posted 23 Aug 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 1
Profile: Nick Milton
The knowledge | Nick Milton
Taking the lessons learnt from his work with oil company BP and a diverse set of clients, Nick Milton talks to Sandra Higgison about the need for companies to address KM as a true management discipline, the importance of setting the right incentives and how he demonstrates the value of knowledge sharing.
After spending more than two years with BP’s pioneering knowledge management (KM) team, Nick Milton chose not to return to his career in geology when the oil company closed the group in 1999. Having scaled a steep learning curve to develop BP’s view of how knowledge could and should be managed, he set up consulting firm Knoco with three colleagues to continue working in an area he found exciting and enthralling.
Almost losing count of the number of KM implementations they have been involved in since, Milton has spotted common themes that run through their work, identified the biggest challenges facing companies and has accumulated a broad collection of lessons, many of which he recently shared in his debut book, Knowledge Management for Teams and Projects. With ideas already penned for a follow-up and the inkling of a third, Milton’s many experiences, stories and predictions continue to be well received and valued by the KM community.
His introduction to knowledge management, a term that at the time was not commonly used, came during his work as a geoscience quality advisor in BP Norway, where he was involved in the development of a quality improvement system. “I had a very smart and enlightened manager who realised that you couldn’t control quality by eliminating mistakes, you had to eliminate the source of the mistakes by learning from others,” he says.
With his manager, Milton built the energy giant’s first local KM system. Based on team post-project reviews and discussion, and re-use of what had been learned, the system aimed to carry forward good practice. Even though he now says the approach was quite crude, the newly formed knowledge management team considered it ground breaking and invited Milton to become part of the team.
As the team’s knowledge manager, Milton coordinated the KM community and was responsible for developing and documenting BP’s KM approach and sharing it with the business. “It was a very intense and varied time,” he says. “Culturally and in terms of its work, BP is a very diverse organisation. A typical employee might be a geologist in the Arctic, attendant at a petrol station in South Africa, an engineer at a chemical refinery in Singapore or a marketing manager promoting Castrol motor oil to Formula One racing teams.” Taking all of this into account, Milton helped develop and decipher BP’s approach to knowledge management.
Lessons from BP
From his two years working with the team he took away three key lessons. The first, he highlights, is the need to drive KM deployment as a change programme. “It must be led by someone with a background in change management and the personality to stand up and be a prophet. Knowledge management isn’t something you can do shyly or apologetically.”
He also advises people not to take too long about it. “Like any change initiative, knowledge management is particularly vulnerable to shifts in corporate strategy and direction. We thought our implementation programme at BP would last three years, but after two the company embarked on a wave of mergers and acquisitions that absorbed the corporate attention. Always have a contingency plan up your sleeve and bank your gains as soon as possible.”
The third lesson only recently became fully apparent to Milton, seven years after the team disbanded. “Part of knowledge management’s strength at BP came from it being driven by an internal demand for knowledge. Any strategy or system creates an internal market for knowledge and there will be supply and demand. A demand-led market is far more powerful and healthy than one led by supply.”
The formation of Knoco in 1999 enabled Milton to continue his work with KM. Spanning the breadth of activities between strategic-level coaching and guidance, and hands-on tactical work, Knoco helps companies that are just investigating the topic as well as others that may already have suffered a false start, or are developing their own approach.
“Recently we’ve done everything from helping to package knowledge captured from engineers who had just built a gas plant in the Sahara to devising a knowledge management strategy for a major multinational.” Milton also reveals that Knoco has not relinquished all its influence over BP’s KM endeavours as a significant chunk of its business still comes from the energy company.
Making it happen
It is in this work with clients where Milton says his biggest achievements lie. “I get a warm feeling from being able to look at a client’s company and see knowledge management delivering really well. There’s a manufacturing sector company I’m working with that is achieving major results, which is very pleasing. I was also involved in some coaching and mentoring initiatives with the knowledge management team at the BBC in its early days. It was great to see them nominated for a Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise [MAKE] award and knowing I had a hand in it.”
Drawing on the full extent of his experiences Milton sums up what he finds makes knowledge management work and recognises the challenges organisations face. “The most robust way to introduce knowledge management into a company is as a staged intervention that follows a strategy with an end-point in mind, almost like a change campaign. Many people advocate a grassroots, bottom-up approach, but this takes so much longer and is more vulnerable to changes in corporate strategy.”
He also stresses the importance of setting expectations. “From the top of the company all the way down people eventually need to be accountable for learning from others and for sharing what they know. They need the technology, roles and processes to capture and share, and a knowledge management team to help them. Those who do it should be rewarded and those who refuse to must eventually face consequences. Ultimately, knowledge should be managed with the same level of attention as the other intangible assets of the organisation, such as brand, reputation, safety or customer relationships.”
On a tactical level, Milton discusses how knowledge assets can be organised, collated, packaged and deployed effectively. As an area where many KM teams battle to keep these assets accurate and up to date for the business, he advocates not focusing as much on ownership or use of the database or system, but more on ownership of the knowledge itself.
