posted 1 Nov 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 3
Knowledge enabling the enterprise
The challenge facing every knowledge-driven organisation today is to create a working environment that helps to raise that value of work at an individual level for the benefit of the organisation as a whole. Dan Holtshouse explains how Xerox has focused its KM efforts on achieving this goal by building on a number of core capabilities that together form the foundations for this process of knowledge enabling the enterprise.
The workplace is in the midst of a profound transformation. There are signs that it will become more person-centric than place-centric, that learning will be accomplished more through work itself rather than via separate distance training/e-learning, and that an increasing proportion of a knowledge worker’s tasks will involve collaboration with other co-workers, both within and across the boundaries of the enterprise. Central to this workplace picture is the skilled knowledge worker, who will continue to be highly sought after and considered to be in short supply.
In order to deal with these expertise constraints, and to make the most productive use of these prized resources, there are a number of actions an organisation can take at the enterprise level to help optimise the value of work at the individual level. One of these actions is to proactively enable, encourage and leverage collaboration and sharing to avoid wasted time, duplication and reinvention.
It’s incredibly important in a knowledge-driven environment that workers are encouraged to use and put into action other people’s ideas. The hard reality is that the world we are living in is moving at much too fast a pace to allow repeated reinvention. Individuals have value in a knowledge economy if they know something of value and are willing to share it, or if they can put to use something that is ‘borrowed’ from someone else. We are in a period where, regardless of tenure or experience, workers who are contributors will have worth in the knowledge-driven organisation; those who are seen as hoarders will be left out.
But collaboration support is just one of many actions organisations can take to make best use of these skilled resources. Building a total work environment that will attract and retain the best and brightest will be the challenge for most organisations going forward. Providing a work environment that provides for the systematic generation, capture, retention and active exploitation of organisational know-how is the challenge of knowledge-driven organisations in both good times and bad. When this process becomes systematic, we call it ‘knowledge enabling the enterprise’, where knowledge is used to raise the value of work.
At Xerox, we have found that there are several directives that lend themselves to helping build systematic capabilities that together form a foundation for knowledge enabling the enterprise. They include community action, cultural change, work performance assessment, continuous learning, knowledge as strategy, customer problem sensing and know-how preservation. To expand on these directives, what follows are a selected subset of case studies and experiences that illustrate how each of these initiatives can help to knowledge enable an enterprise.
Spiralling knowledge through community action
Communities of practice are a tremendous pool of untapped know-how that can be nurtured and leveraged for a steady stream of new ideas important to the growth and sustainability of the enterprise.
Systematically generating, capturing and exploiting the know-how that stimulates the growth and expansion of the collective expertise of the organisation is the ultimate goal of many content and knowledge management initiatives. Content can obviously come from numerous sources, including reports, databases, subscription service feeds, web portals and e-mail. Similarly, community numbers draw from informational resources other than the content knowledge base, such as information coming directly from co-workers, project management data, studies, formal learning and so on (see figure 1).
Figure 1 – spiralling knowledge through community action
When the community helps build the content, however, many problems are solved. The content is more likely to be relevant because it comes from an activity generated within the user community itself. Comprehension problems are reduced because community members converse in an agreed-to set of terms, definitions, customs, symbols, etc. Often there is a high degree of trust in the content, because authoring accountability and peer recognition imply certain standards and quality levels for the content in order for workers to remain in good standing with community peers.
For example, a knowledge-sharing system in the Xerox customer-service organisation captures new solutions to equipment problems experienced at customer sites. To design a system that would tap into the vast reservoir of know-how in the service community, researchers travelled around with the service engineers for many months in the mid-1990s to discover how they worked, what motivated them and how they shared their war stories about solving new customer problems within their workgroup.
From this early experimentation in the 1990s, the knowledge-sharing system, called Eureka, has been scaled up into a global sharing system supporting over 25,000 customer-service engineers (CSEs) world-wide and in several languages. There are over 55,000 solutions in the knowledge base, all submitted by the CSEs on a purely voluntary basis. No extra time was allocated to allow for the submission of entries into the system, yet it is credited with avoiding the reinvention of some 350,000 solutions annually, in turn generating some $15-20m in yearly savings.
Getting community members to take an active role in building the organisation’s collective knowledge is the best way of getting them to offer their best efforts in their jobs and to willingly share their most valuable asset – their knowledge.
