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Manpower A Case Study in Knowledge Management

June 3, 1999
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With more than 2 million employees in almost 50 countries, Manpower Inc.—the largest staffing service in the world—has a wealth of information to manage. Keeping track of its temporary employees and their growing skills, its external customers’ job requirements, and account success stories is a tall order, but Manpower has been able to fill it successfully. Through the use of several knowledge-sharing tools, the company’s 2,800 offices are able to accurately place their workers in assignments with more than 250,000 businesses worldwide.

Headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Manpower is in a unique situation when it comes to knowledge management and sharing requirements because people and their knowledge are its products. "We don’t have plants or equipment; we don’t have inventory," says Chairman and CEO Mitchell Fromstein. "What we have are our 50 years of experience and success stories from people out there." Thus, the main goal of Manpower’s knowledge management initiatives is to facilitate the real-time sharing of these stories and other knowledge to benefit both internal and external customers.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Manpower’s and other organizations’ knowledge management initiatives is that Manpower views these endeavors as marketing, rather than information technology or operations, projects.

Explains Jeffrey Joerres, senior vice president of integrated marketing, "It’s all about how customers, both internal and external, view value from the company."

The Roots of Knowledge Management
Manpower’s knowledge management efforts began approximately 15 years ago, even before the term was coined. "We didn’t call it knowledge management in its early days," says Fromstein, "but the minute the term came on stream, we realized that’s what we were doing."

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Manpower began to manage and store its information on customer accounts in bulky binders that were shipped quarterly to all 1,000 U.S. business units. While the binders effectively provided information to employees worldwide, they were costly to produce and quickly outdated.

Manpower supplemented these binders in 1994 with the Power Tools binder series, which provided detailed guidance on tools for cultivating business as well as shared "lessons learned." Power Tools helped Manpower discover that all of its global locations were experiencing similar challenges and that rework—which was occurring frequently—could be avoided if only the company found an effective way to share its knowledge.

Another early attempt at managing knowledge came in 1993, with the introduction of "Diana." Diana was a green-screen mainframe system designed to provide detailed customer information. Diana provided administrative options, a bulletin board, and a place where employees could share their success stories with other employees.

CEO Fromstein traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia to encourage employees to populate Diana with their stories. While employees bought into the initiative, it wasn’t a widespread success—it was too big, too hard to grasp, and mainly encouraged the sharing of successes, not failures that could serve as lessons learned. In addition, Diana was technologically limited and was not successfully integrated into daily work processes. However, Diana paved the way for the knowledge management initiatives that are keeping Manpower at the top of its industry today.

A PowerBase of Information
Of the three main tools Manpower uses to manage knowledge today, PowerBase is the one that is used strictly internally. This integrated system houses the details of customer needs and requirements and temporary employee skills and preferences—and creates matches between the two customer groups. Created in 1994, the system is now being rolled out to Manpower’s 1,600 North American offices.

"Manpower’s vast network of offices and the consistent service they deliver is one of our greatest strengths," says Melanie Holmes, senior vice president responsible for service delivery. "Our customers expect and deserve seamless service throughout our network, and PowerBase is the vehicle we can use to ensure that seamless service."

That seamless service is made possible because of the extensive amount of data the system houses. "From an employee perspective," Holmes says, "PowerBase has everything we need from a legal and governmental perspective about an employee, plus their work history before they joined Manpower, their skills, their abilities, their preferences, their assignments with Manpower, and their quality ratings.

"From a customer perspective," she continues, "it has all the information we need to service the account. That includes rather mundane but very important information such as billing address and who the bill should be sent to, plus what their job requirements are, their preferences, and the skills they want from the people we send them."

PowerBase assimilates all this information about external and internal customers to create electronic matches for job assignments. Holmes stresses, though, since Manpower is in the "people business," the match is not made entirely electronically. "PowerBase provides the service representatives with a list of people who are appropriate for the job, and then they use some subjective criteria to make the right match," she explains.

All employees have access to the system. The front-line employees, or service representatives, who interview the temporary employees and take orders from customers, are "logged onto the system virtually all day, every day," Holmes says. All the different levels of management in the field offices, as well as anyone in the home office who interacts with customers, depend on PowerBase as well.

PowerBase Challenges and Successes
Manpower made the PowerBase development process as efficient and effective as possible by asking the system’s future users for their input on its design. "We didn’t sit here in our ivory-tower home office thinking that we knew what the field needed," Holmes says.

The challenge has largely been in implementing the system throughout the 1,600 North American offices. "We’re not just changing one little tool in the office; we’re changing the entire infrastructure," Holmes notes. "So we have to have offices rewired, buy all new equipment, install frame relay—it’s a major, major infrastructure upgrade. Then, think about the training challenge we have. This whole change process, from a technology perspective and a people perspective, is a challenge."

