Avoiding roadblocks on the path to knowledge

Intro: Just what is knowledge management: a technology or strategy, or both? Can one go without the other? In this special feature, Image & Data Manager explores the state of KM in Australia - how it is being implemented by a variety of organisations, and how it can be delivered via specialised tools. Above all, it's almost user-defined - while one organisation sees technology as the key enabler, another sees it as a catalyst.

Avoiding roadblocks on the path to knowledge

Knowledge management is not meant to be easy. After all, making people share knowledge is like "trying to reverse 25,000 years of human instinct". Pioneering Australian users talk to Katherine Henry about the traps for all players.

Knowledge management projects are in their infancy in Australia, with only a small number of high profile firms well on their way to success. As is true with any project, they are encountering their share of obstacles, but instead of dealing primarily with network problems, software incompatibility, downtime, or training, the biggest roadblock to success has been establishing and promoting a culture of information sharing. Unlike other phenomena that have swept businesses over the past ten years (document management, workflow, data warehousing et al) knowledge management is a cultural shift, not a techno-centric concept.

"The technology aspect might have been visually overwhelming", says Jack McFadden, a management consultant for Dechert-Hampe & Co, commenting on the diversity of vendors at exhibition hall and labs at Delphi Consulting's International Knowledge Management Seminar in San Diego. "But my take [on it] was a consistent, reassuring respect for the human element in two critical areas: one, input and user-friendly output, and two, knowledge without action was meaningless."


John Cunningham, one of a handful of people in Australia with the title of chief knowledge officer (CKO), has been implementing a knowledge project for Lend Lease Property Services since he joined the company last September. Cunningham cites difficulties in getting the appropriate business staff involved with the project. This is because the people with the required knowledge are often the ones that are in the most demand on other projects. It is often difficult to convince their management to make them available, Cunningham said. He overcame this by working with management to help them better understand the objectives, and how it would benefit everyone.

The tendency for return on investment in a KM project has been said to be difficult to achieve. This was because of the intangible nature of the gains to be achieved: happier staff, fewer mistakes, improved customer service, etc. The feeling was that it was better to have enlightened executives at the top who clearly understood the intrinsic benefit of a learning organisation.

Cunningham disagrees, saying he believes there are tangible gains to be realised. He used the opportunity given by the need to construct a cost justification for Lend Lease to help select the best place to start his project. He examined time-lost scenarios that could have been dramatically improved by simply having standard information available to project teams at building sites. He examined similarities amongst projects that might show a trend due to lack of information. Cunningham also used senior management to produce "content", providing guidelines for these types of projects. This was the basis for the resulting "knowledge bundle". The estimated time saved from avoidance of mistakes could then become a part of the KM justification. This particular cost saving not only helps Lend Lease Property Services, but many of the contracts are written to include that customers share in the savings on a project.

These two problem areas, human resources and project budgeting, have also occupied James Hunter, projects manager for Boral Energy. Hunter says that instead of just buying knowledge management tools, a solution is reliant on making staff effective using basic management principles.

"Technology is the catalyst, not the solution. The solution requires developing the information management, culture, trust and widespread sharing in parallel with developing and gaining acceptance of the new 'enabling technologies'," he said.

Hunter recommends negotiating a percentage of staff time with the management. This will allow the resource to stay on their current assignments while still adding value to the corporate knowledge effort. Hunter also recommends keeping project cycles short - two to three months at most. This will enable management to see an end to the resource commitment and, just as importantly, see the specific results for the efforts.

Cunningham stresses the importance of selecting proper content and the providers of that content. He also states that the structure of the content can "make or break" the project. If this is misjudged, and the information is not relevant or easy to find, then it will not be used and the project will fail. While this may seem obvious, there are many examples of information in corporate databases that are easily accessible, and cost many project dollars to create, but no one uses. Cunningham is right to stress getting the basics right up front.