Cementing a knowledge focus through culture change
Xerox has taken the approach of building a focus on knowledge using a community-by-community approach. This bottom-up learning, as opposed to top-down design, means that one solution does not necessarily have to fit all. By building a focus around each individual community, we ensure a better likelihood of high participation and better alignment with business goals, because we connect into the core of the working practice of the community. Having built knowledge-sharing systems for a number of communities in sales, service, research, engineering, marketing and so on, we have developed a set of five principles that can be used to guide and shape culture change (see figure 2). These principles make the action of sharing far more proactive, both on the part of the ‘seeker’ and on the part of the ‘giver’.
Figure 2 – principles that can guide and shape culture change
A case in point is an initiative in Xerox that is providing software developers with a way to effectively share code and collaborate on design. CodeX, as the project is known, is saving money by speeding the pace of innovation in software-intensive products. Initially, the researcher who championed the idea found that there was a pent-up demand for tools to help software designers work more efficiently, but wherever he went in the company he found that there were few instances of software re-use, let alone software sharing. Even within particular workgroups, people weren’t re-using code they had written and made use of a matter of months before.
The main barriers to sharing were found to be a lack of means and related to culture. The lack of means was tackled by building a web-based portal for posting and searching for code. The project champion also ensured that the site included support for topic-related discussions, contacts for mentoring/coaching assistance and links to open-source code resources as a result of suggestions from group interviews with software designers. The CodeX sharing environment thus essentially solved the lack of means barrier.
The cultural barriers had at their roots a strong legacy of separate development teams and a keen awareness of the need for intellectual property security in a highly competitive market environment. As developers were hesitant to put their most prized assets in CodeX, the project champion led a road-show to discuss the virtues of sharing, explaining how sharing code through open source, for example, helped create Linux and Apache, as well as various other software methodologies. By listening and working within the existing culture, the CodeX champion was able to get the developers to shift cultural thinking about software secrecy by having them partition their software into three distinct areas: tools/support modules; fairly common routines; and, highly sensitive code that would carry sharing restrictions. By creating these three levels, the project champion was able to break the logjam and create a shift in cultural behaviour. CodeX now has over 1,000 developers sharing code on over 100 projects, with over ten million lines of code available for re-use throughout the enterprise. The culture shift helped to save several million dollars in the first year alone, primarily due to the elimination of redundant licensing fees. Code re-use is also expected to show up in reduced product cycle time in the next generation of product development.
Thinking of knowledge as strategy
Thinking of knowledge as a strategy issue makes sense if we believe that, ultimately, organisational competitiveness and sustainability depend upon the systematic growth over time of the collective know-how of the enterprise. If a knowledge focus has executive sponsorship, is addressing core business issues, is linked to customer relevance, is shaping and influencing cultural behaviour, and is committed to improving knowledge worker productivity, then we believe that there is a good chance that knowledge is indeed being treated as strategy.
When we decided to launch a corporate-wide knowledge initiative at Xerox in 1996, it was with both internal and external objectives in mind. From an internal perspective, we had been cultivating a number of grass-roots KM projects in several large communities aimed at enhancing our business processes, and we wanted to encourage and support a wider level of participation across the enterprise as a whole. From an external point of view, we wanted to participate in and help shape what we thought would be an emerging market for products and services for KM. Also, as ‘The Document Company’, we felt that knowledge management would be inexorably linked to documents in the business world, and that we would therefore need to expand our expertise in this area through our own experience.
There were a number of reasons for starting a KM initiative, in addition to the document/knowledge link, but the top reasons were primarily strategic in nature:
- Customers were beginning to show an interest in KM;
- Many of our tools and technology research mapped well into a new anticipated market space;
- Our leadership-through-quality experience gave us strong appreciation for the cultural changes that would be required for KM;
- Our long-term interests in learning and work practice were required building blocks for KM.
Xerox’s knowledge management programme was therefore launched with four strategic dimensions in mind (see also figure 3):
- A corporate function reporting to the chief strategy officer, with responsibilities for guiding both internal and external activities;
- Focused research investments in KM-related technology at four Xerox research centres;
- Community and functional KM projects in several large organisations such as service, research, engineering, sales, etc;
- Co-ordination with services and product business groups in preparation for customer application development as the market evolves.
Figure 3 – elements of our knowledge strategy
The co-ordination between business groups, for example, resulted in a shift in thinking about how to communicate with customers. In the 1980s, we emphasised our product functionality. In the 1990s we focused on the document’s role and importance in the organisation, but we felt that to be relevant in the 2000s, we would need to concentrate on how we could help customers create a better place to work and put their knowledge assets to best use. All of these dimensions are strategic in nature and reflect Xerox’s perspective of thinking of knowledge as strategy.