“I would try to make it very clear who in the organisation owns the corporate knowledge and is accountable for keeping it live, fresh and up to date. To do this, people need to know the value of the asset they’re looking after. A knowledge asset on how to drill wells in BP or Shell, for example, may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. If you have such a valuable asset somebody needs to be given clear performance criteria on how to look after it and maintain it.”
Despite all his good advice, there are some critical challenges that, if left unresolved, will severely hamper companies’ knowledge management efforts. Many organisations run a programme for a few years until they feel KM is embedded, only to find that KM activity rapidly wanes when the team is disbanded. Milton believes that this is because few companies have been able to turn KM into a true management discipline. “There aren’t many that have reached the stage where knowledge management is treated with the same degree of rigor as financial management or people management. KM is still considered optional with few consequences if you don’t do it, and so it remains vulnerable.”
This objective remains elusive to many organisations and Milton says it forms the basis of the biggest knowledge management challenge they face. “It’s relatively easy to set up a KM programme, do some pilots and get some good success stories. However, few initiatives have made the jump to where they have turned round the whole company and where knowledge management has become an accepted business practice like financial management or human resources.”
People at all levels of the organisation need to be involved to reach this stage. “Senior management must take a corporate decision that the company is going to adopt knowledge management as standard business practice. It’s a big decision and requires a lot of preparatory work and information to show what it is going to cost and deliver, and how it is to be achieved.”
While senior management may be essential to the success of knowledge management, Milton says they are not the trickiest part of the organisation to work with. “The hardest people to get on side are the business unit leaders and project managers who work to ridiculous deadlines and tight budgets, and are usually incentivised personally on their department’s delivery. They can often see you as adding to their workload or distracting their people. All too often they will see KM as a burden to them and not a benefit.”
The issue of incentives can often be a fundamental barrier or enabler for knowledge management initiatives. Milton recognises that BP’s culture contributed to the team’s KM success as many of the powerful budget holders were incentivised on their collective performance. “A refinery manager’s incentives, for example, would be partly based on the delivery of his or her refinery, but also on the delivery of all the refineries put together; so there was a strong motivation to share knowledge and help peers.”
In companies where people are rewarded through internal competition, resistance to knowledge-sharing activities can be high. “It is very common for internal business units to compete for resources or budget,” he says. “Sometimes this competition is overt and you have ‘store of the year’ awards with healthy bonuses. If knowledge management is going to work fully, then incentive systems like these may need to change, which means starting conversations at a very high level.”
Having observed how KM works around the world, Milton can see why knowledge management often goes against Western culture. “We’re trained since childhood to rely on what we know personally and if you look at someone else’s answers, you’re cheating.” One way he demonstrates the power of knowledge sharing with groups is to play a version of the TV game show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’, where the competitors can ask the audience for every question.
“The TV game is based on an old model where the only knowledge you can access is what you hold in your head. We want to turn this around and say that the knowledge is almost certainly out there, all you need to do is ask. Just relying on what you know in your own head, is like trying to run a company where the only finances you can access are those in your wallet.”
As he shares his experiences and knowledge with clients to help them build robust KM programmes, there is a piece of advice he always passes on. “If you’re starting off with knowledge management and doing some scenario planning, you should always plan for what may happen should your work become an outrageous success. I’ve often seen it happen where knowledge management just catches fire in an organisation. Without a contingency plan in place, the team cannot handle the volume of work and quickly becomes swamped.”
While KM leaders always hope for unfettered success, they rarely plan for it. As Milton says it is vital to have a strategy and criteria by which you can prioritise.
As he takes stock of his own achievements so far, Milton has spotted a change in direction for much of his work and sees a knowledge management renaissance on the horizon. Compared to the more practical KM activities Knoco was predominantly engaged in during its early days, the company has taken on increasing levels of strategic guidance and assessment.
From this shift in demand and his view of the KM landscape he says that this is an exciting time to be working in the area. “People seem to be taking knowledge management more seriously. I’ve heard that some large clients have started to put it into their contracts and to expect knowledge management from their suppliers, which will help establish it as a competitive advantage in the market place.”
At the same time, however, he also fears that there remains a lot of uncertainty as to what knowledge management is - even now. “There is still confusion between data management, information management and knowledge management,” says Milton. “It is exciting that so much demand is being generated, but it’s also fairly turbulent as there still isn’t a clear understanding of what they’re demanding.”
With other major practitioners and consultants predicting a similar resurgence for knowledge management, and with skilled and experienced experts such as Milton on hand to help entrench it in organisations, it would seem that the opportunities for knowledge managers are healthier than ever.
To contact Nick Milton, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Nick Milton
Place of birth: Bristol, UK
Education: Degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge, PhD in Geology from University of Wales (Cardiff)
Employment history: BNOC/Britoil as a geologist, 1980-1988
BP as a geologist and then knowledge manager 1988-1999
Knoco Ltd 1999 to present
Personal strengths: A good grasp of process, a long history of KM involvement, willingness to get involved from boardroom to factory floor
Must improve: Work-life balance!
What I do to relax: Dancing - jive and salsa