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Building Business Values Through Online Knowledge

More and more companies are taking the time to think together and share knowledge from remote corners of the globe.

November 28, 2002
Related Topics: Internet
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When your day starts with checking office e-mail and logging on to yourcompany intranet, you join other employees in business and government worldwidein collaborating to move their enterprises forward.

    Collaboration, however, means more than just e-mail in some organizations,where the term "communities of practice" is being used to describedetermined efforts to bring people together. William Bennett, of the FederalEnergy Regulatory Commission, views a community of practice as a "self-organizinggroup of people with expertise, experience, and interest in a particularpractice area who share valuable insights about the practice area. In essence,it is an informal learning vehicle."

    Examples of these communities of practice include:

  • Ericsson Canada pooling the talent of geographically dispersed employees byusing a Web system to ask and get answers. Anders Hemre, the chief knowledgeofficer, is charged with improving the flow of internal information. He isexperimenting with six communities of practice—four in face-to-face meetingsand two online.

  • Schlumberger oilfield services engineers reaching out for answers byusing their "InTouch" system to quickly resolve field problems. Peter Day,InTouch program manager, credits the program with "$200 million in costsavings and revenue in 2001, along with a 95 percent reduction in the timerequired to solve difficult operational problems and a 75 percent decrease inthe time necessary to update engineering modifications."

  •  Xerox giving 25,000 field-service engineers access to aknowledge-sharing system that contributes savings of nearly 10 percent on partsand labor, translating into $15 to $20 million per year. Dan Holtshouse,director of knowledge initiatives, talks about "the 50,000 solution tips thathave been entered into the knowledge base, all on a purely voluntary basis, inexchange for contributors' being recognized. What we have learned is theimportance of creating a work environment with a culture and incentives that areconducive to sharing, and to support that environment with improved workprocesses and strong technology."

    Enterprises everywhere are finding ways to share and create knowledge bybringing their employees together. In a check-printing company, employees useLotus Notes to capture questions and answers. A placement firm uses messageboards to connect nurses deployed to client hospitals across the country. And aglobal pharmaceutical company uses a new online tool to change the waymanufacturing problems are solved and documented.

Capturing what people talk about
    Dr. Etienne Wenger, the researcher and thinker often credited with coiningthe term "communities of practice," predicts that "within a few years theywill be as natural to our concept of organization as teams have become. From ahuman resources standpoint it is the first serious chance HR has to bestrategic, creating communities of practice in areas strategic to the business.It takes seriously the idea that our best resources are our people."

    Knowledge growth, sharing, and learning among people are at the heart of suchinitiatives, the understanding of which has fascinating roots. The Xerox fieldservice technicians’ knowledge network dates from Xerox PARC (Palo AltoResearch Center) research in 1991 (detailed in Dr. John Seely Brown’s book TheSocial Life of Information).

    Anthropologist Julian Orr spent six months in the field, which includedsocializing with the field technicians after hours. Rather than apparently idlegossip, what he found was, in fact, work talk. The same posing of questions,raising problems, finding solutions, knowledge gathering, and sharing went on asin most businesses, where the first call for help is over the cubicle to thelocal expert.

Capturing the 80 percent
    The growing interest in online knowledge sharing is no surprise to JonathanSpira, chief analyst and founder of the knowledge-management consultancy Basex."We estimate that 20 percent of the knowledge in the average enterprise isexplicitly recorded, generally as structured or unstructured data on a computersystem. The other 80 percent exists tacitly in the heads of the employees--andsavvy knowledge management aims to capture this 80 percent, through the use oftools such as expertise software and communities of practice."

    Researchers David Millen and Michael Fontaine at IBM’s Institute forKnowledge-Based Organizations (IKO) describe three groups that benefit fromwork-based communities:

  • First the individual, through skill enhancement, increased jobsatisfaction, sense of belonging, professional reputation, and personalproductivity.

  • Second the community, in greater trust, expertise sharing, knowledge,and problem solving.

  • Finally the organization, in areas such as improved sales, costsavings, speed-to-market of new products, customer satisfaction, productinnovation, operating efficiency, and decreased employee turnover.

Thinking takes time
    For IBM’s Mike Wing, vice president of worldwide Internet strategy andprograms, the big impact of community-building is in cultural change. "Inturning the company around, the toughest and most important issue was culturechange. That's where the company’s intranet has played its most importantrole. We've used it to bring the marketplace inside, to unify the company(providing a view not dependent on geography or department), and to empowerevery employee with a broad range of knowledge-capturing, self-service tools."

    Ericsson’s Anders Hemre focuses on the fact that "communities involvethinking together, and thinking takes time. An organization that does not allowitself time to think may turn into a thoughtless organization."

Where to begin
    Gloria Gery, a respected business-learning and performance-support expert,says HR should look at the ways it relates to remote employees. She advisesexploring "how you can use some of the new collaboration technologies toexpand the rate of problem-solving and also the quality of the solutions."

    If you are looking to grow the use of collaboration and communities ofpractice, here are some tips:

  • Start with a clear area of business need.
  • Start small.
  • Don’t just get management buy-in. Recruit their involvement
  • Define clear goals and metrics.
  • Ensure that the initiative ties in to existing projects.
  • Allocate a budget and support resources.
  • Understand and respect informal employee initiatives already under way.Offer support, but do not kill.
  • Build a team of the right people committed to success.
  • Celebrate contributions.
  • Build on small successes.
  • Be prepared to adjust the plan in response to what you learn.

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