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Will Your Culture Support KM

October 1, 1998
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article
When consulting firm Arthur Andersen embraced knowledge management (KM) in the early 1990s, executives knew it would take more than sophisticated technology and leading-edge software to make the initiative fly. They also knew that cultural barriers would need to be broken down, and that this would take effort from everyone in the company. "It requires a total commitment from management and a total buy-in from workers," explains Mark T. Stone, director of internal knowledge management for the firm's business consulting division based in Atlanta.

That's because organizations usually run into three major cultural problems when adopting a knowledge management initiative. First, people don't like to share their best ideas. They believe doing so dilutes their standing in the organization, and can impede their ability to get ahead. "Most of us were raised in an environment that's highly competitive, and we've never learned to share," states Thomas Koulopoulos, president of the Delphi Group, a Boston consulting firm specializing in knowledge management. Adds Eric Austvold, director of product marketing at Infinium Software: "In today's highly political corporate environment, knowledge equals power. Getting people to understand that knowledge sharing is for the greater good of all requires significant culture change." Second, people don't like to use other people's ideas for fear it makes them look less knowledgeable, and that they're suddenly dependent on others to do their job. Third, people like to consider themselves experts, and prefer not to collaborate with others.

Communicate the concept.
Changing this mindset isn't easy. Because most workers have operated within a knowledge-hoarding environment for so long, it can take weeks or months to spot the first hint of significant change, but it can be done. To create the desired culture, Arthur Andersen established an array of programs which includes occasional seminars and workshops, and a cross-functional team comprised of both technologists and non-technologists to make decisions about knowledge management processes. Says Stone: "It's a tremendous and ongoing challenge, but once people begin to see the true value of sharing knowledge, you break through the barriers and see a transformation in thinking and action."

At Buckman Laboratories, a Memphis-based producer of specialty chemicals for the paper, leather and plastics industries, the change has been slow and steady. CEO Bob Buckman conjured up the idea of sharing knowledge in 1991 while laying in bed with a ruptured disk. He thought, "Why should people be forced to constantly re-invent the wheel when a steady stream of information and knowledge is available within the organization?" A year later, after establishing a knowledge-sharing network known as K'Netix, Buckman had built a foundation for the future.

But getting employees to understand, let alone use the system, required enormous effort. "We had to assist them in understanding what the system is, what it does and how it can benefit them personally," says Mark Koskiniemi, vice president, human resources. "Managers had to learn they no longer can oversee the flow of information within the company; they have to help employees get the information they need."

Early on, the firm began offering workshops to communicate the power of KM. The organization's top executives, including Buckman and Koskiniemi, immediately began contributing to forums and discussion groups to show management's unwavering commitment and monitor the proceedings. Those with something intelligent to say finally had a public forum, Buckman pointed out. But as the culture became more collaborative, those who couldn't or wouldn't participate might find their opportunities for advancement more limited than in the past.

Provide incentives.
Incentives were also a key component. Although Buckman Laboratories doesn't offer financial rewards for posting knowledge, it has dangled a few carrots along the way. At one point, Buckman organized a one-time event at a fashionable Scottsdale, Arizona resort for 150 employees who had contributed the most widely used information. At the event, these individuals helped map out the future of the program, and shared ideas on how to make it better. The selected employees also received computer gear, listened to a presentation by Tom Peters, and participated in discussions which further defined K'Netix. Some of those who didn't make the cut let management know they were a bit irked at being left behind, but participation in the online forums spiked immediately following the event, and it has never dropped off.

Experts say creating appropriate rewards, recognition and compensation to drive KM is essential. Therefore, besides encouraging consultants to contribute information out of "social responsibility," Arthur Andersen also provides monetary incentives and other rewards that can amount to several thousand dollars a year for those who regularly contribute knowledge.

The challenge is to ensure that people are contributing valuable information, not just reams of information. "Knowledge management can collapse under information overload. It's essential to manage the process," says Joel Summers, vice president of HR systems development for Oracle Corp. of Redwood City, California, a database and HRMS provider. That's not so much a problem with HRMS and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) tools that take existing data and information and manipulate it to fit a user's needs. But for companies that rely on personal Web sites to spot competencies and those that use classic knowledge-sharing techniques, it's a make-or-break proposition.

At Arthur Andersen, the problem has attracted a good deal of attention. "The trick is to create incentives for quality, rather than quantity," says Stone. The company has appointed a group of knowledge managers who review every contribution and certify that it's of significant value to the organization before posting it. Consultants who contribute receive cash bonuses based on both the amount of knowledge they contribute and how often it's used. "While that's not a direct assessment of quality, it's an indirect indication of the value to the organization," Stone explains. Arthur Andersen also uses recognition programs, and includes a knowledge management skills assessment as part of all employee performance evaluations.

Make people accountable.
Employee evaluations are another way Buckman Laboratories encourages involvement. After establishing K'Netix, Koskiniemi revamped the evaluation process to include an evaluation of online participation and contributions. "We've created mechanisms to encourage teamwork. The ultimate incentive is to use the system to become more productive and successful in satisfying customers." And more often than not, that's exactly how things have played out. Over the years, Buckman Laboratories has grabbed lucrative contracts away from larger competitors on the basis of its knowledge network. "When potential clients see what we're able to deliver with K'Netix, they understand they have the support of the entire company behind them," boasts Koskiniemi.

Getting to this point takes time, but is worth the effort. "Once people begin to see the true value of sharing knowledge, they embrace the concept," says Arthur Andersen's Stone. "Ultimately, they recognize that it arms them with better solutions. It allows them to get work done in a fashion that's superior to our competitors. In any organization, the value of knowledge management must be clearly demonstrated. You don't succeed by simply introducing an intranet and telling people to share information. You find ways to provide value for both the individual and the organization."

Workforce, October 1998, Vol. 77, No. 10, pp. 93-94.

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