its International Benchmarking Clearinghouse in 1992, a body dedicated to identifying and transferring best practice. Since its inception, the Clearinghouse has attracted over 500 major corporations and government agencies to its ranks. As O’Dell says, it has been wildly successful, setting new standards in defining benchmarking methodologies and pushing the boundaries of business-process improvement. The Clearinghouse has become the primary source of content for APQC’s Knowledge Sharing Network, which is in turn accessible to all APQC members. It was also through the work of the Clearinghouse that O’Dell first came into contact with the principles that underpin knowledge management, principles that have since dictated much of the work APQC undertakes.
“When we started the Clearinghouse, it was because companies wanted to find best practices,” O’Dell explains. “We worked with literally hundreds of companies, but the same phenomenon kept happening over and over again. A firm would contact us and say they were looking, for example, for best practice in the area of customer retention, the ability to predict customer-purchasing behaviour. After working with them to develop the criteria for best practice, it was not uncommon to find that one of the best-practice organisations in the field was another division of the same company that had asked us to do the study.” O’Dell and her colleagues then set to investigating why this best practice didn’t transfer; why knowledge held in one part of a company did not flow to other divisions in the same organisation. “It turned out that a lot of the reasons for this were the same problems that people now address with knowledge management,” she says.
O’Dell also credits APQC’s founder, Jack Grayson, for his drive and enthusiasm for new ideas, without which APQC’s first symposium on knowledge management certainly wouldn’t have taken place as early as it did. Grayson, says O’Dell, was inspired by Tom Peters’s Thriving on Chaos, and after reading about the knowledge-sharing projects underway at the likes of McKinsey and Buckman Laboratories, he got on a plane and started to visit those companies. Convinced, to borrow O’Dell’s phrase, that there was a pony in there somewhere, Grayson then invited business leaders around the world to attend a conference on ‘knowledge management’, as the subject was becoming known. More than 500 people showed up, including the likes of Tom Davenport, Larry Prusak and Bob Buckman. It was, says O’Dell, at that conference, held in Houston in September 1995, that the shape of the domain began to form. As she puts it, “We knew that we had found the pony.”
Since then, and under O’Dell’s leadership, APQC has run 11 consortia on knowledge management, including an investigation into emerging practices in KM, which began soon after that first conference, and, most recently, an exploration of how to measure the impact of the discipline. Over 350 organisations, including the likes of BAe, BP, the European Commission, General Motors, HP, IBM, Nasa, Nokia, Siemens, Xerox and indeed just about any other industry-leading company you can think of, have been involved since 1995. Each consortium has focused heavily on practical implementation issues, rather than just high-level theory. And according to O’Dell, “Most of what you see being practised as knowledge management around the world has been dramatically influenced by participation in those consortia, as well as the results we have published.” It is a bold claim, but, you feel, one that is not unjustified.
In the eight years since the Houston conference, knowledge management has evolved rapidly in both scope and practice. The most significant change, says O’Dell, has been in the business community’s level of understanding. “When we began, we didn’t know how to see knowledge and its flows in an organisation, we didn’t have the methodologies, we didn’t even know how to see the work of the firm in terms of what was productive knowledge to manage. It was all fumbling in the dark and learning by trial and error.” Today, however, O’Dell feels KM has come of age. The formulation of crisp methodologies and the ability to blend various approaches to KM to tackle real business problems has, she says, made a dramatic difference. Even people who are not advanced KM practitioners are now able to learn from the experiences of others in implementing KM-based practices.
The second major development O’Dell points to is a growing recognition of the need to apply knowledge-management thinking to virtually every other business issue and process. This trend is evident, for example, in APQC’s recently launched study investigating how knowledge management can be applied to Six Sigma and Lean, subjects that have themselves made a huge comeback in the US of late. “We are not treating Six Sigma as part of KM,” says O’Dell. “Turning it on its head, we’re studying how people can embed knowledge-management practices in their Six Sigma initiative. We’re asking, how do you apply KM tools and principles to enhance the bottom-line gains from your process-improvement efforts?” This approach represents a new level of maturity for KM, as O’Dell points out, and one that is already producing measurable gains. “The value proposition is in the hundreds of millions for a large firm,” she says.
Going forward, O’Dell sees collaboration, in the broadest sense of the term, as an issue that will command a significant portion of her time. Already it is a topic that has attracted a huge amount of attention, although O’Dell is convinced that KM practitioners still have a long way to go in getting to grips with the practical implications of the subject. “The phrase is simple, but the methods, tools and processes for dealing with collaboration are just now beginning to emerge,” she says. “Best practice is certainly not widespread.” Indeed, O’Dell expects both a measure of disappointment and a lot of software vendors to come away with black eyes before the benefits many are already promising in this area are actually realised.
“The other issue that really interests me is this whole question of measuring the impact of KM,” O’Dell continues. She feels KM theorists and practitioners have to some degree been misled. While she accepts that knowledge itself is intangible and difficult to measure, she maintains that the impact of actively managing knowledge is far easier to gauge. Pointing to the findings of APQC’s most recent consortium, which focused on this very subject, she argues that the key to identifying the effects of knowledge management lies in starting with a business’s desired outcome and working back from there. “Let’s say we’re in a service environment and the outcome you really desire is first-time resolution of customer requests,” she explains. “You then work backward from there to understand what processes affect that outcome, and where knowledge flows in those processes. You then back up again and ask what interventions you can make on those knowledge flows, what inputs or changes you need to make, and so on. You then string that chain together and you have a measurement system, where you should be able to see the direct correlations.” It is a topic practitioners have been struggling with for years, but one that O’Dell feels is far less problematic than most have thus far assumed, particularly if addressed at the design phase of a KM project.
There is no doubt, though, that this issue will continue to dominate KM thinking for some time to come, for the quest for a demonstrable return on investment is also shaping the industry that has grown up around knowledge management, as O’Dell points out. In common with many other industry commentators, O’Dell has witnessed a high degree of convergence in the software sector between KM, content management, portals and so on, which she feels is being driven by the customer. “As part of overall costs, technology spending has slowed down recently, because firms are saying, wait a minute – let’s get some value from this technology before we add more to it,” she says. “When companies start spending again, they will be looking for these integrated solutions, because they are trying to solve problems, to make money and to get results in accordance with the mission of the firm.”
These are the kinds of issues O’Dell will be addressing in her keynote presentation at this year’s KM Europe in Amsterdam. In addition to commenting on the future of knowledge management as a discipline and as an industry, she plans to talk about the culmination of these past eight years’ of research at APQC: the critical success factors and the practical how-tos that lead to tangible results. “Looking at some real stories about what’s happening right now, I’m going to share with people what success looks like,” she says. And in her current position, O’Dell is perhaps better placed than any to judge what warrants the term ‘success’. A word of warning to those of you planning to attend, though: make sure you take plenty of paper and a spare pen – come 11 November, O’Dell will be all yours for well over an hour.
1. For more information, visit www.apqc.org
2. Peters, T., Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution (Sos Free Stock, 1991)
Carla O’Dell will be making one of six keynote presentations at this year’s KM Europe conference and exhibition. For more information, or to register your attendance, visit www.kmeurope.com