posted 29 Jun 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 9
Fluor is a serial award-winner for its knowledge-management systems. Jerry Ash examines the strategy that has made Fluor such a famous name in KM.
Whether self-selecting or handpicked, a community of practice (CoP) often creates a new version of the corporate silo – a virtual silo.
Topic, subject matter, location, purpose, educational background, choice, social mores, bias and many other factors determine the composition and character of a typical community. Some are subtly skewed, others appear like gated communities. Indeed, some are virtually estranged from the greater community.
Hence, CoPs can be as limited as the silos they are intended to transcend. It is, therefore, not often you find a company with a true, open, enterprise wide, inter-disciplinary knowledge-sharing system that really works.
But at Fluor, staff anywhere in the world, in any unit or function can log on and have access to corporate-wide content, experts, discussion forums and more. They only have to be a member of the greater Fluor community.
With 40,000 employees in 25 countries on six continents, Fluor is one of the largest publicly traded engineering, procurement, construction, maintenance and project-management companies in the world. Over the past 100 years, Fluor has become a global leader in providing services and technical knowledge in five main areas – oil and gas, industrial and infrastructure, government, global services and power. Its products and services include designing and building factories, refineries, pharmaceutical facilities, power plants, telecoms and transportation infrastructures.
Competition requires corporate KM
The nature of Fluor’s business, not to mention the globally competitive market in which it operates, drove the need for knowledge sharing and collaboration across the organisation and across boundaries, resulting in a company-driven KM programme.
That’s right; it’s an open knowledge-sharing system, but constructed, owned and managed by the company – quite contrary to those who believe that knowledge-sharing cannot be managed, least of all from the top.
Well, think again. Almost all of Fluor’s professional employees (21,000) are members of Fluor’s knowledge communities. There are 43 online communities that are part of the Fluor Knowledge OnLine system. In them, employees find written practices, procedures, templates, job aids and even career-path information. Likewise, they can connect with experts and engage in discussion forums to address real-world project challenges in real time. It is both a repository and a place for virtual communities and communication.
John McQuary, vice president and knowledge management (KM) lead at Fluor, says the company neither commands nor cajoles employees to participate in the Knowledge OnLine system or to join communities therein. “But it would be very hard for them to perform their work without accessing the system,” he says.
Top down; no apologies Transforming the corporate culture into one in which knowledge-sharing is done naturally – and globally – is hard work, says McQuary. “You do have to maintain some flexibility, but you also have to remain firm in what you are trying to achieve, and you have to remain true to the core values and fundamentals of your knowledge-management programme.”
The goals of the knowledge management programme and culture need to be clearly supportive of the core business, he adds. “Unfortunately, there are too many failed attempts at KM where the programme was given to a consultant to implement, technology was thrown at the problem, or the organisation was not committed to the leadership requirements and cultural change necessary for success,” says McQuary.
Even if the organisation does not fall into this common trap, trying to create an enterprise-wide knowledge-sharing culture is still challenging. For a start, global scale requires global leadership and that begins at the corporate level, while the focus radiates throughout the company and down to every desktop.
In addition, knowledge management activity has to connect and be in tune with the critical success factors of the organisation, while helping staff do their jobs better. Fluor, like many other knowledge-driven companies, recognises that the purpose of a KM system is to get better results by managing intellectual capital.
At Fluor there is a central KM team of seven, but only two are assigned full-time to KM. Those two maintain the technology platform for Knowledge OnLine, the centrepiece of the enterprise-wide KM system. The rest are part-time. Other team members focus on improving community performance and communications. McQuary himself splits his time between the KM programme and technology strategies.
The central KM staff are the enablers, the architects and global managers of the system. But the system itself is truly global, not only in scope, but in process, too.
The majority of the 43 global knowledge-communities fall into two categories – functional and business line. Functional communities represent the project-execution functions and departments, such as engineering, project controls, procurement and project management. Business-line community examples include upstream oil and gas, life sciences, and mining and metals.
The global excellence leader for each function also fills the role of a community leader. The leader’s responsibilities include maintaining a global people network, defining the practices and procedures for the function, defining career paths, choosing software and maintaining a functional development-forum to help individuals advance in their careers.
The business-line communities each have a leader who is an executive within the business line, often the business-line manager. Thus, the management and knowledge leadership of the company are both parallel and interconnected.
Each community also has a knowledge-manager responsible for maintaining the content and people connections through the online community. Like the community leaders and central staff, KM responsibilities are either part of the job description or fulfilled by volunteers. In total, there are 200+ people globally providing explicit support for what looks like a corporately managed system.
