posted 28 Jun 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 9
With his understanding of the technical and cultural impediments to collaboration, Sam Marshall’s ambition is to purge organisations of the systems and processes that erode the enthusiasm we have for our work.
By Sandra Higgison
Life as an intranet or knowledge manager can be lonely. Relying on public, rose-tinted success stories to tell you what your peers are doing often leaves you feeling as if you’re lagging way behind the pack.
In contrast, website strategists have their competition just a click away. Sam Marshall can, however, offer reassurance. Based on his experience as a knowledge manager and portal implementer at Unilever, and on his more recent consulting and research work, he vouches that few companies have their intranet or knowledge strategies cracked.
The overriding goals of an intranet are common to most organisations. Among other things, they aim to support knowledge sharing, aid team collaboration, be strategically visible, reflect the organisation and add value. These are all challenges Marshall has encountered at different stages of his work. As he talks about the ways he has tackled them, it is clear that his academic background in psychology, artificial intelligence (AI) and technology has set him in good stead for his chosen path.
Marshall traces his interests back to his undergraduate research on baboon behaviour. It may not have led to a career in zoology, but it taught him the value of observation, which has been key to the success of many of his initiatives since then. A masters in AI maintained his fascination with behavioural analysis. “I have always been interested in what computers can do but not computers per se,” he says. “I try to bring a people-centred view of technology, allowing me to move between knowledge management (KM), communications and IT.”
At that time, the main practical industrial use for AI was in the development of expert systems, which replicate how decisions are made in a software program. “If there is a scarcity of experts and the system can reproduce the way they make decisions, you suddenly have an infinite number of specialists,” he says. When Marshall first heard about KM he realised it was exactly what he’d been doing with AI: understanding what knowledge is and how to share it. “I began to think it was inauthentic to try solving knowledge-related issues only with software when, often, changes to a process or management practice would be more effective.”
Having become more interested in this wider challenge, Marshall joined consumer-goods maker Unilever as an internal KM consultant in 1998. “I led a three-year project to develop a knowledge-management methodology that would let us address knowledge problems in a way that was highly iterative, flexible and context-sensitive,” he says.
Until then, Unilever had used more orthodox project-management approaches that were unsuitable for ‘people change’. The methodology offered a structured process for understanding what solutions the team could recommend. It identified about 120 different interventions, everything from a community of practice to an intranet site or storytelling.
The team tested the methodology on a new venture led by Unilever’s Indian business that wanted to move into the confectionary market by selling high-quality sweets at a competitive price. “Using our methodology and a knowledge-mapping workshop we could highlight the knowledge-sensitive points. Although Unilever didn’t produce sweets, it knew a lot about flavourings from its food business, and ice cream in particular. We helped exploit Unilever’s intellectual-capital knowledge base and unearthed a patent held for a low-cost chocolate flavour that was perfect for the venture.” Without this approach, Marshall believes the Indian team would have been exposed to risks from not knowing where its knowledge gaps lay.
In 2002, Marshall’s role changed to focus on KM for research and development (R&D). One piece of work he particularly enjoyed was the creation of a learning history after Unilever won a marketing battle that involved its marketing, legal and R&D teams. “Based on interviews with the people involved you tell the story in their words as a narrative,” he says. “In the document’s margin you add a commentary to encourage the reader to reflect on what they might do in a similar situation.”
Marshall prefers these debriefs to best-practice accounts that, he believes, only give one version of the truth. “Learning histories uncover a lot of conflict about what really happened, who deserves the credit and who was accountable,” he says. “The output does not necessarily reconcile these points, but highlights where they existed and helps people understand what was going on.” A learning history aims to create a document that serves as part of the organisation’s memory, not as a rigid formula for replication, but to help people think through similar situations.
The histories sparked Marshall’s interest in how organisations maintain continuity when people retire or leave. Due to a restructuring, a number of Unilever’s scientists opted for early retirement. With his colleagues, Marshall developed techniques to help transfer those experts’ knowledge. “We didn’t want to document it all, we wanted to find people who could keep it alive,” he says. “We used a game-show format, such as Blind Date, to match expertise with the people who needed it.” The team also hosted a ‘Mastermind’ event, where people could question a departing expert.
The outcome was interesting. Even though many in the audience had worked alongside the retiring scientists for years, they learnt about projects they’d never heard of. The sessions also revitalised areas of work that had slipped from the company’s focus of attention. Those cynical towards these initiatives said the retirees would not want to take part, but Marshall encountered a very different reaction. “They were grateful to be asked,” he says. “It was a satisfying way for them to be recognised and look back on their careers. Most of them gave their home numbers should anyone have any further questions.”
Marshall was also involved in revamping the R&D intranet and was then seconded to Unilever’s European communications team to help roll out a central portal to replace the company’s 4,000 intranets. “This was a great cultural challenge,” he says. “The message it sent out with the portal was that it wanted to be more centralised. Some countries were ready for this conversation; others did not want to know.”
As each country would have to adopt a portal that was not tailored to their needs and did not give them full content control, the communications team devoted significant time to helping people understand the company’s strategy and why this was the right thing to do. In two years, the team had 42 new sites across 25 countries serving 45,000 users. “If I were to do it again I wouldn’t take on the cultural agenda without stronger back up,” he says.
When the team got the backing to roll out the portal globally, it still took a further 18 months of persistent lobbying to get the right steering group in place. Not long after the portal had been rolled out across Europe, the company launched a ‘One Unilever’ campaign. “Having a single portal helped enormously. When a new look was introduced, for example, we could rebrand every single site the morning it launched. Having a bang-up-to-date intranet sends out a very strong message. It also saved around €3mby being able to do it centrally.”
Being a ‘company man’ for life, however, is not for everyone and at the beginning of 2007 Marshall fulfilled a long-cherished dream to set-up on his own. Focusing on intranet and portal strategy, virtual teamworking and KM, he set up Clearbox Consulting. He is also working as director of research for the Intranet Benchmarking Forum, so he can now see what companies are achieving and battling against with their intranets. “The hot topic at the moment is on the growth of user expectations, especially with the next generation growing up with the web and joining the workforce.”
Marshall feels that Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs and wikis, are over hyped. “The challenge is working out how traditional intranets and Web 2.0 coexist; it is not an either/or decision,” he says. He points to some obvious applications, such as communities of practice using wikis or team blogs to capture how decisions are made, but says there is too much focus on the tool rather than the behaviour. “We’re in danger of repeating KM’s early mistakes. I spend a lot of time coaching teams on how this kind of collaboration tool can support their daily work, rather than worrying about the tool itself.” Marshall also recognises the cultural challenge as these tools require organisations to give some control to individuals. “People always talk. If they’re critical in a blog, be thankful because you can see it and do something about it. Some companies are readier for this than others.”
Marshall’s ultimate ambition is to stamp out the ill-designed systems and processes that sap employees’ enthusiasm. “In everything I do I’m trying to free people so they can focus on the bits of their jobs that really matter to them,” he says. “Organisations just need to watch their people to see where they are getting frustrated.” There are many opportunities for companies to use their intranets and knowledge strategies to remedy these situations. But before they can spot the symptoms, they need to ensure their eyes are open to them in the first place.
Sam Marshall can be contact by e-mail, email@example.com.