How To Create A Know-It-All Company

Even in the best of times, it's a battle to convince employees to participate in knowledge management programs. But in tough times, the tendency is for employees to horde what they know. Here's how some companies convinced individuals to share best practices.

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Make it a no-brainer. Most people are already so stretched these days that they cannot contemplate adding another layer onto their daily routine. Therefore, you must bake knowledge collection and dissemination into people's everyday jobs. That will mean different things at different companies. At Russell Reynolds, for instance, recruiters document their search efforts in the application they already use to do their jobs so that they don't have to open a second application and make a special effort to capture the knowledge. Road-weary recruiters dictate candidate notes into assistants' voice-mail systems with no typing or Internet connection required. "There's no extra cost to contributing the information," says Saidel.

At Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, time-pressed lawyers can capture information in their customary work processes. "They can't take 15 minutes to do a reply. It wouldn't be billable time," says Chris Boyd, director of professional development and knowledge management for the 600-attorney business law firm. For Halliburton, knowledge transfer is as easy as scribbling something on the back of an envelope. Experts can jot down insights in pencil if they like and hand them off to the KM staff to be entered into the system. "This lowers the barrier of entry," says Behounek.

Hire a knowledge coordinator. If you have funding, create a full-time position of knowledge coordinator (also called knowledge broker, knowledge steward, facilitator, champion). This role comes in a variety of flavors. Duties include retrieving knowledge and entering it into the system, interviewing internal experts, writing KM success stories, and validating that examples entered into the system are accurate and kept up-to-date.

Boyd found it essential to have full-time, dedicated staff to oversee the care and feeding of the law firm's knowledge. "We needed to make it someone's real job to do this. Altruism isn't enough," he says, half-kidding. Lawyers get paid-handsomely-for serving their clients. It would be unrealistic for them to learn and use a whole separate application when many still do not use PCs.

Tell stories. KM experts agree that tacit knowledge (the 85 percent of human understanding that resides in someone's head as opposed to an external place) is the most valuable type of knowledge. But getting at tacit knowledge is complex. Melinda Bickerstaff, vice president of knowledge management for Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), an $18 billion drug manufacturer, has people tell stories about their experiences (such as winning Federal Drug Administration approval for Sustiva, an anti-HIV medicine) as a way to exchange lessons learned.

In-house journalists take detailed notes during the proceedings and then write up a report in article format, no slides allowed. "There are 16 dimensions to a story and only one or two to a PowerPoint," says Bickerstaff. Writing an article as opposed to a bunch of bullet points allows the synthesizer to weave together themes into a complex whole that more fully reflects the tacit knowledge of the people who worked on the problem.

The facilitators establish everyone's comfort level from the start by assuring participants that the notes from the meeting will never be seen by any outside person. "The facilitators steer the conversation away from 'Bob screwed up,'" says Alyson Krumwiede, associate director of strategic facilities planning for BMS, who has participated in three lessons-learned sessions. "With this, you're not looking for names. You're looking for what you learned from this experience that you can apply next time." The approach appears to be paying off. This year, BMS has received FDA approval on two new drugs with a third pending, which is an amazing coup in an industry where one approval per year is considered good.

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