Member’s eye view
The top down structure provides an enterprise-wide framework. Beyond that, the challenge is to make sure the structure and the content of online resources and communities are based on a ‘member’s eye view’ – that is, seeing everything from the perspective of the user. Something may make sense while self-contained in one community, but from a member’s eye view (and across the enterprise), it can be confusing.
“A good example is an experience we had with our administration community. The group identified subject-matter experts (SMEs) in three areas – department administration, executive administration and project management,” says McQuary.
Within the administration community, these categories made a lot of sense, but from an enterprise-wide perspective, project-management SMEs would be identified in the project-management community. “What the administration community was really identifying was experts in project administration,” adds McQuary.
To coordinate activity, the enterprise-wide system is supported from a corporate level that includes a core group of common capabilities, such as content management, discussion forums and member profiles. Member profiles are members’ opportunity to share knowledge about themselves, helping to connect people to people and their expertise.
Each community is configured and launched using a team of representatives for the community working with the central KM team. “Experience convinced us we would need to cross business lines and regional boundaries. But if the KM effort was perceived to be a California or even US-based initiative, our global roll-out would have met resistance,” says McQuary. “By launching each new community on a global basis, and bringing the launch message to just the community audience, we were able to establish enterprise buy-in by engaging only that part of the workforce the community will directly support.”
However, with open access to all communities, enterprise-wide, the emphasis on knowledge sharing is crucial. Content has to be scrutinised to ensure that it makes sense in the crossovers to the wider global community. Such scrutiny ensures that Fluor’s KM system is not just a black hole – sucking up information, yet releasing very little in return.
One of the roles of the central KM team is to help communities resolve communication issues they would not otherwise have sensed. KM hierarchy, in other words, can be a good thing.
“An enterprise-wide approach means we can leverage ideas across communities and provide some top down direction. That wouldn't be possible if CoPs were created on an ad hoc basis.”
“This year, we introduced a community-audit process. This leverages existing discipline audit-processes and tools resulting in minimal organisational pushback. It involves an interview using a detailed checklist over six major areas – organisation, performance, structure, content, communication, recognition and innovation. Preventative and corrective actions are documented and resulting actions are tracked through completion.”
Just as Fluor’s KM structure is both centralised and dispersed through community networks, it focuses on communication at both an enterprise-wide and a knowledge-community level, too. An internal-communications team, which includes two professionals, provides expert assistance at both levels. “Not all messages are equal,” says senior communications manager Tara Keithley. “Knowing and segmenting audiences is key, as well as knowing what type of communication vehicle resonates with each audience segment.”
At the enterprise level, Fluor has a number of different approaches, the most prominent of which is the Knowledge OnLine login screen, updated twice a week with relevant KM-related news and stories. Also, Fluor tries to encourage participation in a variety of different ways, including specialised publications for different target audiences:
- KM Network newsletter – Aimed at community leaders and managers;
- 'Share This Knowledge' executive newsletter – Focuses on KM at an executive level and is, therefore, sent to the executive management-team;
- TimeSavers – Provides tips and tricks on using the KM system and is sent to all registered members of Knowledge OnLine (21,000);
- KM knowledge-community homepage – To help non-members ease themselves into the system;
- ‘Just in Time’ e-mail shots – These generally include a ‘trackable component’ to gauge how many people actually open the e-mail;
- Fluor intranet articles.
In addition, there is an annual ‘Knowvember’ awareness campaign that includes a success-story contest with an executive-judging component, as well as the culmination of a year long ‘KM Pacesetter’ award where employees can be nominated by their peers for exemplifying good KM behaviour.
Care in the community
In the KM field, one school of thought is that to be effective in creating a sense of community a group should be no larger than 200 or 300 members.
McQuary contends that actual performance should be the measure. Fluor has a few communities of that size, but most of them are 1,000+.
Indeed, the Engineering Community has more than 13,000 members. But like in a physical town, the overall structure of a community enables the informal clustering of small groups.
You might call them neighbourhoods – sub-specialties within a community; people who have come together to collaborate on a specific project; clusters of knowledge seekers and sharers who have gained from the give-and-take of sharing; people who find themselves together in multiple communities – small self-forming groups within the formal structure that eventually contribute to it. The Knowledge OnLine system supports this kind of natural networking with people connections, including instant messaging.
Face-to-face meetings on a global scale may be impossible in a CoP of 13,000 members, but local informal gatherings have real possibilities.
Otherwise, face-to-face global meetings would be limited to business-line leaders who routinely get together annually for other issues, and functional leaders who may meet every two or three years. Personalising network activity, therefore, depends heavily on human initiative supported by the people connections Fluor provides.
Many KM programmes fall when cold, hard return on investment figures are demanded to support the investment of time and money – figures that are hard to quantify accurately enough for any accountant’s liking. While Fluor is not as insistent on KM metrics as many other organisations, the programme does have to show value.
