Overcoming roadblocks on the path to knowledge management

Overcoming roadblocks on the path to knowledge management

Success stories of KM are mounting in a diverse range of Australian organisations, but the nature of problems to be overcome has changed little in the last year. Hannah Birtles reports.

Twelve months ago, most Australian knowledge management projects were still in their infancy, but today many of these organisations now have successful KM practices in place. However, these organisations are still dealing with roadblocks on a day-to-day basis and typically the nature of such obstacles has changed little.

It seems the most ongoing but necessary hurdle is getting people to talk and work with each other, to share what they know - that is, creating a 'culture for sharing'.

What does the architecture of a knowledge management system look like? At law firm Phillips Fox, the client Macintosh G3s access the information via the Oracle webserver. The PC DOCS/Fulcrum KM system then takes specially configured views of Oracle data and presents it through the specially-designed 'FoxTrek' Web-browser style interface.

Kim Sbarcea, precedents and knowledge manager with lawyer firm Phillips Fox, responsible for one of Australia's pioneering KM projects, said the first challenge her company faced was overcoming the potential hoarding of knowledge. "I expected that lawyers would be reluctant to share their legal knowledge with one another," she said.

However, this hoarding roadblock has been quite misleading since the real issue would appear to be simply lack of time. "Busy lawyers just don't have the time to identify what they could and should share," she said.

In response to this issue, the firm is now looking at the possibility of establishing a budget relief for lawyers. A certain amount of lawyers' time would be non-chargeable and this would allow them to focus on identifying and collecting knowledge which they and their practice group consider of value to share.

James Hunter, projects manager with Boral Energy, another pioneering Australian KM organisation, said the main aim and constant challenge of KM for Boral Energy has been to share knowledge across all of the company's divisions.

"One of the biggest and constantly faced challenges for the company has been to ensure the effective acquisition and dissemination of knowledge across divisions enabling quicker, more informed decisions to be made," he said.

According to Mr Hunter, timeliness of decisions is crucial in an industry as dynamic and rapidly changing as energy. "The importance of this 'organisational competency' is reinforced by Boral Energy's decentralised nature; BE has major operations in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia and an increasingly important presence in all other States as well as across the Pacific and Tasman."

One of Boral Energy's greatest strengths is its integrated nature - it has a major stake in exploration and production interests, through to the strategic marketing of electricity, LPG and natural gas on a national basis. All these issues reinforce the importance of effective knowledge management for the Energy Division. Mr Hunter said it is clearly a strategic imperative that will enable Boral's Energy Division to build on its current competitive advantage.

To overcome the challenge, like Phillips Fox, the company has had to look at giving staff extra time to contribute to KM aside from other assignments.

However, Mr Hunter said that he had spoken with people in some companies that never get over this initial cultural sharing issue, the main reason for this being human nature. "Some people just don't want to give up their turf," he said. "KM is all about making staff effective using basic management principles rather than it being a technology driven initiative".

Information sharing has been promoted through improving work practices and the way in which information is delivered. For example, since the early days teleconferencing has played an important role in the company's information sharing practices and still continues to do so. Mr Hunter said the system involves minimal investment but offers high returns. "It is all about building trust and openness across groups in the company."

Although it is only one component of the overall KM strategy, it is a very important one and up to 20 conference calls lasting anywhere from one and half hours to three hours occur each week, according to Mr Hunter.

This has resulted not only in greatly improved communication across the company's offices but has also meant a reduction in travel time and costs.


Another one of the roadblocks faced by Phillips Fox in the early days was getting staff to care about rewards offered. As a result of this, the firm has particularly focused on the Financial Services practice group. The firm has also hired its first KM lawyer who is non-fee earning. The task of this lawyer is to work with the practice group, to identify tacit and explicit knowledge, facilitate the creation of knowledge, and work with the firm's knowledge management team to further promote the KM strategy.

"We have noticed a definite increase in the contribution to our knowledge base from this practice group as well as other groups throughout the firm. The Financial Services group focuses on rewarding lawyers for work well done or for contributions made to the knowledge base," Ms Sbarcea said.

Simmons & Simmons, an international law firm which has implemented KM across its global offices located around the world from London to New York to Abu Dhabi, has also found that incentives or rewards have a place in promoting KM.

In the early stages of establishing KM, cultural hurdles were a considerable roadblock for the company and Matthew Murphy, an associate lawyer with the Intellectual Property Group in Simmons and Simmon's Hong Kong office, said as a result KM has been rolled-out on an ad-hoc basis to allow for differences in work practices and culture across the globe.

"There are different cultural issues in different offices (and within different groups) which may make it difficult for one strategy to work across all of the company's offices," he said.

