Distilling the essence of a knowledge professional

In his role as Knowledge Management Advisor for Shell Global Solutions (Malaysia), Siew Hoong, AW (ASH) is responsible for developing and implementing knowledge sharing initiatives in Projects & Technology. ASH is also currently responsible for managing and promoting Shell’s Project and Technology Wiki that has a readership of approximately 10,000 personnel.

Shell Projects & Technology is one of Shell's technology focused organisations. It provides business and operational consultancy, technical services, licensed technologies and research and development expertise to the energy and processing industries worldwide.

IDM: ASH, it is probably fair to say that there is considerable confusion surrounding knowledge management and its application in organizations. How would you define the concept of knowledge management (KM)?

ASH: My view is that KM is one of those things that everyone has an idea or opinion of what it is to them…very similar to the familiar story of the blind men and the elephant where each of the blind men had an image of what the elephant looked like but is never entirely correct or wrong. I personally think there can never be one universal definition of what KM is. To a large extend it depends on what your organisation defines it to be.

In Shell we adopt a simple (as possible, view of KM) definition which is the capacity to transform data and information into business relevant decisions and actions. This capacity encompasses an individual’s experience and know-how. In other words, tacit knowledge that is difficult to document in reports, manuals etc. Hence the focus of KM in Shell is very much on sharing what is sitting between the ears of the individual and not on what is already published on our intranet or document management systems (which we refer to as Information Management).

IDM:  How did you first become involved with knowledge management and what would you say has been some of the key developments in the discipline since then? How would you assess the current state of the practice of knowledge management?

ASH: I started my career in Management Consulting. In consulting knowledge and its reuse is critical to the success of the business and I had a stint in working within the KM group of this management consulting firm. From there I worked with a number of clients which had a need to develop their own KM organisations and I had the pleasure to help them to develop their own vision of KM and also to set up KM teams within these organisations. This was way back in late 1990s thru to 2005.

Since then I have noticed a significant change in KM from being focussed on capturing, distilling and distributing information (normally via IT based tools) to being focussed on sharing of knowledge from individuals to individuals (or groups) rather than to religiously documenting and codifying all you know. In Shell we have a Knowledge Sharing program which focusses on connecting people to other people so that the exchange of knowledge happens. This doesn’t mean we don’t codify any knowledge at all but to us success means the knowledge seeker gets to the knowledge provider. Invariably in a global organisation IT tools come into play to make these connections happen quicker and easily.

Another area we are focussed on is putting the emphasis on helping people to share their knowledge and not so much in managing that knowledge. We believe that the individual is the best person to manage what he is storing in his brain and what he wants to share with the outside world. However that particular person may have challenges in ‘How To’ share that knowledge and that is where the KM advisors like myself come in where we coach them in selecting the best way to share what they want to share.

Overall I would say KM is still alive and kicking, despite some detractors that said that KM was dead some years ago. Judging from the attendance levels in regional and international KM conferences I would say KM is still seen as relevant in value adding to organisations.

IDM:  What is the IT environment at Shell and what are the tools that you employ to provide access to knowledge sharing?

ASH:The tools we employ are both IT and non IT based. IT based tools are off-the-shelf tools for discussion forums and wikis for example. Non IT based tools are more of processes. For example we have a process called ROCK (Retention of Critical Knowledge) which is essentially a structured interview method to capture knowledge from retirees who don’t use any IT tools apart from a word processor to document the key outcomes.

IDM: What are the content or document and records management systems being employed at Shell?

ASH: Again no ‘special sauces’ are being used. Typical commercially available tools like LiveLink and SharePoint are being used.

IDM:  Have you undertaken specific initiatives to improve integration among information systems in the organisation, and to facilitate seamless exchange of information across systems internally and with outside parties?

ASH: As mentioned earlier, document/information management is separate from KM and is being managed by another team. However we also recognise that there is a lot of overlap between KM and Information management. Hence the two teams are in contact with one another and collaborate where necessary. For example the Media Publishing Team which is in charge of the Shell intranet also helps support the Shell wiki which is managed by the KM team

IDM: Are there any particular concepts and techniques you have applied to assisting staff with information sharing?

ASH: In Shell we adopt a mantra of ‘Ask-Learn-Share’ to encapsulate what KM stands for: Ask before you do something, Learn while you are doing, and Share later. Simple but effective. I particularly like the mantra, not only because it is catchy but more because it shows that KM is not about having fancy tools but is a behaviourial change. Asking, Learning, and Sharing are all human behaviours. In helping people to share there is no one single magic technique but what works most of the time is the willingness to genuinely understand what the business need is for knowledge sharing within a department or team. Once you get that right the rest will fall into place (most of the time anyway!)

IIDM: Have you found any patterns in large organisations with respect to their approaches to knowledge management?

SH:From my consulting experience and talking with people, I would say there are broadly two camps of approaches: One approach is what I would say the centralised approach where the KM solutions are a one size fits all one which everyone needs to adopt and follow. The 2nd approach is where there are general guidelines on KM and a predetermined set of tools but the implementation and which tool to adopt is determined by the various departments in the organisation.

IDM:  How can knowledge managers take the principles of leading social networks and "Web 2.0" to further enhance knowledge capture and sharing?

SH: I think the success of web 2.0 and social networking tools are much due to the fact that they empower the individual to share and collaborate on their own terms. For example one of the characteristics of web 2.0 is that it allows the individual to preset what knowledge he/she wants to share and what knowledge he/she wants to receive from others. Blogging and Wikis are also very liberating in the sense that it allows sharing almost instantly and simply without the burden of knowing how to write HTML, Java etc.

IDM:  Is Web 2.0 a distraction or a blessing? How does it become useful?

SH: In Shell we definitely see it as a blessing. As mentioned earlier web 2.0 technologies have enhanced collaboration and sharing amongst the people. We have scientists that blog to share their research and their thoughts with their fellow scientists. Senior members of management blog regularly to connect and share their thoughts with staff. The Shell wiki has grown from being an encyclopedia to being a training and collaboration medium.

IDM:  Finally, what words of advice would you offer to the knowledge managers reading this interview?

SH: All I would like to say is that even though some people in your organisation may say KM is a luxury or is something pink and fluffy, don’t give up. As long you can show that KM yields tangible business results e.g. increased sales, cost avoidance you will find support for KM and last but not least personal satisfaction that you have contributed positively to the well being of the organisation.

ASH is presenting at KM & Collaboration Australia in Sydney from July 21-23, 2010 www.kmaustralia.com