posted 1 Nov 1999 in Volume 3 Issue 3
The Fourth Wave
If your company is hemmed in by traditional barriers and you feel that the idea of introducing knowledge gathering will only invoke apathetic reactions, then perhaps your company needs a “fourth wave” to break the ice. Buckman Laboratories empowered their employees’ confidence and willingness to share by inviting them to a retreat called the “fourth wave”. In this article, Bob Buckman shows how pleasure and business can be mixed for a successful result.
In the winter of 1996, I spent an evening in Chicago to accept the Arthur Andersen Enterprise Award for Knowledge Sharing for Buckman Laboratories. My close associates, Mark Koskiniemi and Alison Tucker accompanied me. Relaxing over dinner and wine, and waiting for the ceremony to begin, we discussed our labours over the past many years to realise the dream of connecting the company’s far-flung global associates in order to allow them to share their expertise and knowledge, in order to better serve Buckman customers. Fifteen years ago, the technological barriers to global connectivity were significant. There was no public access to the Internet and there was only a clumsy and inefficient prototype of today’s e-mail. But, as we were to find out, the technological barriers were nothing compared to the cultural barriers between individuals, between countries, with different languages and belief systems. As we talked over dinner, Alison Tucker experienced a lightning bolt of inspiration and quickly wrote on the back of a table napkin: “Communication is human nature; knowledge sharing is human nurture”. Alison’s words aptly described one of the toughest obstacles the company had worked so hard to overcome. It had been a long and difficult road to travel before arriving at receiving Arthur Andersen’s award for knowledge sharing. Communication is human nature but real knowledge sharing does not come naturally - it is not human nature - it can exist only after the barriers preventing knowledge sharing have been eliminated.
The barriers to knowledge sharing and the ensuing ‘human nurture’ are so numerous that much of everyone’s time and effort over the past fifteen years has been devoted to identifying and eliminating those barriers. As barriers were eliminated one by one, the company began to work toward the highest level of communication possible. To achieve this, all participants had to enthusiastically share all they knew with one another, without reservation, all the time. The company has been working for a long time to address the dual issues of:
Today, technology is the easy part. However, human reluctance to give up the advantage of private, individual knowledge is rooted in the enduring belief that knowledge is power. The feeling that knowledge should be hoarded to maintain personal influence is much more difficult to overcome than any technological barrier. It is a human problem, not a technological one.
Barriers inherent in an organisation must be identified and addressed in order to eliminate them. While departments, divisions, managers, and corporate cultures are in place to facilitate productivity, they can also discourage knowledge sharing. Competition between departments and divisions drives many individuals to try and stockpile their personal knowledge and expertise and use it to succeed. Sales regions strive to outsell all other regions. And in international companies, there is often intense competition between operating companies around the world. If the office in Europe, for example, has found a way to successfully apply new chemistries and technologies that have drastically improved their bottom line, they might decide to try and keep their methods secret in order to be the company’s top performer for the next year as well.
In the early days of Buckman’s knowledge sharing efforts, in the mid 1980’s, (when e-mail was rudimentary, the Internet was largely unknown and there was no world wide web) the field sales force, some 50% of the company’s associates, were strongly opposed to the idea of sharing knowledge. They feared giving away their sales secrets to others because their salary was to some degree determined by their sales. They feared sharing technological information with people online whose names they did not know, who were possibly from other countries. They feared taking advice from people they had never met who were giving them information about processes and products they thought could have no bearing on their own particular situations. They thought that spending time online was a waste of time and that the idea of maintaining electronic communications was just another business fad that would fade away like others before it. So many of the sales force were strongly resistant to sharing knowledge that some of them resigned rather than align themselves with the company’s new policy of knowledge sharing.
Some barriers to knowledge sharing are subtle. The cultures in some countries are more open with regard to worker communication and teamwork, while others are more guarded and reserved. It is important to recognise and acknowledge when a barrier is cultural in nature because it can usually be easily resolved with respect and understanding on the part of both parties. Trying to force a Western culture on Eastern people, for instance, will likely make the barriers stronger. Respecting and learning as much as possible about those differences will lead to increased empathy, understanding, and enhanced communication.
