posted 25 Feb 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 6
Five minutes with… Vodafone
Jacquie Bran, project manager for the Knowledge Management events team, talks to Bert Vandenbos, head of Vodafone Group R&D in the Netherlands, about his experiences implementing a knowledge-management programme.
What prompted you to implement a knowledge-management programme within your department?
When I defined and built the R&D centre at Vodafone Netherlands, I immediately recognised the potential knowledge management had as a concept. An R&D department within a mobile operator like Vodafone cannot be compared to an R&D unit in, say, a university or a manufacturing firm. Instead of being directly responsible for actual product developments, an R&D department within a mobile operator is more of an enabler – a driver of out-of-the-box thinking. As such, the R&D department at Vodafone is tasked with building a bridge between the traditional R&D functionality and strategic and operational activities within Vodafone. Our challenge was therefore threefold: how to capture, undertake and deliver R&D.
By ‘capture’, I mean defining the work that R&D should do. This is partly achieved by scenario thinking and scenario planning, although we also undertake extensive data analysis projects to define trends and form future visions. We also capture the concerns of business leaders within the company as a whole. This all leads to the identification of the knowledge we require in order to make the best decisions about how to move the company forward.
By ‘undertake’, I mean the projects and activities we do in order to acquire knowledge. This is something we do together with other companies and universities, and by undertaking activities to define existing knowledge and executing research to acquire new knowledge.
Finally, by ‘deliver’ I mean the way we distribute the knowledge we have gained throughout the organisation. As such, the value of knowledge-management concepts to our ongoing operations was clear from the outset.
What barriers have you faced in your attempts to encourage knowledge sharing?
Knowledge sharing and learning are facts of life for children. Somewhere in time, we seem to lose those capabilities. Why, I do not understand completely, but this presents a real barrier for any knowledge management initiative. In addition, as knowledge management is a business process, the same barriers and problems facing the introduction of any other business process apply.
A further problem is how progress can be measured. How do I know that specific activities generate the appropriate knowledge, and how do I know how far I have come in gathering the knowledge the company needs? The tools that would allow us to measure this properly do not yet exist. In this respect, new managerial instruments are required.
How did you progress to implementing an infrastructure to support KM and what changes were necessary to ensure success?
As yet we are not using any specific knowledge-management tools. We have traditional tools such as e-mail, phone, video conferencing, shared drives and e-mail distribution lists, but I am convinced that one should first resolve process and cultural issues rather than introducing technologies for the sake of it. Otherwise, the focus will be on the tools themselves instead of the issues surrounding how to deal with KM as a managerial instrument. Once people are happy with the processes and the procedures, the provision of tools will follow almost automatically.
What was the reaction of your workforce to changing working practices?
So far, there has only been one big change: the recognition that the things we want to do are part of a process called ‘knowledge management’. We are used to calling knowledge-management concepts by different names (project evaluation, demonstrations, training, e-learning, and so on).
In addition, as I was responsible for building a new department, everything was new, not just the knowledge-management programme. This made the introduction of the discipline relatively easy.
Has knowledge management enabled you to improve your electronic service delivery and join-up your information and knowledge services across departments and channels of communication?
Not yet, but I do expect this to happen as we work to further improve our knowledge-management processes.
What are the main lessons you have learnt?
We have learnt the following key lessons:
- Knowledge management is not something hugely different from a lot of the things we are already doing. Often it is the same set of practices dressed slightly differently. As such, do not regard knowledge management as something overly complicated. After all, the goal should not be just that certain processes and activities are called knowledge management;
- Measuring progress in terms of gathering knowledge is still a major challenge;
- Changes in managerial instruments are often required to enable people to act as you want them to act in a given process. This is the case in the introduction of any new or renewed process, but being aware of this fact can be helpful, particularly when we are talking about something that deals with such ‘soft’ issues as KM does.
Bert Vandenbos is head of Vodafone Group R&D in the Netherlands. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org