But the challenges are proving to be worth the effort. "I haven’t shown [PowerBase] to one customer who hasn’t then decided to do business with Manpower," Holmes reports. "Our customers understand what this system is going to do to make the service they receive from Manpower better."

Virtual Account Management
In addition to serving internal purposes, Manpower realized that knowledge management offered external opportunities as well. "Large customers didn’t have the complete picture of all they were doing with us," Fromstein notes. "They purchased and managed at a local level. At the same time we were trying to gather this type of information, our customers also had a thirst for this knowledge."

The first step Manpower took to meet this need was establishing a presence on the Internet. "When we saw the technology available to us," he says, "we did what most companies did. We created a home page. It was beautiful and filled with content. But it left us with an empty feeling because now what we had was a big maintenance task. Customers were coming at us saying, ‘What are you doing for innovation?’"

In response Joerres and Fromstein came up with the concept for the Virtual Account Management (VAM) system, which would enable both Manpower employees and customers’ employees to keep track of the accounts’ activities. Then Fromstein generously gave the Marketing Department 90 days to develop the prototype.

A cross-departmental team of experts joined to create VAM, which is delivered through Manpower’s server and accessed through the client’s intranet. VAM gives both the customer and Manpower employees access to stories and detailed accounts of Manpower’s relationship with the client through information provided by the Manpower account representatives. It is written in the terminology unique to the client’s organization to create "customer intimacy."

Information put into VAM has to pass a simple test, Fromstein says. "My definition of what should go in here, at least at the beginning, is ‘Is it gee-whiz? Is it compelling? Does it show success? And would it be of interest to others in the organization?’" Manpower also is careful not to include any sales-oriented or promotional information in the product, which could compromise its integrity.

While a staff of writers in Manpower’s two Marketing Information Centers maintains the information, the global account manager for the client is responsible for gathering the stories and data to populate the system. Collecting the stories is perhaps one of the account managers’ most important roles.

"People don’t realize the successes they’re creating as they go along," says Melissa Wheelehan, account manager for the global Hewlett-Packard relationship. "They think, ‘This is just what I do for the customer.’ They don’t see it as having global implications."

But when those stories are put into the VAM system, along with all the other details about the customer’s account, they can make a major impact on Manpower’s ability to better serve the client.

"Virtual Account Management shrinks the world for me," says Wheelehan, who works out of a "virtual office" in California but spends most of her time traveling on planes to visit client sites. "When I’m asked a question, I can click on a section to find the answers. I can say, ‘We had that challenge in the Bay area, and here’s how that challenge was met.’ For me, it’s just an invaluable source of information."

Wheelehan points out that VAM shrinks the client’s world as well. "In day-to-day life, you tend to be very myopic in looking at your own world," she says. "And as busy as everybody is, you don’t have time to pick up the phone and say, ‘Gee, I wonder what Joe Smith in Singapore is doing. I know he has a similar operation.’ With Virtual Account Management, the customer can go in and see what the company is doing on a global basis."

Challenges and Successes with VAM
Although Manpower has encountered several challenges regarding VAM, development was not one of them. "Developing it was the easy part," Joerres says, "because culturally we were already doing these things, such as collecting stories for Diana." Implementation, on the other hand, has been difficult because Manpower has had to struggle with issues such as access beyond the customers’ firewalls.

Keeping the content fresh is another tough issue. "We recognized right away that we needed a process in place to solicit stories from our team members and keep the information vital so that it isn’t passe or arbitrary or doesn’t matter anymore," Wheelehan says. "You can put the information up there, but if you don’t add to it and take away from it, it just becomes a boring Web site sitting out there."

Although Manpower has created VAMs only for IBM and Hewlett-Packard so far, the company has been using the system to differentiate itself from competitors. "The Virtual Account Management system has become one of the most principal selling points we have," Fromstein notes.

While competitors could try to copy the system, they wouldn’t have the information to populate it. "The main thing that makes it competitive for us is our bundle of experiences, which no one else has," Fromstein says.

Manpower knows it cannot create a VAM system for every company that wants one, so it plans to create an industry-specific knowledge system on a global basis. Companies currently are chosen to receive VAMs based on their geographical dispersion, complexity of service usage, and volume.

"The biggest risk is that we’ve let the cat out of the bag now, and our customers have expectations we need to meet," Joerres says. "We need to keep up with a program that’s been very successful. Manpower has set an extremely high bar."

The Global Learning Center
Almost concurrent with the development of VAM was the beginning of an initiative to expand the way training was provided to Manpower employees. Throughout the past 20 years, Manpower has offered training to its employees in a variety of formats, ranging from classroom to paper to CD-ROM. The new Global Learning Center (GLC) delivers training to employees through perhaps the most convenient medium of the day—the Internet.

