posted 1 May 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 8
Fostering knowledge in a challenging
Pressure from changes in the external environment of financial markets may discourage companies from starting a knowledge project, but focus on short-term influences without dedication to long-term strategic change is a bigger risk. The environment of radically changing oil prices did not stop Enterprise Oil from going ahead with their project, and as John Keeble shows, they made the right decision to nurture knowledge for the long-term future.
Enterprise Oil is one of the leading global independent oil and gas exploration and production companies. Based in London, and with major offices in Aberdeen, Rome, Stavanger and Houston, the company employs around 650 people, most of whom are highly-qualified professional staff.
When we first started looking at knowledge management in Enterprise Oil, the business environment was good. Oil prices were relatively high, the company’s share price had reached historic heights, and we were looking for continued growth through an expanding exploration programme. Since our success is built on the ability of our highly qualified staff to identify potential oil fields which may lie thousands of feet below the surface, and in ever-increasing water depths, making the most of the knowledge and skill of those staff is a key priority. Knowledge management looked like a fruitful area of development for us.
But the step between deciding to pursue knowledge management and actually getting started took time, and in that time the environment changed radically. Oil prices slumped to 25-year lows; the share price followed; there was talk in the city of possible take-over bids or mergers, and staff who remembered previous such industry cycles started to be concerned for their jobs. Hardly the most conducive environment in which to launch a new initiative to effectively transform the culture of the company!
These external factors led us to modify our approach to knowledge management. We had been proposing to follow one of the classic approaches recommended by consultants and other experts - analyse the knowledge to which we had access, identify the knowledge we needed, define the gaps, and start closing them in a top-down, company-wide strategic project. In the new environment, this was replaced by a small-scale pilot project, looking to confirm whether using communities as the backbone for knowledge management was a suitable approach for Enterprise.
The challenge was daunting - we were given six months to get pilot communities up and running, to identify real business benefits and to build up sufficient in-house expertise for us to be able to continue the development of knowledge management i.e. if the pilot phase proved successful. All this was supposed to happen with a team of three people, all new to the practical side of knowledge management, and against a background which was far from encouraging!
We recognised that if we were to make enough progress in the limited time available, we had to be quick out of the blocks. The first step was to identify suitable subjects for possible pilot communities, which we did by talking to a cross-section of staff, senior management and technical experts, both official and unofficial. This produced a list of over 50 potential projects, which was encouraging in itself but presented us with the welcome problem of choosing the most appropriate.
The selection criteria we used looked at a combination of factors - our ideal project would have clear strategic significance for the company, yet be something on which some real progress was possible in six months, be of wide interest yet represent a community of manageable size, and above all be something which generated enthusiasm amongst the people who would be getting involved.
Two things were particularly critical. The first was that we were looking for potential subjects which were multi-disciplinary and involved staff from several offices. With a matrix management structure already in place, we wanted to choose issues which crossed both dimensions of the matrix (business asset and technical function) - things which the existing management structures would not necessarily deal with particularly well. This increased the difficulty of the challenge, but we felt sure it would increase the rewards as well.
The second critical point was that there needed to be a natural “minder” - the person who keeps the whole thing moving, chases people where appropriate, teases contributions out of people, makes the connections between members of the community. Given the limited time available, we had to identify likely candidates for this role in each community, and get their support before we brought the communities together.
As a result of this selection process, we chose four communities for the pilot phase. All of them were based on key technical areas for the company, two focusing on particular types of reservoir. One dealt with a specific approach for interpreting the subsurface. The other covered all aspects of exploring and producing in deep water.
In parallel with this selection process, we developed the format for a launch event which we could use to kick-start each community. This was an area where using external consultants was extremely helpful, as within six weeks of the internal team first meeting we had developed the format, identified the pilot communities, and held three out of four two-day launch events. It is extremely doubtful that we could have achieved so much in the time available without external assistance. The process of selecting suitable consultants, which went on before the internal team was assembled, was time-consuming but invaluable, both in helping to refine our approach to the challenges and ensuring that we selected consultants who would fit seamlessly into our culture.
The launch event for each community brought together around eight key players. Initially we had assumed that the “core” of a community would be about twice the size. Some of these experts already knew each other, others were meeting for the first time, but everyone agreed after the event that physically meeting up had been a vital part of the process. Getting communities to work is about more than just exchanging professional views - it’s about building interpersonal commitment, a feeling of being a team with common interests and shared goals worth pursuing. It may be possible to achieve this without personal contact, but getting people together at first seems to help enormously. During the two days of each event we tried to achieve a number of things:
1. Map the knowledge of the group
2. Identify the benefits of forming the community
3. Identify the issues the community should address
4. Share real technical knowledge
5. Establish group and personal action plans
6.Understand what it takes for a community to work
The last of these points proved to be a stumbling block. Using examples drawn from normal life, it was relatively easy to help people understand what it takes to build successful communities. When it came to actually working as a community, people were less willing to explicitly implement some of the factors that they had identified as being necessary.