Another obstacle which is not as severe a problem as input, but one to be aware of, is the issue of use. As KM tools mature, structure will become less strict. But content will always be important to encourage use. It is not always true that if the information exists, people will use it. Some of this is due to the previous roadblock centred around poor design. The "not created here" attitude can prevent people from using information gained somewhere else. These people often mistrust the knowledge provided since they are unsure of its source. Other people, often professionals, find it difficult to work from someone else's template. These types must always do projects beginning at ground zero.


The single, largest roadblock to a successful KM initiative is human nature. Getting staff to share what they know seems to be the biggest hurdle. Trying to get staff to share knowledge is like "trying to reverse 25,000 years of human history. It goes against all instincts," acknowledged Dr. Peter Drucker at a recent conference in San Diego. Dr. Drucker has many claims to fame, including conceiving the future existence of the "knowledge worker" in the 1950's.

Staff often believe that what is in their head - whether it is called knowledge or experience - is what makes them special to the company. More commonly said, "Knowledge is power." There is a fear that once they release their knowledge to everyone, they are no longer special or powerful.

Kim Sbarcea of Phillips Fox (see story on page 22 for a profile) says this trend is promoted in the legal industry by rewarding lawyers for their billable hours. If one lawyer holds a particular knowledge, then he/she will be used repetitively for that knowledge on an hours-billed basis. While this looks good on the lawyer's annual review, there is benefit, at a big picture level, when the entire firm can get to this information without having to use the time of that busy lawyer. Getting staff to understand or care about this is the challenge.

James Hunter of Boral believes this is where corporate "trust" becomes important. Staff must believe that the information they share will not reduce their position of importance in the company. Hunter believes this is just a small piece of the role "trust" plays in building a successful learning organisation.

Another cultural issue is breaking down the barriers between staff, business units and departments. Many companies are actually small pockets of diverse businesses. They often view other departments or business units as "the competition" since they must fight for internal budget with them. Nonetheless, the information and knowledge that each team has would be useful to all units. The reuse of knowledge within a business can likewise be a very effective gain. However, enforcing a "big picture" concept on a small department is not always easy.

In each of these cultural roadblocks, all were unanimous that the solution is based on reward. Finding the right reward can be a bit of trial and error. Varying corporate cultures and individual personalities require different rewards or motivators not just from company to company, but from staff to staff. But one of them was prevalent: ego.

Sbarcea initially thought the answer was to tie knowledge sharing to the annual review and remuneration. If lawyers didn't share, then they would miss out on a portion of their pay increase. Before actually implementing, she quickly realised that this was not immediate enough and would not promote people to think about their knowledge sharing daily. Phillips Fox promotes the top five "cool" sites concept in their knowledge base. Getting named on this is quite prestigious, also encouraging people to look around at what is being contributed.

"Ego is a powerful motivator", says Lend Lease's Cunningham, using a similar method to encourage contributions. Hunter agrees, but uses the concept differently. Boral Energy's KM initiative is installing technology concurrent with further developing the culture (proving that technology is not required at the start). Instead, Hunter has enabled information sharing by improving communication and the content and delivery of that communication. Examples of this include refining and streamlining conference calling on specific issues that cross business ventures. Hunter says the telecom systems have been particularly effective as it is now occurring across the business at all levels.

"Presentations to executives on specific issues and topics are an opportunity for a wide cross section of people within the business to present innovative ideas and solutions to the management team in monthly forums," Hunter said.

American Management Systems, an international consulting firm, has taken this reward system one step further. Consultants at AMS must be invited to be "community of expert practitioners". These elite associates are responsible to the next hierarchy of "knowledge centre coordinators". The perks are numerous including corporate wide notoriety as an "expert" and an annual conference.

Susan Hanley, director, Knowledge Management Initiatives, American Management Systems, says that their internal culture has shifted. They often use the phrase, "Well stolen is half done". For professionals who were educated in arduous research methods and lectured often on the evils of plagiarism, this shift has not come easily.