Pre-emptive sensing of customer problems
Customer relevance is not only about being able to meet current needs, but also about anticipating what customers will want before they know themselves. Customer relevance also means proactively sensing problems with products or services and aggressively correcting these with a tracking and follow-up process that assures complete closure and total customer satisfaction. Being a ‘sense-and-respond’ rather than a ‘wait-and-react’ organisation is about more than just building and mining customer knowledge bases. It requires sensing capabilities that provide advance information about customer activities deep within the enterprise.
For example, we are piloting a system called Sentinel, which lets customers give us instant input on the performance of our services, products or any other aspect of our relationship. Using the web and e-mail to capture customers’ complaints and compliments in their own words, the system is a problem-resolution and customer-assurance service that is also helping to build an in-depth customer knowledge base.
At one customer site, roughly 1,000 users of Xerox services are polled every month by e-mail. They are asked a single question: ‘Are you satisfied or is there a problem?’ The message tells recipients to delete the e-mail if everything is okay, and Xerox will assume they are satisfied. Otherwise, the note says, click on the frowning yellow face and tell us what is wrong. This will take customers to the heyXerox.com website, where they are asked to enter the problem in their own words. This then immediately notifies their Xerox account manager that there is trouble, creating an electronic ‘problem ticket’ and prompting a telephone call to the customer within minutes. The issue is kept on Xerox’s front burner until the customer is happy that the problem has been resolved. Satisfied customers can also click on a smiling face to offer us positive feedback, if they so wish.
Customers have been delighted with the system so far and have generated many more compliments than problems through the sense-and-respond system. Just by asking customers whether they are happy with the service they receive, we have developed stronger client relationships. In addition, customers are volunteering information about future needs, thereby providing valuable insights as to the services and products we should be offering in the future.
Learning in and through work
Numerous studies conducted over the past few years have pointed to on-the-job experience as being the most highly rated learning source for knowledge workers. On-the-job experience is generally rated more highly than interactions with co-workers, company-provided training and formal education. Learning through doing is, of course, not a new idea, having been the essence of apprenticeships and the craft guilds of the Renaissance era, for example. Some organisations are going as far as to ‘chunk down’ formal training into five or ten-minute lessons that can be accessed online right at the point of need, so that these can be integrated directly into the workflow. The idea is to blur the boundaries between learning and work, so that they support each other in the most integrated way possible. A case in point is what’s happening in a number of call centres.
Customer call centers are notoriously busy, noisy, stressful places to work. At Telecom Italia, in addition to handling typical questions about accounts, pricing, coverage, contracts and billing, customer service reps field inquiries about how to configure and troubleshoot ISDN lines and ADSL modems, mobile phones and internet services. In order to keep track of all the right information and obtain the electronic information they needed to answer customers’ questions, operators used to have to use at least three different databases and numerous different processes. As a result, operators kept paper cheat-sheets and folders at their desks to help them keep track of shortcuts to e-documentation as well as product and service updates issued on paper. Working with five European partners, Xerox lead a project called Angelo to simplify and improve the operators’ working environment, while at the same time improving customer service.
Using researchers from the Xerox Research Centres to study the working practices of the operators, a new, streamlined work process was developed, along with supporting technologies and incentives for their use. The operators now have a single interface on their PCs to find up-to-date information, as well as to initiate telephone calls, access e-mail, hold instant chat sessions with supervisors, share applications with colleagues and contribute tips and solutions to new, ‘hot’ customer problems to a repository shared with the other operators. Through the new Angelo system, operators are learning much more of what they need to know in real-time now that access to documentation, colleagues, supervisors and so on is at their fingertips.
Knowledge enabling the enterprise
There are many possible tangible expressions of knowledge enabling the enterprise, and only a few have been touched upon here. There are, though, numerous benefits of choosing to plot a course based on the utilisation of knowledge. For example, thinking of knowledge as strategy requires a knowledge-utilisation perspective to be applied to investment decisions; using culture change to cement a knowledge focus requires a strong social/technical balance in how projects are approached; leveraging communities to expand the organisation’s collective know-how raises awareness of the role and importance of the informal parts of the organisation; institutionalising learning through work puts learning investments on a par with the costs of doing work, and can no longer be seen as deferrable or discretionary; and, the advanced sensing process for customer problems instils a mindset change for customer relationships from a wait-and-react posture to a more proactive sense-and-respond strategy.
Underlying all of these shifts is the overriding need to have respect for the work that has preceded our own efforts, and to know that, in the end, we become more knowledgeable by building on the insights of others. We must become better at finding and exploiting valid knowledge where possible, so that more of our precious time is spent raising the value of work and not simply re-inventing someone else’s.
Dan Holtshouse is director of corporate strategy at Xerox Knowledge Initiatives. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org