Language differences are powerful barriers as well. Even with the best translations from one language to another, substance as well as nuance can be lost. Even when the majority of the message is well understood by both parties, certain subtleties in meaning will almost certainly be lost. In any serious attempt at knowledge sharing in an international company, constantly evolving efforts to make information available in each person’s native language is vitally important. Though more international business today is conducted in English, the ability to have information available in multiple languages makes conducting business much friendlier for those who do not speak English as their first language. As online translation services continue to improve in quality and decrease in price, communication in the native language of all involved becomes easier to achieve.
Electronic communication has arguably provided the business and academic world with the tools to share information as never before in the history of man. The Internet is providing the world with facts on any subject imaginable - furnishing the best, most appropriate education, made up of completely timely information - available to anyone willing to take part. Within companies, individuals share their specialised knowledge through communities of practice, teams, outside expert individuals, articles, databases, electronic libraries, and at-work communities.
Buckman’s Code of Ethics
How can a company develop a culture that will result in sufficient trust among colleagues to promote open knowledge sharing? The first step is to develop a code of ethics that guides the behaviour of all associates at every level of the organisation and in every country of the world. The code guides all associates and creates an atmosphere of confidence and cooperation. Through this code and the culture changes within the company - and through the creation of K’Netix(r), the Buckman Knowledge Network - Buckman associates are involved in continuous knowledge sharing, across all boundaries, time zones, languages, and technical specialities. The Code of Ethics is as follows below.
Because many miles - separate us - through diversity of cultures and languages - we at Buckman need a clear understanding of the basic principles by which we will operate our company. These are:
As individuals and as a corporate body, we must endeavour to uphold these standards so that we may be respected as persons and as an organisation.
We have found that trust is the essential pre-requisite to any successful knowledge sharing effort. Building that trust is vital. Trusting each associate is vital. Associates’ trust in management is vital. Giving everyone equal access to the comprehensive knowledge base of the company is vital. Sharing all knowledge with every associate at every level - from bookkeepers to the C.E.O. - is vital. Trust has to go both ways in equal measure: the associates must trust management and management must trust the associates. All the above ingredients are required in order for confidence to grow amongst all individuals in the organisation. Obviously, this goal is not easily achieved.
We have also found that the span of communications must be unlimited for every associate of the company. There can be no boundaries - real or perceived. Any and all associates are empowered to speak with any other associate at any level of the organisation. We’ve also discovered that trust is essential to ensure the speed of response to requests for information. To increase the speed of response, Buckman’s knowledge sharing system, K’Netix(r) has removed the mechanical boundaries to communication and has provided instant connectivity. Such access allows every individual to not only reap information and knowledge but to share it at will.
As communication at Buckman has increased in quality and volume, knowledge sharing has also increased and those who contribute most through sharing their knowledge and expertise are easily identifiable to all. Those who contribute most are perceived as most influential among others in the organisation. This perception of the influence knowledge sharing bestows on an individual is a powerful motivator and drives others to participate as well. As the power of each individual grows through expanding their span of influence, their collective power causes the organisation to realise unprecedented success for itself and its customers.
At Buckman, we are continually looking for new windows of opportunity to support our front-line associates, (technical representatives on-site with our customers). Many of our technical representatives are dedicated to a single customer, working within their physical plant every day to optimise their processes. They are there to ‘close the gap’ - to solve customer questions before they become problems.
Culture change & incentives
At 5:00 p.m. on a Friday in early 1994, I made a call to one of the sysops (Systems Operator), telling her I was coming down to her office to discuss a request. I asked if she could compile a list of the top 150 people who were contributing most to the forums or sharing knowledge in a significant way. I wouldn’t tell her why I wanted the list, only that I wanted this list of 150 (compiled from all associates, all over the world) as fast as possible. The sysop included the top 50 people, then another 50 who were very high users of the system as well along with all sysops in all countries. In a few days time, I sent her an e-mail to tell her that she, and the 150 people on her list, were invited to a company retreat at a resort in Arizona. The retreat would celebrate the achievements in ‘sharing knowledge’ of those 150 associates - and would also serve as an incentive to all other associates to increase their activity online. The retreat would be called ‘the fourth wave’.
