posted 27 Jan 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 5
Collaboration and beyond
Caterpillar's Knowledge Network incorporates some 2,700 communities of practice and almost 40,000 users, many of whom work in partner organisations rather than in Caterpillar itself. Reed Stuedemann describes the evolution of a truly collaborative network, explaining just how the company is realising an ROI of over 700 per cent in some communities.
Caterpillar is a large, globally dispersed company, involved in many different products and services. Like many other companies, Caterpillar will see a significant number of its most experienced employees retire in the next few years. Leveraging our intellectual capital has therefore never been more important.
We believe the best way to leverage these assets effectively is to enable our employees as continual learners. Our knowledge-sharing mission is to provide efficient, reliable and easy access to knowledge, and enable collaboration with others across the value chain for the purpose of improving performance. The Knowledge Network (KN) was developed to help address these needs.
The KN is a web-based strategic business asset, developed internally at Caterpillar, delivered via the internet. The knowledge network leverages the intellectual capital of Caterpillar and its value chain by providing collaborative space and access to expertise through communities of practice. Our communities are groups of people with a common interest working together to improve performance. They cross business-unit, geographic and value-chain boundaries, and can range in size from small teams to thousands of people. The Knowledge Network includes Caterpillar employees, retirees, dealers, customers and suppliers.
History and evolution of the Knowledge Network
The Knowledge Network was formed in 1998 at Caterpillar’s Technical Center as a way to share lessons learnt and leverage technical knowledge. Knowledge Network users quickly recognised that collaborating and learning from each other was a key factor in the ongoing success of our business units.
Being an integral part of continual learning, the Knowledge Network was transferred to Caterpillar University in 2001. However, non-technical users found the tool unwieldy and difficult to use. Therefore, early that year, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications worked with Caterpillar to identify potential usability barriers that were limiting people’s ability to collaborate and participate in communities of practice. The primary barriers identified in the study were the fear of embarrassment by not knowing how to use the tool and a more general lack of computer skills. This information was combined with the results of internal focus-group studies to redesign the system completely for improved usability and functionality. The redesigned system was tested in Caterpillar University’s usability lab, modified based on the results, and re-tested until we had a very intuitive and user-friendly system.
Today, users report that the Knowledge Network is easy to use. The KN is now widely accepted by even non-technical employees. In addition, online help was developed to answer frequently asked questions.
At the same time as the redesigned Knowledge Network was being rolled out as an internal collaboration tool, we were receiving requests from our dealers and customers that were looking for a way to collaborate with Caterpillar.
In March 2002, a pilot of the Knowledge Network was made available on the internet for our dealers to join select communities of practice. These pilot communities were organised around committees and work groups that were already working together. The Knowledge Network allowed them to improve collaboration by increasing the speed, quality and acceptance of their work. The pilot programme also gave the KN team the opportunity to create a Knowledge Network interface for the entire value chain.
Several system modifications were made in preparation for extending the KN across our value chain. During the pilot, all community names and entry titles were displayed in the community structure, as well as the search results, even though users were not given access to all communities. For the final roll-out, this was modified so that non-Caterpillar people would only be able to see the community’s names and search results to which they had access. In addition, Caterpillar personnel see the complete list of all communities, with a warning symbol by a community security profile if that community is open to external personnel.
An extensive disclaimer agreement was developed by Caterpillar’s legal department and added to the KN for non-Caterpillar users. All external users are required to accept the agreement before being given access to the Knowledge Network.
In July 2002, the production Knowledge Network system was made available across the internet. We currently have dealers, suppliers and customers involved in our communities of practice, as determined by each community manager. The acceptance of the Knowledge Network by our value-chain partners has been extremely positive, and quick to show results. It has proven to be an effective tool to convert win-lose situations into win-win opportunities.
From 12 communities in January 1999, we now have over 2,700. We anticipate that this rate of growth will slow, as many of the business-process-related communities have now been established. However, we continue to create more project-related communities that will have a finite life.
The number of new users continues to increase dramatically, as dealers, customers and suppliers become involved. We currently have over 37,000 registered users, 25,000 of whom are Caterpillar employees. It is expected that, at the current pace, Caterpillar employees will be the minority among Knowledge Network users within a year or two. The Knowledge Network team includes one programmer and four knowledge-sharing marketing and support personnel. The team is assisted by colleagues from each of the major business process areas in establishing communities and training participants in their respective areas. The Knowledge Network is now the prime source of information for many areas of the corporation.
The Knowledge Network in action
The Knowledge Network is used for many things. Some of the more common uses include a place to store information, capture lessons learnt, solve problems and identify/locate experts, and as a means of more quickly integrating new people into their job. It is also used to support and facilitate face-to-face meetings. It allows people across our value chain to provide input and gain feedback from all parts of the globe on issues with which they are involved on a daily basis. The KN provides an environment that enables people to take risks, drive innovation and achieve higher-quality results more quickly than would otherwise be possible.