There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that in talking explicitly about these success factors for communities we may have sounded too academic or theoretical, and this turned people off the idea. The second is that the reality seems beguilingly simple - everyone is a member of at least one community in real life, so we assume that it’s easy, that it’s not something we need to work at. At one level this is true - after all, unofficial communities spring up all the time at work. But we were looking to make the project less hit and miss. Our aim was to increase the likelihood of a strategically important community thriving and to decrease the time taken to get them going. On that count we can only claim partial success.
By the end of the launch events, each community had a clearly stated value proposition, long-term objectives, six-month milestones and relatively detailed action plans. Three of the four pilots had identified that there was already a lot of knowledge in-house. They chose the creation of a website as their first priority. They also tended to want to use electronic discussion groups as a way of keeping the community in touch with each other, for reasons both of practicality and cost, rather than trying to arrange other physical get-togethers during the pilot phase.The websites worked well, but took much longer to compile than people had expected. This was partly due to lack of resources - there were no dedicated resources set aside for the communities, so they had to create web material as and when they could. This often meant doing it in their own time. This means that the richness of what has been created is entirely due to the determination of the community members. In creating technical websites, there seems to be a trade-off between creating an overall framework , which helps people to get an overview of what’s going on, and actually creating the material to fill the framework. Whilst the framework is important, it can raise expectations which are difficult to fulfil, and remind people constantly of what hasn’t yet been done, rather than focusing on what HAS been done. However, most groups got through this phase, and the websites are now good repositories for a wide range of knowledge and information.
Electronic discussion groups were less successful for a number of reasons. The subjects we had chosen for the pilots were quite specific, and it may be that we were below the critical mass for discussions to take off. In addition, the issues people wanted to discuss were in some cases very complex, and did not lend themselves easily to the electronic format. Finally, the particular tool we were using required people to make an effort to see whether there was anything new in the discussion area - a very small effort, but enough in a busy day to forget to check them. As a result of these factors, the electronic groups have been more like a notice board than a discussion group, with some interesting material being added only sporadically.
During the pilot phase, the business environment continued to worsen, with oil prices falling ever lower and talk of redundancies increasing across the industry. In this environment, the minders found it difficult to get as much activity going in their communities as they would have liked and the focus remained on the initial building blocks of capturing knowledge via websites.
In early December, we took stock of the progress so far. The websites were starting to fill out, but there were large areas of the framework still waiting to be filled. Not only were these sites being populated - they were being used, with staff in some cases very enthusiastic about the resources they could access in this way.
Communication within the communities had also improved. Initially, the communication tended to be between “individuals with problems” and the minder (fulfiling the role of guru). This changed, and there was more evidence of people talking directly around the group, albeit still in dialogues rather than group discussions. However, the existence of the groups did lead to enquiries getting dealt with faster in some cases, and helped avoid duplication of effort and cost.
One spin-off from this work was that the whole profile of thinking about sharing knowledge rose faster then we had expected. The knowledge management team found themselves being asked to support a whole range of events and initiatives, re-using some of the tools which had been developed for the launch events. The ripple effect from this was quite marked. By the end of the trial period, facilitating sessions to help people find out what they knew as a group, or helping them to identify key challenges was taking a considerable part of our time.
So overall, was it a success? Judged against initial action plans and milestones, none of the groups could be said to have succeeded fully - all were around 4-6 weeks behind their predicted schedule. Given the environment in which they were working, it’s actually surprising that they weren’t further behind - the amount of progress that they had made in the circumstances was remarkable. More importantly, they and others could see the value of what was being achieved, and were also convinced that it was worth continuing with the KM focus.
The keys to success in Knowledge Management are People, People and People.
The overriding lesson we have learned from the pilot phase is that KM is ALL about people. The makeup of the KM Team was a strength, as the team members brought together technical knowledge of the subject, a background in information management, and above all, an understanding of how the company works. The choice of consultants was important in the launch phase, with the focus on interpersonal fit paying dividends. Above all, the people who chose to get involved in the pilot communities held the key to success - get the right people involved, and the right minders in place, and you have a good chance of success. Miss out on either of those, and the odds are stacked against you.
Looking back, one of the questions we have asked ourselves is whether, given the business environment we should have delayed the whole project. Certainly if we had waited for more favourable conditions we could have made life easier for ourselves. But on the other hand, how long would we have had to wait ? At the time or writing, the oil price has risen back to the dizzy heights of $12 per barrel, but that is still 30% down on a year ago. Conditions remain tough and it could be said that they are no more favourable now than they were when we started out. Introducing knowledge management is about achieving corporate change. This takes time, but it is a corporate change which is essential for the future success of the company. We are only part way through the process, but I don’t think we could afford to wait. Sometimes you have to just ignore the environment and get on with it.
John Keeble is Group Head of Knowledge Management in Enterprise Oil, UK. He can be contacted at: