posted 10 Oct 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 3
Flying high with communities
Driving collaboration in dispersed CoPs
Earlier this year, Integra sought to give its knowledge management programme a lift by launching the Wings initiative. Liz Quimby explains the motivation behind the project, and discusses the role of communities in Integra’s drive to establish a knowledge sharing culture.
Integra is a leading provider of managed web and application hosting for businesses with mission critical internet operations. Its network of Integra Technical Centres (ITCs) spans nine European countries, and provides a state-of-the-art infrastructure for hosting complex web applications. In addition, Integra’s service division provides turnkey solutions for planning, developing and implementing sophisticated end-to-end e-business solutions for medium to large organisations.
Founded in 1996, Integra provides Genuity’s operations in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK, and operates more than 1,200 corporate sites. The company’s list of clients includes American Express, Shell, Siemens, Packard-Bell, Lufthansa, Pepsi and Toshiba.
Each one of Integra’s nine data centres across Europe hosts between 1,000-2,500 servers, which form the backbone of essential services for a number of large companies. These data centres enable Integra to offer its clients some of the most competitive service level agreements (SLAs) in the world. Rapid incident resolution and the reduction of mean time offline for their data servers, therefore, is the most critical aspect of their operations.
Integra’s main objectives are to achieve and sustain the highest level of SLAs and to expedite innovation of new products. However, Integra faces many complex challenges in achieving this objective due to its acquisition of 12 European companies in 2000 alone. Ensuring a uniform quality of offerings is always difficult in any rapidly growing company, but the challenges become significantly more complex when growth is due to acquisitions in different countries with different cultures.
The Wings initiative
Determined to achieve its objective in less than six months, Integra kicked off the Wings knowledge management initiative in the spring of 2001. The aim of Wings was to empower its employees to deliver competitive service level agreements (SLAs) to its clients while overcoming cultural issues and scaling with the company’s growth in Europe.
Central to the Wings initiative is the development of communities of practice that will eventually involve every Integra employee. The goal behind the establishment of CoPs was twofold: tactically, CoPs enable employees to leverage their colleagues’ expertise to quickly resolve customer issues. Strategically, CoPs provide an ideal framework for accumulating the collective knowledge of Integra’s employee base.
Since community members face many of the same issues they frequently give advice and help each other solve problems. In addition, community members collaborate to identify new approaches and tools for their field. As community members share ideas and experiences, a set of common practices develop. Sometimes these practices are formalised into guidelines and standards, but often they simply remain undocumented experiences. With the new initiative, Integra is able to capture these valuable best practices for re-use in the future.
To amass the expertise of its 1,000 employees in nine different countries, Integra needed to establish a tacit knowledge exchange infrastructure that is robust, scalable and easy to use. Such an infrastructure would not only capture Integra’s existing employee expertise, but also greatly facilitate the integration of newly acquired companies. Thus, each new office not only provides local presence in a new segment of the European market, but the new employees can immediately contribute to, and make use of, Integra’s collective expertise.
The Wings team conducted a rigorous, in-depth examination of available solutions. Given the geographically dispersed nature of Integra’s operations and the need for rapid deployment of a solution, management identified a list of the ideal solution’s core requirements and chose AskMe Enterprise (AE) as the solution that met all of their infrastructure needs.
“When we looked at the different offerings on the market, many solutions either focused exclusively on the delivery of documents or completely ignored them,” says Aldo Pomponi, Integra’s VP of engineering and knowledge management. “AskMe offers a solution that has a very practical approach to using both documented and undocumented knowledge in corporate environments.”
Once AE was selected as the first solution to be included in Integra’s KM infrastructure, the Wings team began creating the CoPs whose members would be the first to use the system for knowledge sharing. The communities are built around domains of expertise, and the first three chosen were sales, project management, and infrastructure engineering.
For each of the three CoPs the Wings team first identified a community leader, who would in effect ‘own’ the community, and be responsible for encouraging members to leverage knowledge within their community. The community leaders worked together with the Wings team to establish a community mission, define community roles and outline processes associated with knowledge sharing for each group.
With AE, community members are now able to locate experts across Integra’s European operations and rapidly solve mission critical problems. Best practices and lessons learnt are captured in the system’s knowledgebase and can later be re-used by other employees. Innovations from one country’s data centre are immediately accessible to other countries.
Because knowledge and communities are so intimately related to people and culture, a number of non-technical risks can jeopardise the success of a knowledge sharing initiative. In addition to deploying the software system, Integra also engaged AskMe’s professional services to identify and resolve any potential issues that may surface with the undertaking of the initiative. One of the first activities completed by the Wings team and AskMe consultants was a discussion of the potential project risks. They then designed specific strategies, based on best practices gathered from similar initiatives in other companies, to mitigate these risks. Outlined below are the strategies Integra used to drive knowledge sharing and collaboration in dispersed communities.
A key risk identified during the planning phase was the potential reluctance of employees to collaborate across national and cultural boundaries. With new offices in nine countries across Europe, employees were not accustomed to collaborating with colleagues from other countries. The benefits of the Wings knowledge sharing system would be significantly limited if employees only collaborated with community members from the same country.
Integra recognised that with dispersed communities, a local presence is needed to help promote collaboration across countries. With this in mind, Integra established the specific role of a local contact for the Wings initiative. ‘Country hosts’ promote the benefits of collaboration across Europe, and collect feedback regarding international collaboration. The primary role of each host is to promote knowledge sharing by evangelising the Wings programme and encouraging activity on the AE system. The host collects feedback from employees regarding knowledge sharing issues and communicates this to the Wings team in order to further enhance the Wings programme. Country hosts play a pivotal role not only in driving collaboration at the country level, but also in the communication from employees to the Wings team.