There is also a price of entry, including contributions of insight, research, and an associates paper. Their input is reviewed annually to determine whether they hold their position in the community or a new contributor is nominated. AMS has established much in the KM best practice arena.

Another cultural roadblock that is more demure and less "power based" is the aspect that staff simply don't realise they have something worth contributing. Some staff may believe that if they know something, it is common knowledge. Sbarcea at Phillips Fox takes this one level further, citing that junior staff may even feel that more experienced staff will think a contribution is trite. Therefore they avoid supplying new information or revelations that would have been useful to everyone.

Sbarcea believes the secret to a well used knowledge system is keeping it fun. Phillips Fox's system has many features using the "fox" as a design theme. The site still maintains a professional look and feel, but with an obvious Phillips Fox trademark in every corner. She believes one of the biggest issues to be dealt with long term involves ongoing use. Sbarcea's concern is that the knowledge system not go the way of a new toy that gets lots of use, then are abandoned in a corner. She feels that adding new areas of information (e.g. human resource skill sets) will keep people coming back. Also, the search engine has an off-line capability that continues to search for new bits of relevant information added to the intra- or Internet since the last retrieval. The information is summarised and emailed to the interested lawyer as frequently as they like, encouraging them to go look for more.


At a corporate level there may be some concern as to what type of information is made available. Certainly, security must be provided to keep key information from competitors. From a technical level, this requires careful control and security.

"I think that there is always the worry that with a good quality KM base, it's vulnerable to 'attack'," says Sbarcea. Phillips Fox's system has built in controls. Sbarcea knows when staff resign and the system to see what they've been printing out, viewing, summarising, or copying.

"The part of the KM base that is important to the legal environment is precedents which can be transported to another legal firm with a similar niche market. So you must build your KM system to protect the knowledge." Internal corporate information that is sensitive, like salaries are a different issue. "We have the ability to give a different interface to departments" to control access, says Sbarcea.

Hunter says that 'giving too much information' has three issues for Boral.

"First, there is a significant initial as well as ongoing cost in developing technologies," he said. This development needed to be steered by a business group. "Without this clarity of purpose, investments in intranets and the like, while initially interesting and even fun, will lose momentum and management support as the metrics to show any real value are not clearly determined."

Second, Hunter said, the mindset of knowledge is power had broken down across Boral Energy in recent years. Assisted by the cross-divisional working relationship on a wide range of projects and initiatives - contingent on sharing and cooperation at all levels - this significantly enhanced the implementation of the knowledge initiative, he said.

While this is the clear objective for Boral, Hunter continues by cautioning, "If you can imagine...with exploration, production as well as distribution and retail assets, we tender for [contracts]...with several other companies. Certain information must remain confidential. Security is imperative from a regulatory and trade practices view point." Sharing "everything" is meaningless. Boral instead concentrates on identifying "which information is crucial strategically, to whom and why. And then ensure they have access to these resources, people and information/knowledge when they need it."


But what seems to be missing from the "knowledge is power" believers, is the reality that "the knowing" isn't the key. People must be effective with their knowledge. And this is what knowledge management gurus say will separate successful companies from the rest: responsiveness, or the ability to act. "I take exception to the old adage "knowledge is powerâ", says Stan Lockhart, the business development manager at TMS Sequoia in the US. "When one applies human intellect to information a miraculous transformation might occur, or it might not occur. Should knowledge be conceived and brought to life then active knowing, sharing and transferring is possible through appropriate management. At this point, knowledge can be power and the proper management and exploitation of this innately human asset will foment powerful actions or, as is too often the case, die of neglect." Therefore the primary key to overcoming KM roadblocks is not in just delivering knowledge, but making the knowledge worker effective. These simple words represent the largest challenge, culturally or otherwise, in any company.

The Australian KM Leadership Forum (KMLF) site is at:www.phillipsfox.com.au\knowledge.

Katherine Henry is an independent consultant who now resides in Sydney. Ms Henry has a BSc in Electrical & Computer Engineering from the University of Kansas and has consulted on business process redesign projects throughout the world.

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