posted 15 Nov 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 3
Global knowledge sharing
Millward Brown developed its corporate intranet as a tool to share client information and knowledge over a rapidly expanding and decentralised base of global operations. Jean McDougall describes the developments leading up to the launch of MBOnline in October 1998, and reports on the company’s progress since then.
Millward Brown is a global market research agency – a worldwide leader in understanding and evaluating brand equity and the contribution of a brand’s total communication mix (its advertising, sponsorship, PR, website and so on) to building that equity.
Each year we interview close to 12 million people around the world. Our clients are a mix of Times/Fortune 500 companies, and local companies in the 25 plus countries in which we have offices.
The research studies we conduct are based on a validated suite of integrated research products, developed to help marketers drive their brands or services forward. However, each study we design is bespoke for a particular client, and the data from each belongs to the client who pays for that study. Often, we conduct studies across borders and across regions.
The company began business in 1973 in Warwick, England. Until the mid-80s all work undertaken was in the UK. That changed with the purchase of a research agency in the US in 1986, bringing the total number of offices in Millward Brown to three – five years later, that number had grown to six.
At this stage it was still relatively easy for those dealing with clients to share analogies, precedents and case histories across offices. Most client facing staff in our offices knew each other, and although the process of sharing was informal, and somewhat hit and miss, for the most part, it worked.
However, a further five years on, and those six offices had mushroomed to 27 and within a further four years to over 40.
With this growth came an explosion of information floating within our world – not just on findings from research studies we were undertaking, but from our local operational departments too.
It would have been all too easy to let things continue as they were – business around the world was booming, and profit levels were very healthy. But if the following had not happened, it is highly likely that the shape of Millward Brown’s business would be somewhat different to how it is today.
Board level vision
At the end of 1996, knowledge management was not a mainstream business term, and few boards spent time discussing it. However, it was at that time that Millward Brown’s plc board recognised the potential value to its clients of the untapped knowledge sitting in the heads of all of those working in its then 27 offices around the world.
Since the plc board was keen to leverage as much knowledge as it could, it would have been easy to have turned this into an open project. They could have invited all who wished to contribute from all departments across the company to get involved, and taken advantage of the technology which was becoming available to aid this macro level knowledge sharing.
But that is not what they chose to do.
A focus on business objectives
What we did do was to begin by thinking about why we were in business. Our mission statement stated clearly that what we were there to do was to ‘help our clients build profitable brands and services through research based consultancy’.
Using that as our start point, we then asked ourselves one simple question: How could we turn into knowledge the information we gather from all around the world so that:
- It would enable us to answer our client’s increasingly complex marketing questions in a way which would help them grow their brands more profitably,
- and at the same time, let us add value to what we were able to offer those clients?
There was only one answer to this, and that was to focus our knowledge sharing on the client service part of our business. That is, the part of our business responsible for interfacing with clients on the design of research studies, the analysis of the results from those research studies, and for turning those results into actionable findings and recommendations.
We accepted that we would need user friendly IT systems and good data storage to do this. But we believed strongly from the outset that information – even carefully categorised in an accessible system – would not be enough to answer our clients’ questions. What we needed was a way of using constructs to turn information into relevant action.
Simply opting for a knowledge management system built around communities of practice was also not going to work. Our business had grown so quickly that there were just too few people with a good global overview of the key issues facing our clients, as well as experience of working across all of our integrated suite of products. And among those who did, most were spending so much time travelling on multi-national client business that contributing in a meaningful way to a community of practice would have been an impossible task.
So, we opted instead for a knowledge management system that would allow us to create vetted and assessed corporate knowledge. We accepted that this was going to take longer, be more costly, and be more labour intensive than other approaches we might have taken. But we believed it was the best approach for our business at its particular stage of development.
Beyond the need for knowledge management per se
Because ours was a vision which went beyond recognising the need for knowledge management per se, we did not opt for a librarian or an IT person to drive the programme. Instead, we appointed a senior director with a background in multi-country research and client issues, as well as managerial experience, underlining the plc’s commitment to the philosophy of knowledge management. That director reports directly to the group chief executive.
