posted 1 Jun 2000 in Volume 3 Issue 9
Serving the community
A central tenet of any knowledge management programme is the ability to capture and make easily accessible the tacit and explicit knowledge of the organisation. Ulrich Gerndt describes Siemens' ShareNet, a knowledge community that goes beyond simple repositories and databases.
Today, almost any major corporation has one or more knowledge management initiatives. According to Fortune magazine's Thomas Stewart, 'knowledge management is the hottest thing since re-engineering...' [Thomas Stewart, Fortune, June 7,1999, p.220]
Every company, particularly in fast changing markets like telecommunications, needs to find ways to acquire the requisite know-how, expertise, insight and so on, to continuously remain 'leading edge' with their offerings.
Identifying the really business-critical knowledge and organising it to exploit it consistently, however, goes beyond mere knowledge management. It requires a strategic approach that leads far beyond databases and repositories, online directories and document management systems. The example of Siemens' ShareNet initiative shows how this fundamental shift can appear in practice.
Massive changes in the business environment drive the need for knowledge networking
Siemens' Information and Communication Networks Division is a global provider of telecommunication solutions, active in more than 100 countries. The company's traditional business used to be quite simple and straightforward: It dominated its home market by means of a close relationship with a regulated national telecom monopoly. Siemens used this position to sell integrated products to other national telecoms around the world.
Since the mid-1990s, however, the market environment has undergone a massive transformation. Deregulation led to new types of players in the telecom market, who often cherry-picked the most interesting segments of the value chain. New competitors arrived at the scene while the pace of innovation was upped by the introduction of new technology such as IP networks.
New kinds of customers were less interested in 'buying boxes' from Siemens, but were far more focused on complete solutions fitting their specific business needs, including consulting, financing, systems integration and other services. This shift from a pure product business to a stronger service focus and solutions approach increased the complexity and knowledge intensity of Siemens' business.
The company was forced to rely more than ever on the front lines of the organisation, who are more knowledgeable about the latest developments. Sales people had to act more and more like consultants. Skills like business analysis, business development, network planning, outsourcing and so on were suddenly in high demand, albeit dispersed globally. Solution selling had become an important value-adding activity.
Doing this right meant identifying best practices quickly, sharing them on a global scale and making sure that they were re-used for profit in similar settings. The idea of ShareNet as a 'global knowledge sharing network' was born.
ShareNet - leveraging local innovations globally
ShareNet is a community of around 7,000 sales, marketing, and business development people of Siemens ICN, active in more than 50 countries on all continents. ShareNet networks these experts globally and lets them share and develop their knowledge in order to create better customer solutions.
The goal is to detect local innovations and leverage them on a global scale. ShareNet covers both explicit and tacit knowledge of the sales value creation process including project know-how, technical and functional solution components, and the business environment (for example, customer, competitor, market, technology, and partner knowledge). ShareNet has a strong focus on experience-based knowledge; you will rarely find official 'brochureware', but rather personal statements, comments, 'field experience' of sales projects or the real-life tested pros and cons of a solution.
In addition to structured questionnaires on the above mentioned topics, ShareNet provides less structured spaces such as chat rooms, community news, discussion groups on special issues, and so-called 'urgent requests' (UR).
UR is basically a forum for asking any kind of urgent question, such as: 'My customer needs a business case for implementing new technology X by next Monday. Who can help me?' or 'Does anybody have a list of recent network projects done by competitor Y' - questions that do not have a defined organisational owner. As Share-Net works independent of time zones and organisational boundaries, members usually get answers within a few hours. In many cases, the right answers are 'harvested' and made available for later use in a FAQ section.
Contributing knowledge - a task for all members
The fundamental paradigm of the ShareNet network is that any reader/user is also a publisher. There is no central or single 'source of wisdom'. The value of the community depends on its ability to create a rich body of knowledge. There are various ways in which members can contribute their knowledge.
These range from dedicated editors who regularly fill-in updated competitor profiles to whole project teams, who in turn capture the knowledge they created during a certain project step. In many countries, filling in the web-based project questionnaires has become a mandatory step and a milestone in all important projects. Documents (for example, presentations, spreadsheets, business plans and so on) can be attached at the discretion of the contributor depending on the confidentiality level of the document.
Any contribution is clearly personalised, allowing readers to validate the resource. Related knowledge of any kind can be dynamically linked to, for instance, a sales project description, thus giving a comprehensive picture of the business. This includes other knowledge on ShareNet and any other web-based system within or outside Siemens. Furthermore, every contribution is 'commentable' by the whole community, in a similar approach to the book reviews in online bookstores. A capturing session for a complete sales project takes about two to three hours; other contributions are substantially less time consuming.
Typical questions for a sales project touch issues like: 'How did you approach the customer?'; 'What was the behaviour of the competition?' ; 'What were the most convincing arguments for this solution?'; 'Where are potential pitfalls?' and so on. For every piece of content, the owner may add the 'real expert' as a contact partner for the reader. As all the usual questions are answered in the knowledge object, the reader may then contact the expert with any remaining questions about the issue, which greatly reduces the time spent on the phone answering the same basic questions again and again.
Once the knowledge is on the website, it can be reused, not only across countries, but also within the sales force of a specific local company, which is a major benefit, particularly for large local organisation, because it reduces their need for training and education.
Collaborating virtually via a website complements traditional ways of co-operation, like telephone conferences and personal meetings, and can be used to provide an even richer exchange of knowledge and to build trust and a sense of teamwork among members of (sub-)communities.