Adopting new systems
Integra understands the importance of tailoring solutions to the employees who will use them and the fact that employees typically resist new initiatives and changes to work behaviour. The Wings team is therefore involving Integra employees throughout the roll-out process. The feedback collected will be used to improve and fine tune the deployment process, as the Wings system is made available to more employees.
As part of the plan to involve employees with the deployment and integrate the initiative into their business processes, the Wings team organised a two-day knowledge sharing workshop shortly prior to the initial launch of the Wings system to the three communities. Community leaders from sales, infrastructure engineering and project management selected 25 experts from eight countries to attend the workshop in Bavano, Italy. The objective of the workshop was to introduce the Wings initiative and outline its strategic importance to Integra, as well as secure the commitment of the workshop attendants to actively participate in the Wings system. Presentations were made by each of the Wings team members and Integra’s CEO, Andy McLeod, who said: “What we want to achieve with Wings is to make our people able to respond to customers more quickly, more cost effectively and more accurately.”
Feedback from the workshop was very positive. The community experts were pleased to have the opportunity to meet and network with colleagues from other countries. The presentations and demonstration of the Wings system clearly explained its value. One participant praised the event as “productive and cost-effective”.
In addition to generating excitement about the Wings launch, the workshop allowed the Integra Wings team to gather employee input before the Wings launch. Workshop attendees discussed topics such as the incentive programmes, multi-language knowledge sharing and community development.
Creating a sharing culture
A significant issue faced by many companies when deploying knowledge sharing solutions is the fact that employees typically hoard knowledge. Workers assume that the more knowledge they keep to themselves, the more secure their jobs will be. Participating in communities and sharing knowledge with others are new concepts to most employees. Integra did not assume that its employees would simply change their work behaviours and embrace the Wings system immediately. For these reasons, Integra and the AskMe team established an incentive programme designed specifically for the deployment phase of Wings.
The short-term focus for the incentive programme was to create visibility for the Wings initiative and reward participants with prizes and public accolades. For example, a project manager in the UK received a trip to a European conference for her active participation in Wings. The long-term structure will tie knowledge sharing activity to recognition and employee performance programmes.
Another important aspect of Integra’s incentive programme is that employees who seek knowledge receive incentives, as well as those who share their knowledge. Unlike companies that focus on collecting and pushing knowledge articles and best practices to their employees, Integra is creating an environment where employees are motivated to aggressively ask questions. Integra’s model is more likely to sustain activity and deliver bottomline results because employees are encouraged to proactively seek information to perform their jobs more efficiently.
Another threat was the risk that usage would diminish after the first few weeks, as the interest in the new system waned. This scenario occurs when companies make the common mistake of informing employees about a new initiative only once, either through e-mail or during a company meeting, and then assuming that employees will quickly change their behaviour to accommodate the new initiative. Since employees are inundated with information each day, failure to follow up with additional communication and promotion is sure to compromise the success of any initiative. Even the perfect solution will not see continuous participation without sufficient evangelism during the early stages. Adoption and usage of a new system is directly proportional to the amount of consistent effort put into encouraging employees to participate.
In order to avoid this problem, Integra implemented a project communication plan to sustain employee interest. The programme includes bimonthly newsletters, which consist of success stories, usage summaries, project updates and commentaries. In addition, Integra developed incentive programmes and announced the results every three weeks. These programmes provide recognition for the top participants for their collaborative activities. The Wings team also put together a video highlighting the importance of knowledge sharing at Integra, with testimonies from their CEO, Wings project leaders, community leaders and Integra employees. This video, which was posted on the corporate intranet, demonstrates the enthusiastic endorsement of the knowledge sharing initiative throughout the company.
The strategies used during the Wings deployment have proven to be highly successful. The Wings initiative surpassed expected milestones months ahead of schedule. Over 95 per cent of the potential employee audience began using the Wings system within two weeks. Integra employees used the system over 7,500 times to obtain over 15,000 solutions in the first ten weeks alone. The rapid adoption and usage statistics underscore the demand for knowledge sharing tools. Integra is well on its way to creating a thriving knowledge sharing culture.
Here is an example of the type of valuable interactions that are taking place on the Wings system today: a member of the sales community in Germany was in urgent need of information regarding the pharmaceutical industry, a sector in which he had little experience. None of the documents he found on the corporate intranet or internet were helpful, so he decided to use Wings to see if he could locate colleagues and profit from their experiences and insights. He found a community member in Amsterdam with the required expertise, and asked a question. Within 24 hours, his Dutch colleague, whom he had never met, provided him with a detailed answer. The answer enabled him to take effective action and move the account forward.
Integra’s CoPs frequently use Wings to locate, transfer, capture and store knowledge, allowing them to deliver competitive products, services and support to their clients.
The long-term business benefits of the successful Wings implementation are twofold: Integra realises shorter time-to-value of business acquisitions because new employees are easily incorporated into communities and have immediate access to the aggregate knowledge. Similarly, current Integra employees can leverage the wealth of knowledge that comes with any newly acquired company. From a financial perspective, CoPs enable Integra employees to easily tap into the collective expertise of community members to rapidly solve mission critical problems in its vast network of servers across Europe, thereby upholding the company’s high standards for SLAs.
“We estimate the resulting ROI to be in the order of 300 per cent for the first 12 months, and growing in the subsequent years,” says McLeod. “The need for this type of solution is not unique to Integra. All companies that want or need to compete across Europe must leverage their employee’s expertise.”
© 2001 AskMe Corporation
Liz Quimby is a consultant at AskMe Professional Services. She can be contacted at: email@example.com