With someone in place to drive vision into reality, we then appointed three regional knowledge managers: One in Chicago, USA, to service the Americas; one in Warwick, England, to look after the UK and the rest of Europe; and a third in Sydney, Australia with responsibility for the Asia-Pacific region.
Again, all had strong client service backgrounds. The fact that we opted for a regional model not only reflected the globality of our organisation but reflected our belief that if information was to be turned into knowledge which is actionable, there would be a need for cultural relevance. Local regions agreed to fund the knowledge managers reinforcing local buy-in to what was to be a centrally driven project.
Before work began on deciding what should go into our system, we surveyed all senior client service staff around the world to determine the sorts of marketing-led questions their clients asked them most frequently, and which bits of knowledge they felt they would most value having at their fingertips. This feedback helped to determine the shape of what we were to develop. It also helped us define the knowledge managers’ remit more finely.
Choosing the best system for our needs
Prior to formalising our approach to knowledge management, we had looked at a number of document management systems, and had experimented with one. Our experience with this underscored our belief in the need to create something very simple and easy to use, and very end-user driven.
At that time, our IT department was putting in place a global WAN, so an intranet platform for our knowledge management system made intuitive sense.
However, even though we were quite clear what we wanted this intranet to deliver, there was pressure, by those in the organisation who understood the potential of IT, to create a fairly unstructured intranet, with a flat architecture and very wide area searches.
Our IT experts were passionate that the best way forward was to ‘just load some content on there and use search engines to do the rest’.
The knowledge management team was equally passionate that what was needed was a very tightly defined architecture that was intuitive for client service to use. We also believed, based on our understanding of the client service job, that we should build search engines within key sections of our intranet; for example, search only on case histories, or only within company viewpoints rather than encourage searching across the entire site.
This was a very difficult time for the project and those working on it. But, the route we finally went down – based on a full understanding of how the end-user would use the system, rather than on what the system was capable of doing – has proved to be the right one. After 18 months of planning, including a couple of months piloting to ensure all worked perfectly, our intranet went live. That was in October 1998.
Concentrating on basics
At one level, the system we developed was, and continues to be, very basic. We used Windows FrontPage to ensure it could be easily administered in house, and we optimised on the lowest spec internet browser then available in any of our offices so we could be sure it could be accessed by all. We created content in HTML, but ensured that our intranet administrator could load, and users retrieve native Powerpoint and Word documents – essential for client service who use Powerpoint for all client presentations, and Word for all sales proposals and study reports.
Content was loaded onto 3 servers: One in the US, another in the UK, and another in Australia, and a system was put in place to ensure that if any one server were to go down, users would be automatically routed to the knowledge they needed on one or the other servers. A ‘once in 24 hours’ system for replication across all three servers was also put in place to ensure that everyone in the world would see the same content at the same time.
By mid-1999, all offices around the world were linked in via a global WAN, and offline access enabled via an extranet server.
The business benefits
When work began on this project, we had around 30 offices. Those in established offices were looking for a way to add value in an increasingly competitive environment. Those in our newer start-ups, although excellent researchers, had limited experience of Millward Brown, its philosophy and its products. And yet our growing list of multi-national clients was demanding the same level of understanding of our philosophy and products whether an office had been open for 10 days or 10 years.
By focusing on the client-facing part of our business, and creating a knowledge management system where everything on that system is vetted and assessed by the knowledge managers and then by distributing that knowledge via our global WAN, we have been able to:
- Ensure consistency of our philosophy and message around the globe, particularly key for those joining the company
- Ensure consistency of approach on our products and analysis of results, again important for new recruits
- Ensure visual consistency in all we do, wherever we do it
- Ensure real time access to our latest thinking and developments (we spend around $2m a year on research and development, but in the past knowledge of those advances had been sketchy around the organisation)
- Create an open inquisitive culture where there is very positive recognition for contributing to our knowledge bank
- Create a wealth of shared learning.
We know we have won business in many parts of the world because of the speed with which we have been able to respond to clients on new business calls. We know we have won multi-national business by being able to put together well thought through, consistent proposals and sales pitches (containing relevant, up-to-date debranded case history material) within countries and across regions. We know we have expanded existing business because we have been able to use our global client responsibility database to put new business teams in one country in touch with teams already working on a named client in another. And we know we are able to retain clients because of the knowledge we keep on individual clients within our client teams section of the system, and because of the instant access all in our world have to case histories, analogies, and so on. We know that we are daily able to add value to what we do in a way which was unthinkable even two years ago.
