posted 6 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 6
The knowledge | Simon Levene
By Sandra Higgison
There is no such thing as a typical knowledge manager. Similarities may exist among KM objectives, challenges and activities, although these also vary hugely from firm to firm. But the people who make up the knowledge management community, are a diverse and curious bunch.
It should therefore have come as no surprise to discover that as well as having co-authored the British Standard Institute’s Knowledge Management: A Guide to Good Practice in 2001 and led successful knowledge-focused initiatives for multinational businesses, Simon Levene, Global Head of Knowledge Management within PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) Performance Improvement Practice, is also an avid snowboarder, sometime windsurfer and an experienced Petticoat Lane market trader.
I can imagine that anybody talking to Levene about knowledge management, a subject that he tells me he can go on about for hours, would soon be reaching for a pen and paper to note the many practical tips and lessons he has accumulated. Having spent most of his working life at PwC, he has had three breaks from the accounting and management-consulting firm, which he has used to teach, qualify as a snowboarding instructor and bring knowledge management to law firms. The changes in scenery have not only given him the opportunity to take stock, gain new perspectives and learn from other sectors, but have also proven to him that, in his words, “PwC is bloody good at KM”.
Levene started his career as a chartered accountant and spent most of it in the Insolvency Practice of what was then Price Waterhouse, although he admits to having hardly done any 'real' accounting since qualifying. "The practice was growing rapidly and around 1990 it became clear that our systems and processes were stretched almost to failing point," says Levene. "They put me, then the yougest senior manager in the practice, and my colleague, John Gibson, who was somewhat more mature, together to come up with ideas for re-engineering the busuiness." The suggestins they came back with were given full management support. and their next task was to put them into practice.
At that time, the solution they envisaged was described as a job planning and management system. It was not long afterwards that Levene realised they had designed and built a knowledge management tool. “We started off calling it the Assignment Support System but, given the acronym we renamed it to the Insolvency Support and Information System or ISIS,” he says. It is now called BRS.Power. “Today we could describe it as a knowledge-centric work environment. Each step of a partner, manager or associates work is linked to the knowledge that supports it.” For example, partners are given a god’s eye view over everything, managers are supported in their delegation, control and reporting duties, and ‘doers’ are told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and, most importantly, why they should do it, all through the practitioners everyday work tool.
Many companies have had ambitions to build similar knowledge tools to support their workforces, but few have been as effective as
Also vital to the success of this tool and Levene’s subsequent KM activities is his ability to talk to senior management about KM and ensure they understand the value it can provide. “This is something knowledge managers are generally bad at,” he says. “You have to identify the business’ core issues from the leaders’ perspectives, such as risk management, human resources, profitability or return on investment (ROI), and talk about KM in those terms. For example, if you can demonstrate how KM can support a higher staff leverage model – more junior staff per partner – while mitigating the associated business risks (that is to say, raising, and not lowering quality), thereby making more profit per partner, you will get their attention. Part of PwC’s promise to its clients is that while you work and have a relationship with an individual, behind him or her are the skills and experience of all 130,000 practitioners – knowledge management helps provide this.”
A question that Levene has since become well placed to answer is whether elements of knowledge management can be standardised. “I don’t believe you can have knowledge management standards for human processes, although I think there are some areas where standards can be set and applied. For example, KM can be made easier by using similar data architectures, attributes and controlled vocabularies or taxonomies so you can slice and dice information to your particular needs.” Speaking at a conference, Levene used one of his son’s toys, a block of wood with holes and pegs of different shapes, to illustrate this situation. “If data is a peg, it will only flow smoothly around the organisation if it is the same shape as the hole it travels through. If it’s the wrong shape it won’t fit or you have to hit it very hard,” he explains.
It was after a similar presentation that Levene met Paul McNeillis from the BSI. “He was impressed by our knowledge management work and asked whether we could write a standard on knowledge management,” he says. “The answer was no! He then asked if we could write a best practice guide on KM and I told him that it was not mature enough to say what was best practice. After about six months discussing the idea, we agreed to write a good practice guide that would be a primer for businesses in the
Describing this experience as a short period of writing and a long period of committees, Levene and Kelleher spent three months writing the initial draft, which then went to a committee of experts, including Dave Snowden, then director of IBM’s Cynefin Centre, and Nigel Oxbrow, founder and chief executive of consultancy TFPL. The whole process took just under a year, which was record breaking for the BSI. “Even though I don’t think the book was intended to have a huge sales volume and isn’t one you’ll find on many bed stands, I’ve had a lot of calls from MBA and PhD students asking questions or sending me their papers. This work was a definite milestone for me.”
In 2002, Levene left PwC to become global chief knowledge officer at law firm Baker McKenzie in
Returning to the
Levene is also looking at how the business can build networks more effectively. “We have groups of highly intelligent practitioners around the world with different knowledge and experiences. We want to bring these likeminded people together to support them and help them innovate. With over 130,000 people at PwC we need to make personal networks more effective.” An initial leap has been through the firm’s PeopleFind tool developed by PwC
Having just turned 40, Levene says he has learnt many lessons so far. “As I’ve got older I’ve learnt that changing behaviours takes time. I used to be very aggressive and want everything done quickly. But to do this you need a business that has a strong buy-in to your strategies and does not demand a return on investment within what is left of the current fiscal year.” One of the most interesting conclusions he has come to is that you want to be the third person in a KM role. “The first person starts to talk to the leadership about the problem, but they say it’s too complicated and dismiss it. Six months later they realise the benefits it can bring and find someone else, but they balk at the expense and tell them to go away. By the third person they accept that it’s expensive and complicated but are ready to listen. This is when you have a chance of success.”
Looking to the future, Levene has several goals in mind. “Within the next five years I’d like to be running knowledge management in what is becoming the world’s leading performance-improvement consulting firm,” he says. In that time he doesn’t believe there will be any major innovations in knowledge management, rather it will become more embedded in people’s minds as they see the difference it makes. Outside of the office his ambitions are equally grand. “Having spent my 30th and 40th birthdays throwing myself off mountains on a snowboard, I plan to be doing the same on my 50th,” he says.
Taking much of his own inspiration from the people he talks to, Levene offers us one overriding piece of advice: “The key to our work in knowledge management is to stay evangelical because if we’re not enthusiastic about it nobody will believe in it. I still think this is an exciting area that can make a huge difference to businesses. There are a lot of lessons yet to be learnt and to gain from these we need to listen and adapt.” Looking at the string of successes he has behind him and the path he has set to follow, this is advice we would all do well to heed.
Contact Simon Levene at firstname.lastname@example.org.