At the resort, the participants held formal meetings and shared ideas about how to further the advancements already made in knowledge sharing. There were also breakout meetings concerning such subjects as better customer service, improved delivery times, product development and other miscellaneous subjects. Mark Koskiniemi (Vice President of Human resources) sat at the rear of the room during these meetings, transcribing events as they took place so that Buckman associates all over the world who weren’t there could read about events as they transpired. His reports from the meeting did more than any other one thing to boost the morale of all associates, and to bring them into ‘the fourth wave’.
There were also many non-formal gatherings, designed for fun, during which the participants were able to forge strong relationships - helping them to communicate even better when they returned to their offices. One evening the entire group, composed of associates from more than 20 countries was packed into two large transcontinental buses and transported deep into the Arizona desert. They arrived at an old barn that had been transformed into a restaurant set up for a western barbecue. There were activities such as roping mechanical cows, archery, and riding a mechanical bull. Every member of the group was met by a welcoming committee and given a huge yellow cowboy hat emblazoned with the fourth wave logo!
The attendees also received a new laptop computer and a leather computer bag. All the participants brought feelings of accomplishment and excitement over the remarkable changes in Buckman’s culture back to the organisation. Culture changes were made to support customers, associates on the front line, managers, and associates, in any capacity, in the various offices around the world. Changes as broad and deep as these are the most difficult part of the process of implementing knowledge sharing. Various kinds of incentives were built into the plan to help motivate people to accept enthusiastically something many of them initially saw as a waste of valuable time resources and effort.
Of course, the first and best incentive is the respect associates receive from co-workers when their knowledge and expertise is shared publically with everyone over the forums. The respect of one’s peers is a powerful motivator. As associates gain power, they begin to see their influence grow - as well as their opportunities for advancement within the company.
Today, more than ever, more company associates worldwide are effectively engaged on the front line with the customer through their participation in online knowledge sharing. Allowing everyone the opportunity to interface with the associates in the field and with the customers provides them with an intensely positive experience. Individuals who, before, had limited impact on customer relationships could now interface with customers directly. They receive recognition from the whole company because the global company can see their experience, knowledge, and contributions, online.
“With everything else dropping out of the competitive equation, knowledge has become the only source of long run, sustainable competitive advantage. But knowledge can only be employed through the skills of individuals. The value of an individual’s knowledge depends upon the intelligence with which it is used in the entire system.” Lester Thurow1
To recap, effective incentives in persuading individuals to share their knowledge are:
Buckman’s most recent step in creating incentives for knowledge sharing is the creation of the Buckman Laboratories Learning Centre. Many companies have created similar programmes called, among other things, on-line universities or colleges or training centres. Through the Buckman Learning Centre, the classroom can be delivered to any associate, in any subject, at any time, anywhere in the world. The Learning Centre offers Buckman Laboratories internal training, credit from over twenty universities around the world; degree programmes to the Ph.D. level for its associates - without appreciable out-of-service cost for those associates while they accomplish their selected programmes.
There are other savings for the company as well: travel cost to the classroom is eliminated, housing cost at the site where the education is conducted is eliminated, and the cost of the classroom is much less; all of which allows the company to direct funds toward hiring superior professors. The company also benefits when their associates continue to receive the most advanced technical training, without leaving the worksite, and with the ultimate benefit going to the customer.
The Buckman Learning Centre has been successful in decreasing the cost of educating our associates to less than $50.00 per hour of learning delivered. But, more importantly, it has helped make continuous learning a reality at Buckman. Since knowledge becomes devalued over time unless continually renewed, it is essential that associates renew their expertise, adding to it with every new development, so that their knowledge base remains optimally current.
We continually promote the establishment of a new cultural paradigm - that of creating unlimited opportunities for associates to become the best they can be, over time, for their lifetime at work. The benefit of the Learning Centre to the customer is that Buckman customers can be sure that employees will always remain the best-educated, best-informed and most technically proficient specialty-chemical suppliers available.
It is vital to focus on satisfying associate needs. Make knowledge easier and faster to obtain. Work toward reaching instantaneous knowledge transfer - from individuals to the company, from individuals to the customers, and from individuals to individuals. Everyone wins.
Robert Buckman is Chairman and CEO of Buckman Laboratories International Inc. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
|1 Lester Thrurow is a world renowned authority in economics and knowledge management|