The power our system has given us facilitated our opening offices in six new countries during 1999 alone. From day one, all in those offices had a clearly signposted way of accessing our body of corporate knowledge. MBOnline has effectively allowed us to collapse the learning curve for new offices and new recruits, and to provide a tool for those in established offices to add value to what they offer clients.
Going back to where we started on this project, ie. to our mission, it is very clear that our approach to knowledge management has indeed helped us to help our clients build profitable brands and services through research-based consultancy. Our 1999 turnover growth of over $30million is testimony to this!
Today, we have four knowledge managers (perhaps a misnoma since all are in fact at the level of client service director): One in Warwick, one in Milan, one in Chicago, and one in Singapore. Our regional model for gathering knowledge and giving it local relevance appears to work well.
None is the same as when the project began, and our reasons for this are clear. We believe that those who are best at turning information into knowledge are those who are still close to the client experience and the client service function. Equally, networking, encouraging, cajouling those at the coal face to share learnings is an exhausting experience and one which is difficult to maintain with the same energy levels for longer than around 18 months.
So, at Millward Brown, the knowledge managers’ role is a rotating one, although both management and administration remain the same over time.
On average, each of our knowledge managers spends around two days a week answering client service queries from their region, and helping the other knowledge managers to put a more global perspective on what they are working on. New knowledge built up through answering queries is carefully written up and loaded on to the system. The rest of their time is spent networking around their region, exploring databases, keeping up with competitive intelligence, vetting case studies, preparing papers and more general company viewpoints and so on.
Usage of the system itself by client service staff around the world has grown and is now steady both over time and across region.
Not long after we launched MBOnline, we began using the system to disseminate news of particular interest to client service. But we quickly realised that MBOnline could reach all staff around the world and could be used to share news on all aspects of company life.
We soon shifted the emphasis from client service news, to news for the whole company. And this section of MBOnline has proved to be by far the most popular. News content is mixed, from group wide announcements made by the CEO, to news and photographs of new office openings, or new appointments, news and links to our latest white papers, interesting new case histories, news of client wins and so on. Recently our group R&D director appeared on a CNN business programme – that video is now online for staff around the world to see.
Local operational knowledge
It also became clear soon after the launch of global MBOnline, that there was a role for local knowledge sharing particularly at a procedural level.
We took the view that each local country/region would best understand how it wanted to make use of the available knowledge technology to drive its own business needs. Now we have four local level intranets in place which encourage and facilitate local knowledge sharing at an operational level. All contain the same news as that which appears at the global level, although local regions are free to intersperse this with local news content. And all link through to the global level of MBOnline and vice versa.
As we move into a more established phase with what has, until now, been a very client service-focused global MBOnline, and as local companies decide how best to make use of their local online services, we are beginning to debate how best to broaden our knowledge sharing globally.
The next steps
Although not yet fully debated or agreed, it seems likely that later this year, global MBOnline will undergo a major facelift.
All our client-focused knowledge will stay, as will our knowledge managers who will continue to build and improve on what is there. But their role will expand and alongside others, the knowledge managers will help to develop a global training framework and training materials for all client service staff. Until now, this has been done locally. Training materials/self training modules will ultimately reside on MBOnline. In addition to this, a site will be developed for global operations, with relevant links to local procedures on local online. A similar site will also be developed for global human resources.
Once again, we will continue to ensure that whatever appears at the global level of MBOnline has been vetted and assessed. The administrative staff who have until now had responsibility for loading client service content on to the system will take responsibility for loading all global content onto the system wherever it originates in the organisation, thus maintaining a common look and feel to all vetted and assessed knowledge.
As a company, Millward Brown has seen the benefits of using human networking skills as the basis for knowledge building and sharing. We would envisage continuing with this approach as we move into our next phase of knowledge sharing around our world.
Jean McDougall, is group director of communications and marketing at Millward Brown.She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org