"While people will continue to come into our centers to take training, we recognize there is a new breed of worker out there—one who is very disciplined, very motivated, and wants to take charge of their own education," says Pam Brown, director of product program development and GLC project manager. "We recognize that not everyone can take time off of work to come in for training. So, by providing this to people over the Internet, they can take it in the evening or on weekends—any time that is convenient for them."

The main purpose behind the GLC is to be able to supply highly skilled workers to the company’s customers. "It also keeps the employees current, it makes them employable, and they can continue to better themselves and upgrade their skills," Brown notes.

The Global Learning Center pilot, begun just recently, offers its more than 600 TechTrack courses on programs such as Java, Internet security, Oracle 8, SAP, and Lotus Domino—all of the newest technologies in demand by customers. "At the same time that we’re offering the latest and greatest," Brown says, "we also make available to people the back releases of courses so they can update themselves on older technologies that might be required for a customer assignment."

While the pilot contains only information technology training, Manpower plans to incorporate professional development courses and its more than 150 Skillware packages—its proprietary training for office automation software products—into the GLC after its broadscale release.

Accessing the Global Learning Center is relatively easy. From a technological standpoint, users must meet some minimal software and hardware requirements, such as having at least Windows 95, either the Netscape or Internet Explorer Web browser, and at least a 28.8-speed modem. From an enrollment perspective, an individual may obtain a user ID and a password by submitting a résumé and filling out the simple paperwork at the local Manpower office. Then a resource manager from the office discusses the kinds of courses that might best suit that individual’s career plans. The course registration information is sent by e-mail to the Global Learning Center administrator in Milwaukee, and that individual is registered to begin training within one business day.

"We did put some limits on the number of courses an individual can take at one time because we want these people to come back to the Manpower offices and let us know how it went, do they still have the same goals as when they started the training, and did they find they need something a little more advanced," Brown notes. "We want to make sure that we coach these people throughout the process, so we give them access to just a few courses at a time so we continue to dialogue with them and make sure the courses are meeting their needs."

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this knowledge-sharing initiative is that it is offered free of charge to anyone who submits a résumé and fills out the paperwork. "This was a conscious philosophical decision made at the top of the company," Fromstein says. "The big picture is the people we keep, not the ones we lose—and we do a lot of business with the ones we keep. The incremental costs in these things are very low. Whether we train one or 1 billion with it, the costs are the same."

Further, it adds to the image Manpower has created and wants to sustain for itself. Says Joerres, "This is a strengthening of a sustainable competitive advantage that Manpower has in the global marketplace. This is Manpower as a training company."

Evaluating the Training and the GLC
The GLC offers employees access to not only training but also evaluation—an essential element if they plan to take their newly acquired skills into the workplace. Every course comes with a pre- and post-assessment test to help users gauge their skills.

The results are shared with the Manpower administrators in one of two ways. "Students can either take courses online over the Internet, in which case all of their coursework and assessments are tracked automatically for them," Brown explains. "Or, they have the option to download the courses to their hard drive, disconnect from the Internet, and then take the course from their hard drive. When they do that, they must just click a button when they log back on to upload that progress for us to have."

While the pilot contains an evaluation tool that surveys how effective the Global Learning Center is for these initial users, the effectiveness of the system eventually will be measured by the number of courses taken compared with the number of courses taken by people who then remained on assignment. "We want to increase the number of continuous assignments," Joerres says, "and hopefully we can correlate the two to show that people are staying with Manpower longer because we continue to upgrade their skills."

No matter what the numbers show, however, Manpower is committed to this project because the company believes in its worth.

"Every time we roll out a product like the Global Learning Center," says Brown, "not only do we win—it makes good business sense—but our customers win and our employees win. It’s just a good thing for everyone.

"This is something that hasn’t been done by much of anyone before," Brown concludes, "so we really have forged new ground in this area. We feel we are in on the ground floor with a product that is very solid but that will continue to improve over time as performance on the Internet improves and more capabilities become available. We’re committed to incorporating those into the Global Learning Center in continuing to make it a better product."

What the Future Holds
Because Manpower’s philosophy was to get these projects up and running as soon as possible, it has yet to extensively address several issues, such as measurement and knowledge coding or taxonomy. It also plans to address the language gap that occurs within any global organization, although all projects currently are created in English.

As far as lessons learned go, Fromstein is happy to report that he has no major ones to relate. "The little lessons come up every day," he says, grinning. "The big lessons have to have some sort of failure associated with them—and we haven’t gotten there yet."

Source: Susan Elliott, American Productivity and Quality Center

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