The Knowledge Network communities of practice are structured according to a taxonomy that is based on our business processes. It has been very important to define the scope of our communities of practice based on the business needs of the members. Our communities are structured so they align with the day-to-day activities of their members; their involvement must help them accomplish the tasks needed to do their jobs. A community of practice may be a group of people working on a project with a limited life, or a group involved with a business function that goes on indefinitely. As a rule, the more specific the community purpose, the more value it will provide for the members. At Caterpillar, CoPs with a broader scope have not proven to be particularly successful.
There are several different roles that people can play within a community. Every community has a community manager who is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of their community. Maintenance includes the periodic review of content and community participants. The manager plays a critical role in deciding on appropriate content, and should be highly engaged with other users. The manager also serves as a role model for community participants. They need not be the person with the most knowledge or experience, but they do need to be someone who is recognised as being chiefly concerned with the community’s common interest. Good communications skills are an asset managers must have in order to be effective. Selecting and training community managers is an area that we will dedicate more resources to in the future.
In addition to keeping the information in the community up to date, managers are responsible for identifying experts for their community. Experts need to be extremely knowledgeable in the subject matter the community is based around. The Knowledge Network allows a manager to include a description that explains the expert’s skill set as it relates to that community. The expert’s description is a searchable field, and the Knowledge Network is considered to be a reliable source where people can go to locate talent. This enables people to locate knowledge and expertise, as defined in the community of practice, independent of their job title or position. A person may be designated as an expert in multiple communities of practice and have a different description in each one, based on the role they play in that community. Experts cannot leave a community of practice unless the community manager removes them as a designated expert within that community.
In addition, managers may, or may not, have delegates – people who assist the manager with the community managerial duties. Delegates have the same authority as the manager and run the community when the manager is travelling or otherwise unavailable. We recommend that a manager chooses at least one delegate to assist them.
Members of each community are people who are interested in the subject matter, but not recognised as experts. They will, however, gain status and recognition by contributing to the community. Members receive e-mail notification whenever something is posted to the community, and are able to join or cancel their membership at any time.
A Caterpillar web-security ID is required to enter the system. This allows community managers to control access to their community, as well as to individual entries in their community, based on the electronic identification. Access to a community is defined in one of three ways: it can be granted based on affiliation (such as ‘employee’ or ‘supplier’), by organisational code, by name, or by any combination of these three factors. Anyone who tallies with a community access profile can enter the community. If a person wants to be notified when an entry is added to the community, that person must join the community and become a member. If an individual chooses not to join the community, they will still have access to allow for searching or browsing in the future.
Types of communications
There are two basic forms of communication that take place within a community of practice in the Knowledge Network. A community discussion is a quick way to get a message out or ask a question to community members. This will not be validated or approved by the community manager, and is sent by e-mail directly to the community participants. Anybody who has access to the community has access to the community discussions.
The other type of communication that takes place is a ‘knowledge entry’, which is more formal and has a multi-part structure. The community manager must review and approve knowledge entries before they are sent to community members. While the manager must approve a knowledge entry before it becomes available to the community, either the author or the community manager can send it to other people for review or for comment prior to it being approved. Based on this review process, a knowledge entry can be edited at any time by the author or community manager. This process allows for validation and ensures confidence in the information contained in a knowledge entry.
Reference material on the KN
In addition to the communications that take place within a community, the Knowledge Network allows for related reference material to be accessed from the community. In a section called Tools and Guides, the community manager can load or link to documents and files in many different formats that relate to the activity of the community. These documents and links can also be re-organised into folders by the community manager. The Knowledge Network also includes a section called Standards and Specs, which allows the community manager to link to frequently used standards documents. These documents may be internal to Caterpillar or externally developed by a Standards Developing Organisation. There is no upload feature to the standards section, however, which ensures that community participants use only the controlled sources provided by our suppliers.
Value to the organisation
We have completed a study of the Knowledge Network and found a return on the company’s investment in excess of 200 per cent for internally focused communities, and over 700 per cent for externally focused communities. The primary benefits realised by users were improved productivity and quality. Studies have also shown that 67 per cent of the people looking for information found the results they needed using the Knowledge Network. Furthermore, intangible benefits for Caterpillar include increased customer satisfaction with Caterpillar equipment, strengthened dealer and supplier relationships, increased retention of knowledge, improved collaboration skills, expansion of informal networks and continual learning.
As we go forward, we will invest more time and effort in the selection and training of the community managers. They play a key role in the vitality and success of each community. We are also looking at ways to provide additional support to strategic communities and leverage the benefits that the Knowledge Network provides to the business as a whole. We have been amazed at the knowledge and expertise that has surfaced as a result of collaboration on the Knowledge Network, often from some of the most unlikely places. The Knowledge Network is truly changing the way we work at Caterpillar.
Reed Stuedemann is knowledge sharing manager at Caterpillar University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org