posted 3 Aug 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 10
The knowledge: John Keeble
Taking a pragmatic approach to knowledge management, John Keeble has led KM programmes at two vastly different and challenging organisations. As he reflects on his achievements and the challenges he has faced, he offers advice to his peers on gaining buy-in at all levels and knowing how to turn theories into practice. By Sandra Higgison
In case any Inside Knowledge readers – probably those with an 80s bent to their CD collections (or should that be MP3 downloads?) – were expecting to learn about a surprise collaboration between the knowledge-management movement and Spandau Ballet, I’m sorry to disappoint. This John Keeble, knowledge management director at insurance broker Aon, may not play the drums or wear shoulder pads, but he is a veteran of his field and has a repertoire of well-practised knowledge-management instruments and techniques that have successfully brought about a crescendo of change to a number of organisations.
Putting the music metaphor to one side, Keeble’s work in knowledge management has bridged two vastly different companies, has involved him in the design of a cross-industry framework to help organisations chart the right KM course, and has resulted in the creation and development of new networking groups. Like many of his colleagues in this field, he says he is happiest at work when dealing with issues of change. And although it may seem otherwise, he claims he prefers to be just behind those at the bleeding edge of knowledge management while taking inspiration from those who thrive at it.
Keeble discovered knowledge management while at Enterprise Oil, acquired by Shell in 2002 for £4.3bn. He joined in a marketing and trading role and then moved to run the IT department in 1994. “The exploration director and I had asked the board of directors what they actually wanted from technology, which was – and maybe still is – a rather radical concept. One of the things they came back with was the idea of removing time and geography as boundaries. The more we talked about it, the more it became clear that they weren’t talking about networks and computer connections, they were talking about human connections. At the same time, knowledge management was coming onto the lecture circuit. There was a spark as we connected the two and realised KM was something we should be getting involved in.”
For the next 18 months, Keeble and his colleague spent their time convincing the rest of Enterprise Oil that it should focus its energy on knowledge management. “Having persuaded the company that we should do KM, I decided that if anybody was going to take it on, it would be me, as it looked like more fun than running IT networks.” In the following three years, Keeble introduced cross-functional international knowledge communities, after-action reviews and a people-finder skills database. He also built up the company’s intranet from a blank sheet of paper that became the central hub of the organisation.
Similar to his current work at Aon, the fundamental knowledge-management issues Keeble struggled with at Enterprise Oil were getting people to capture and share their knowledge. On his side, however, were the company’s environment and culture, which were receptive to the principles behind the initiative. “The vast proportion of people at Enterprise Oil had degrees, and many also had second degrees. Almost without exception it was a highly educated workforce with a scientific background,” he says.
According to Keeble, embedding after action reviews into the way employees worked, for example, was fairly easy at Enterprise Oil. “If you’re involved in a five year project to put an oil platform in place, you can see the value of these reviews,” he says. “In addition, scientific method involves reading what other people have done before starting a project, doing it and then reflecting on what you have done. With an audience of scientists, it was easier to get this message across.” The low number of techno-phobes among Enterprise Oil employees was also an advantage. “We had networks coming out of our ears,” says Keeble. “If you weren’t computer literate, you almost didn’t get a job there.”
Becoming Aon’s director of knowledge management in 2002 presented Keeble with an entirely new set of challenges: a workforce of brokers and consultants rather than scientists, short-term projects and ongoing contract renewals, and a predominant culture still reliant on paper-based processes and old-school networks. While an earlier project had identified the need for knowledge management at Aon and sold the idea of recruiting someone from outside the insurance and risk management firm to champion it, Keeble had to tell the board what the company should do. As he says, “I was greeted on day one by my boss who said ‘it’s great to have you on board; I have no idea what you’re going to do’.”
To help him devise Aon’s knowledge-management strategy, he first identified where Aon’s organisational focus lay by using the simple and practical approach of talking to as many people in the organisation as he could meet. Keeble was later intrigued to discover some shortcuts via the work of Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema, authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders. They found that successful companies excel in one of three disciplines: client intimacy, operational excellence or product innovation. “If a company’s main corporate strength is in product development, such as a pharmaceutical firm, then that’s where you’d expect knowledge management to be applied. The same goes for companies with operational efficiency at their core. As Aon’s main focus is client intimacy, our KM activities support this characteristic.”
Two years ago, at a summit for chief knowledge officers organised by TFPL, Keeble and KM peers such as Elizabeth Lank and Paul Iske, adapted this theory into a framework for honing a company’s knowledge-management strategy “We spent a weekend studying and discussing the model,” he says. “Treacy and Wiersema’s theory states that although all three disciplines are important, in reality any company can only excel at one of them. We started to look at what KM would look like according to each point of excellence and whether it changes according to which lens you view the world through. What emerged was a useful framework for addressing knowledge management.”
Returning to his early days at Aon, after spending the first few months talking to the company’s front-line people, Keeble learnt how the business worked, what their biggest challenges were, and how they thought better information and knowledge could help solve clients’ problems. “To be fair, companies like Aon have always done a certain amount of knowledge management, it just hadn’t talked about it in those terms. To help it consciously address KM, I had to sell the concept all over again and tell the board how we would address the problems, what resources we would need and secure its commitment to providing them,” he says.