Even though the overall strategy is managed from the company's London head office because of these differences, the management of incentives for contributions to KM has been left to individual groups in each office.

At Boral Energy, staff are not rewarded directly for their involvement in KM but rather indirectly through both the success of the projects they are currently working on and an ongoing recognition of their contribution to many cross-divisional initiatives in which they are involved.

"Project initiatives are an increasingly important element of how we work and projects have their own performance appraisal system that again reinforces that management recognises efforts additional to operational responsibilities," said Mr Hunter.

He said the other 'reward' for both the organisation and the individual is that effective knowledge dissemination provides employees with a much greater understanding of the whole industry context, and not just the specific area of expertise. It certainly breaks down the silo mentality that is prevalent and so constricting in so many organisations."

Another roadblock encountered by Australia's pioneering KM firms, has been the issue of keeping staff interested over time.

Ms Sbarcea said to do this you have to constantly rebrand and reinvent. "Initially people are always interested and fascinated with a new application or KM system. They want to use it first so they can have a 'taste'. Then the attraction wears off and they revert to the old way of finding information," she said.

This is where senior management has to take an active part in selling KM as a key strategy for the enterprise. In Phillips Fox's case, the managing partner has played an instrumental role in enthusing lawyers and working with other partners to sell the benefits of KM to the firm.

"The KM team has also had to think of different ways of grabbing people's attention," Ms Sbarcea said. "We still have to put a lot of effort into selling and marketing the benefits of knowledge management, the technology, and the way a KM strategy can change the way a lawyer works."

For example, in an attempt to attract lawyers' attention, the KM team developed an interactive help icon on FoxTrek, the KM system of Phillips Fox. The icon allows lawyers to train themselves at their own pace and comfort level. The team also conducts one-on-one training but Ms Sbarcea identified that one roadblock still remains. Lawyers are not always able to give their full attention to training because of client commitments, transaction or court work.


It also seems that understanding your employees, their work habits and their technological and business competencies, is vital to the success of any KM project.

For the Queensland Treasury Corporation, an enterprise-wide KM system has resulted in significant improvements to work processes. However, in order to effectively establish a system, to ensure its success and that "pockets of resistance" were overcome, the organisation had to hire a KM facilitator. They have been trained in the KM methodology and prior to any technical developments, work with end-users to organise their thoughts and assist them in applying existing work practices to the KM solution.

The major benefits were realised when a key staff member left the organisation with the potential of walking away with a great deal of untapped knowledge, vital to the company's practices.

The biggest challenge or roadblock to KM now for QTC, is keeping up with demand from staff for new KM initiatives.

Like QTC, Phillips Fox has also witnessed sooner than expected demand for enhancements to its KM system.

Ms Sbarcea said this has forced the company down the road towards developing a knowledge portal much sooner than expected. "Our lawyers are also asking that the technology meet their needs on a more sophisticated level."

She said this has been very rewarding because when FoxTrek was first launched, the technology was fairly dazzling with its agent and summarisation capabilities. "It was not something the firm had used before but, on the whole, our lawyers adapted and took to the technology very fast, with the result being demand for enhancements, changes to the interface, and linking FoxTrek to other applications."

The firm now has approximately 180 lawyers and all have been trained in KM apart from 20, who are partners. Ms Sbarcea said the purpose of the strategy has been to train young lawyers and senior associates first, as they are the ones who would have reason to use FoxTrek on a daily basis.

The second generation of FoxTrek, the legal knowledge portal (LKP) is now in prototype. It links PC DOCS/Fulcrum technology (the base software for FoxTrek 1) to the firm's core marketing, client and financial management information. The portal will be trialled in the Financial Services division in August.

Ms Sbarcea said that practice groups are really becoming aware of the importance of sharing their legal knowledge and how smart technology can facilitate the sharing.

As part of its commitment to KM, Boral Energy has also extended its technology base and established an intranet system for further information dissemination.

For example, the intranet is being used to greatly improve customer service in the company's national call centre operations. Mr Hunter said that it is important to note, however, that the intranet is not being crowded with huge quantities of information just for the sake of population with the up front as well as less transparent costs associated with maintenance/information currency.

"Information on the intranet has clear people accountabilities with value adding business rationale, and reinforces the division's overall strategic direction."

"We cannot say our KM strategy is a complete success because there is an inference that this comment may lead people to believe it is finished or nearing completion. Rather KM is an ongoing process, carefully monitored within an overall strategic framework and reinforced by the management team. And I believe that this element scares some organisation's management; it is unlike most projects that have a clear start, finish and metrics."

He said BE will continue to move forward, effectively completing projects and operational work utilising people from across the business, usually geographically separated.

Allready it is becoming accepted that "this is the way we work," Mr Hunter concluded.

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