It helps that its core values fit one of the four company values – teamwork – which means Fluor people must, “Respect each other’s perspective, and share knowledge and resources to achieve excellence, deliver value, and grow individually and collectively”.
These values are supported by six main guiding principles, one of which is, “We will continue to build methods to capture, share and apply our knowledge to deliver customer solutions”. These commitments come with expectations and the KM team still has to deliver persuasive results. The team relies on statistics to show the volume of activity, as well as success stories to demonstrate value to Fluor’s management and its customers.
Breaking the rules
After 20 years of intense thought, study, research, experimentation and applied learnings, there still appears to be few absolute rules behind the methods of KM. As soon as a standard of practice begins to emerge through frequency of use and agreement of thought, someone breaks the rule with a success based on opposite or modified behaviour.
From Fluor, we can conclude that top-down design, implementation and management of an enterprise-wide KM programme can produce spirited participation. Virtual communities larger than 300 can stimulate personal involvement. Stories can overcome the metric mindset of traditional accounting. It’s all about how you play the game. McQuary’s team uses corporate leverage where necessary. Communication to multiple and layered audiences delivers the right messages in the right places.
And metrics work where things can be measured, while stories are effective where outcomes are not just unmeasurable, but immeasurable. What is measurable, however, is Fluor’s success as a company in a highly technical and competitive global market. KM has arguable played a significant part in that success.
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework, http://www.kwork.org. Join AOK to participate in a two-week e-mail discussion with John McQuary, 20-31 August, 2007. Membership is free. John McQuary can be reached at John.McQuary@Fluor.com.
This is one of the winning stories submitted by a Fluor employee during its annual ‘Knowvember’ KM awareness campaign.
Title: Access to alternatives via Knowledge OnLine saves €1m total installed cost (TIC) and gets Fluor awarded new contract!
Description: This success story encapsulates the key values of knowledge management: global collaboration, client value, re-use and competitive differentiation, made possible by Knowledge OnLine. Allowed client to make informed decision, saved total installed cost and led to new work order.
Success story: I worked on a process study in Kuwait for dehazing of diesel and gas oil to meet the Haze-2 specification at 77°C. Roughly said, this meant reducing the water content from 1000 parts per million by volume (ppmv) at 135°F [Fahrenheit] to 100 ppmv at 77°C. The client-design basis was to use an electrostatic coalescer and salt-bed drier with a water cooled chiller, to pre-cool the coalescer feed to 105°F.
On Knowledge OnLine, we found the salt-bed drier manual. This manual provided valuable information. Among other things, it recommended maintaining an operating temperature in the salt-bed drier at or below 100°F to restrict brine solubility in diesel. Via the Process Community forum we asked for designing and operating experience with the proposed electrostatic coalescer/salt-bed drier design, the effect of operating temperature on the degree of drying, experience with alternative drying processes and advice on the most economical design solution for the given capacity: coalescer/salt bed drier or vacuum drying?
Within three days, three responses where received, from Haarlem [Netherlands] and the Calgary [Canada] offices. They provided project references/contacts for each of the different design options considered. The information underlined the strong effect of operating temperature on salt-bed efficiency: at too high an operating temperature the efficiency of the salt bed is eliminated by the brine solubility in diesel. This insight was confirmed by vendor information: “The dynamics of the salt bed is such that it is only 30-35 per cent efficient and at higher temperature the water simply partitions back into the diesel stream.”
Based on this information and project references, our recommendations to the client were to pre-cool the diesel/GO feed to 60°F with a chiller before being sent to the coalescer and to eliminate the salt-bed drier. The Fluor recommendation was recognised by the client as a positive improvement. Knowledge OnLine allowed the client to make an informed decision in favour of the new concept for the Dehazing Facility design. Based on the information from Knowledge OnLine, the client asked to visit one of the project references mentioned: an existing refinery. This visit was arranged through the Haarlem office and is now planned for next month.
Value for the client: The elimination of the salt-bed drier saved the client money on equipment cost (TIC reduced by €1m) and operational cost. In addition, elimination of the salt bed drier will save a lot of maintenance hassle in future.
Value for Fluor: Client satisfaction: The client is positive about the alternative design solution proposed by the Fluor team. They were impressed by the short response time, the quick access of our team to Fluor’s worldwide knowledge and expertise and the new possibilities it opened (for example, the client visit to an operating facility). Our client is so pleased that a new work-order has been awarded to Fluor: a similar study for the other refinery of the client. This study represents a business value of €700,000. Once the feed package is approved, to carry out the job would even fetch a much higher value for Fluor.