Having gained the board’s buy in, Keeble soon realised that the biggest challenge was getting people to take knowledge management seriously and give it the effort it needed. “It’s always the case with something new like this, and it’s doubly difficult for something that’s a bit left field for people. As well as dealing with the big picture, you end up getting drawn into everyday issues that are just as difficult to deal with. Sometimes it seems as if winning the big battle is relatively easy by comparison.”
To overcome this challenge, Keeble chose a pragmatic approach. “You can only push people so far,” he says. “If they wouldn’t commit seriously to KM and the timetable we were trying to work to, we moved on to other areas that could pick it up and went back when they were ready for it. A lot of it is about being a catalyst and being there at the right time to make things happen rather than necessarily trying to drive through change from the top down. If you look at a lot of successful KM interventions, there is a fairly high degree of opportunism in them.”
Advice he gives other people struggling with similar issues is to not waste energy in areas that are showing resistance unless you are convinced they must buy into KM. “Go to the areas that are positively embracing KM, as long as they add value,” he says. “It’s very tempting to get drawn into trying to convert the people who most resist what you’re trying to do, but it can consume vast amounts of time and energy and not get you very far. At least ten per cent of people will never get KM; don’t worry about them unless they are in positions where they can block you from succeeding in other areas.”
This resonates with another piece of advice he says he picked up when he was a teenager. “Don’t let things matter so much that you’re easily knocked off course. When you have a big vision in mind, there are times when you have to let things go and move on,” he says. “It’s like sailing a boat – if you battle against each wave individually, you’ll lose track of where you’re trying to get to.”
As he has pursued his KM vision at Aon with senior-management support, Keeble’s time and resources have not been unlimited. “When I became interested in KM, consultants used to recommend that the first step was to map all the knowledge in the organisation, map all the knowledge you needed, compare the two and then work out how you were going to get there. Had we spent the first year just mapping Aon’s knowledge, there wouldn’t have been a second.” Keeble built his KM team around the need to start delivering tangible value quickly.
It is some of this early work that has given him the most satisfaction during his time at Aon. To help capture knowledge in a reusable format, the team brought in journalists to write case studies about Aon’s strengths and successes. “We’ve been able to show that actually paying some writers to work in the organisation is worth doing and has made a big contribution. One of the achievements he says makes him most proud is the team’s work at completely rebuilding and launching a new intranet within four months. “Suddenly we had tools to help our front-line people, all in one place, that were easy to get to,” he says. “That’s always been the vision.”
Three years later, knowledge management at Aon is still going strong. Keeble does, however, recognise that there is a long way yet to go. He breaks the journey down into three main stages: providing people with the information they need, connecting people with people and changing the culture. “We’re doing pretty well on the first one - I’d say we are 52 per cent of the way there. We’re starting to get there on the second - we’re probably 20-25 per cent down that path. We’ve a long way to go on changing the culture. I believe that you can’t go out and change a culture directly, but rather by doing things a culture will begin to change. Although we’re probably only five per cent of the way there, Aon’s culture has changed hugely since I joined, just because of other things going on in the background.”
In 2004, Keeble’s role went through its own interesting transformation as it was expanded to include marketing for Aon Risk Services, one of the firm’s six major divisions. Partly due to the impact knowledge management has had on front-line employees and clients, Keeble sees a natural fit between the two disciplines and predicts that other companies will follow suit. “There’s a definite overlap between KM and marketing,” he says. “One of the things we identified as a goal for knowledge management was to better present our intellectual capital to our clients and prospects. That sits very well with the marketing function. We’ve done a lot to exploit the common ground, but there is much more we can do. As the roles merge, KM will become firmly centred around the sharp end of the business.”
As a true KM practitioner, Keeble looks to other companies to learn from their lessons and shares his own when possible. “Theories are incredibly helpful to illuminate your own thinking process, but it’s the practical experiences of other people that I find most useful,” he says. To stay current with these developments Keeble consciously dedicates time to networking, and attending and speaking at conferences. This includes being on the steering committee of the 200 Club, a senior-level forum for information and knowledge professionals. As he says, “Part of what I find inspiring is being exposed to the groundbreaking efforts of people such as Dave Snowden, and organisations like English Nature and Scottish Enterprise.”
Having done his own pioneering work to bring knowledge management to two major companies and adding his own footprint to the industry-wide KM journey, Keeble’s desire to change things seems to be matched by his ability to deliver it. Possessing vision and tenacity, he is also skilled at clearly articulating his thoughts, objectives and arguments. The impact of these traits is visible in his work as he gains greater buy in to knowledge management activities, hears success stories spread by word of mouth and sees groups taking it on for themselves. And while Keeble’s iPod is more likely to play tracks from The Eels, Tom Waits and The Arcade Fire than Spandau Ballet, he continues to chart his own string of hits with knowledge management.
John Keeble can be contacted at email@example.com
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