Mind you, this was during the pre-Internet/intranet era (circa 1980s), when most corporate executives and managers still spoke only face-to-face. At Buckman Laboratories, however, which manufactures specialty industrial chemicals, knowledge sharing in electronic form was taking off—and has since become a competitive advantage.
With today’s mergers, acquisitions and myriad industry regulations, only companies with resilience and efficiency survive. Indeed, getting information and products to customers as quickly as possible is key. By providing its 1,240 employees with electronic resources to enhance their performance—anywhere, anytime—Buckman is profoundly improving customer service.
Last year, the company reaped $300 million in revenues—cutting down the time it takes for new ideas to reach R&D. It also increased the penetration of new products in the marketplace. And since 1987, Buckman’s percentage of sales from new products (those five years old or younger) increased from 14 percent to 36 percent in 1997.
What does ‘knowledge sharing’ mean today?
Mark Koskiniemi, VP of human resources, says that knowledge sharing is Buckman’s preferred term. The more commonly used term is knowledge management. "But we don’t care for that term because we don’t believe knowledge can really be managed," he says. "Knowledge is what’s going on behind the eyes and between the ears of our associates, wherever they may be."
To clarify, knowledge management (as it’s written about today) is a relatively new concept. It refers to an enterprise that consciously and comprehensively gathers, organizes, shares and analyzes its knowledge to further its goals. However, the commercial value occurs only when it’s put into action. Therefore, a company needs to identify the areas where sharing of knowledge and best practices can help improve its performance. At Buckman Laboratories, the goal was to be able to measure increased new business flow, as well as renewed business from existing customers. Therefore, quick access to critical information would be the only way to guarantee the desired service.
"This is part of a larger context about a transition from industrial-based business models to knowledge-based business models," says Peter D. Moore, managing partner of New York City-based Inferential Focus, a management consulting firm that identifies global social, economic and technical trends.
A year ago, very few enterprises could actually claim a knowledge-management practice in operation. Buckman Laboratories was one of the few that could. As a result, it won the 1997 Computerworld Smithsonian Award for its visionary use of technology in the manufacturing category.
As early as 1988, the company established internal networks for communication, eventually hooking up with CompuServe’s system in 1992. Buckman Laboratories established a series of private forums on CompuServe. In doing so, its employees could share their wisdom 24 hours a day. Using online forums, connected knowledge bases, electronic bulletin boards, libraries and virtual conference rooms, employees began exchanging proposals, presentations, spreadsheets, technical specs and more.
"What we really try to do is set up an environment where knowledge sharing is part of the culture," says Koskiniemi. "You have to have a culture where people feel confident to communicate openly with everybody in the organization."
HR leads the culture change.
It sounds simple enough: share and share alike. But how does a company go about making that actually happen? The origin of the effort began when CEO Bob Buckman and his executive colleagues used to travel worldwide. They would visit their overseas employees in 20 different countries. Each time, they’d accumulate case histories and best practices—retelling them at the next stop of their world tour. "Obviously, there was deterioration of the message because they weren’t the actual ones doing the practice," says Koskiniemi.
So Buckman came back to corporate headquarters with this looming concern: "How can we transfer our company’s best practices in a better way?"
Enter HR. Anytime you talk about a culture change, human resources is always involved, says Koskiniemi. There were a number of things that had occurred during the evolution. New positions had to be created when the company launched K’Netix, The Buckman Knowledge Network—the brand name that was given to the company’s knowledge sharing activities. For example, HR needed to recruit system operators, the top administrators of Buckman’s forum system. "We never had them before," he says.
HR also set up a whole new department called the Knowledge Transfer Department (KTD). Such departments didn’t even exist in other companies. Buckman was so far ahead of the curve, there were no companies to benchmark, Koskiniemi says.
The KTD, he adds, is headed by a vice president who reports directly to the CEO. There are more than 40 employees in that department. Among them are programmers, project managers and associates. They keep the computer systems running, design new information/knowledge management solutions throughout the company and conduct system-specific training.
In terms of its relationship to HR, Koskiniemi says the two departments work in partnership on common systems. For example, when new associates join the company, HR needs to have sufficient information in its HRIS to enable KTD to issue additional IDs and passwords for the system. "We also work with KTD to ensure that recruiting, retention, compensation and benefits are kept in order," he says.
Employee buy-in also had to be ensured. Just because employees were given the technological tools didn’t mean they signed on instantaneously. Richard Zinn, assistant to the CEO admits he was one of the reluctant souls. "At the time, I really didn’t think much about ‘knowledge sharing.’"
But as Zinn witnessed other sales reps getting information from all over the globe, he jumped on the cyber-bandwagon. Because Buckman’s line of work is very technical, the learning curve toward real competency and effectiveness usually takes up to three years. "The technical support from the forums and our other electronic information and learning systems is shortening that process," he says.
For example, last year, Zinn was stationed in rural Thailand for three months. There were so many procedures his reps didn’t know or understand. But after he downloaded procedures and product application—in these very remote areas—the overseas reps were able to tap into the corporate brain power anywhere there was a phone line.
Koskiniemi says employees today are given basic training for software programs, such as Microsoft(R) Outlook Express, Internet Explorer 4.0 and the company’s intranet. Once they’re familiar with the tools, the rest is a matter of attitude.
Performance reviews evaluate online participation.
Clearly, Buckman Laboratories views knowledge sharing as an opportunity-based system. Employees have been given the tools to expand their span of communication and influence. It’s up to them to follow through.
Because of the network’s importance in business strategy, HR not only uses techno-activity as a recruitment criteria, but measures employees’ participation during their performance reviews. "We’ve altered our review process to look at how our employees are contributing to the forums and solving problems on the network," Koskiniemi says. Employees don’t even have to log their activities themselves. The network captures the discussion threads and catalogs them in an electronic library.
Whenever it’s time to conduct a performance review, HR can retrieve the accounting and see who’s contributed to various discussion threads. This capability, says Koskiniemi, enables managers to better measure an employee’s interactivity and team-building efforts. Those who haven’t participated online can thus make such activities part of their performance goals.
Taking knowledge sharing to the next level.
Although K’Netix is accessible to all Buckman employees, Buckman also gives customers an opportunity to communicate online. Some areas, through extranets, have been segregated to promote dialogue between employees and clients—thus improving service by providing timely information. Buckman is further developing its online learning capabilities in the Bulab Learning Center (BLC). Offerings from the BLC include new-hire orientation, product training and academic studies.
In terms of costs, creating a knowledge sharing environment requires an initial investment in computers and software. The main costs, Koskimieni emphasizes, are investments in time. HR must play a leading role in promoting the benefits of knowledge sharing and going "public" with one’s needs. What you really need to have boils down to three words: the right attitude.
Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 30-34.