Universal access to sales and marketing knowledge using ShareNet
The use of knowledge available via ShareNet occurs in all phases of the sales process. Members browse the website for specific solutions, they search for all projects where a certain competitor was involved, they look for innovative financing or pricing schemes and so on. In addition to reading the content, they may download customer presentations for re-use in their own case, they can access complete solution modules that can be utilised with a few adaptations. They look at checklists of hints and tips for the implementation of a pilot for a new technology, and more besides. Members often use success stories in meetings with their customers to increase credibility and the likelihood of winning the project. The possibilities here are endless.
Whenever a member reuses knowledge of a third party, he or she also gives so-called 're-use feedback' on the website, indicating how, for example, they used the solution, together with comments and suggestions, their own specific experiences and a subjective rating of the value of this contribution, which is a basis of the incentive system (outlined below).
In this way, the work with ShareNet is becoming a natural and integral part of the day-to-day work of its members, unlike many knowledge repositories, which tend to be disconnected from people's daily jobs and often serve only to add one more task to employees' workloads.
Collaborative knowledge development on ShareNet
The idea of ShareNet is to gather the collective knowledge of the worldwide community with as little bureaucracy and 'barriers to entry' as possible. Most members are active sales and marketing people, not specialist journalists.
In order to maintain a good level of content quality, Siemens implemented a simple quality assurance process: Members and local multiplicators commit to review knowledge-objects of their subject expertise every month, and make suggestions to the owner of the knowledge object about how to improve its usefulness by, for example, including an explanatory graphic, adding more details about the lessons learned or even by reducing the level of detail. These reviews also trigger the incentive system described below.
Members are also using ShareNet to create new solutions, by using dedicated discussion forums and other spaces to collaborate, exchange opinions, make suggestions on how to combine approaches and so on. These jointly created solutions are then employed in different customer settings, and the experiences captured in knowledge objects. New (sub-)communities thus form around common issues such as 'service business development', 'voice-over-IP solutions' and the like.
ShareNet - the virtual organisation
Although ShareNet is integrated in the daily work, this does not mean that no additional support is required. New roles were created to foster the development and operations: Every local company has at least one 'ShareNet manager', a mulitplicator responsible for supporting the members in his organisation and ensuring that ShareNet becomes and remains an integral part of their work, by training new users, fostering intra-organisational re-use, promoting the 'philosophy' of ShareNet with all stakeholders in his country, and promoting success stories to attract more 'power users'.
A 'global editor' is the main contact partner for the ShareNet managers, coaching them for success, triggering the content quality review process and serving as a community manager with regular news and updates, and also attracting more knowledge sources. Siemens also created an advisory committee to oversee the on-going evolution and fine-tuning of the system. It is staffed by senior executives from the local organisations as well as from headquarters. In a sense, they represent the member community, the solutions-selling network.
Incentive systems - why should people share their knowledge?
Sharing your knowledge with colleagues that in most cases you do not even know is somewhat counter-intuitive, especially in an engineering 'do-it-all-yourself' culture. It means giving up individual power for the benefit of the whole organisation, and hence does not come easy.
The Siemens experience shows that a combination of individual and organisational measures drive knowledge contributions:
- Members reap benefits from ShareNet for their daily business: They save
time, they received a quick answer for a pressing problem and so on. As such,
they have an inclination to give something back to the community
- Often, the real subject matter experts are not identifiable on a simple
organisational chart. They work hidden somewhere in the world without much
publicity. With their personalised contributions, ShareNet makes these 'hidden
champions' visible to the global organisation and to the board, who regularly
check the system, also to find and promote these experts
- Starting this fiscal year, both top management and sales management in the
local organisations are 'incentivised' for their company's contributions to
ShareNet and the international business created through them
- Finally, there is a web-based incentive system that complements the above mentioned measures: For any valuable contribution members receive ShareNet 'shares' or bonus points, much like in an 'airmiles' system. Both contributors of knowledge, as well as re-users are rewarded for sharing their experiences. The shares can be redeemed for prizes that foster their individual knowledge, such as a participation on an international conference or courses and seminars they want to attend even if these are not closely related with their day-to-day job.
The combination of these four approaches seems to work, and ensures a rapidly growing number of contributions each month. Furthermore, the on-going and visible support of the board of management for the initiative has opened many doors.
Knowledge sharing does not simply happen, unless there are a number of measurable benefits for both the organisation and for the individual. In the case of ShareNet the main advantages Siemens derives from its knowledge network are:
provides real life experience knowledge of sales projects and tested customer
solution modules ready for application in similar circumstances. It thus saves
precious time in all phases of the sales value creation process; in the
preparation of an offer, in the negotiation phase, and in the implementation of
the network. Time-savings range from a few days to several weeks depending on
the type of project. The time previously needed to 're-invent the wheel' is now
spent in a richer relationship with the customers and for creating new
- In addition to time, ShareNet saves consulting fees for Siemens because
the knowledge and analyses of external consultants' reports are made available
on a global scale whenever possible
- By making innovative customer solutions visible throughout the
organisation, they are reused in other countries or with other customers, thus
generating new income streams
- By networking the sales 'frontlines' in all countries, Siemens is able to detect new trends and developments in both technology and customer requirements earlier for the benefit of the customer.
Success stories from actual sales projects that highlight these benefits
are systematically collated and published on the website. A business plan with
projections of expected savings and additional revenue created through the use
of ShareNet is also in place and communicated.
ShareNet has been operational for almost a year. With its 7000th member, ShareNet has reached a critical mass to drive the fundamental culture change further. New communities, such as the worldwide service units, are coming on board to develop ShareNet into a knowledge portal that will eventually integrate the expertise of the whole enterprise in virtual workspaces. In Siemens' recently established global ebusiness transformation programme, ShareNet was the first step in evolving the division into a fully web-based company.
Ulrich Gerndt is director of business transformation at Siemens AG's Information and Communication Networks Division. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org