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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Recognize contributors. You shouldn't pay people for sharing knowledge (see "What Not to Do"), but you must recognize those who do. "The most powerful incentive for sharing is peer recognition," says Peter Engstrom, vice president for corporate knowledge creation at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a research and engineering company that helps organizations grappling with KM.

Shell and Giant Eagle opt for informal recognition by mentioning accomplishments in an e-mail or newsletter or during a meeting. Halliburton has a "most valuable player" program that acknowledges the person with the best idea each month. Most of the companies mentioned here build knowledge sharing into employees' formal job reviews. Some make bonuses and promotions subject to sharing knowledge while others use it as one factor in an overall evaluation. KM supporters say that whatever the method, it's important to make a clear statement that the enterprise appreciates knowledge-sharers.

Create in-person knowledge forums. Methods of sharing knowledge range from portals and intranets to online discussion sites to informal brown-bag lunches. But the most valuable are those that bring people together face-to-face. Bickerstaff has no fewer than five different knowledge-sharing forums at BMS, and she comes up with new ones every day. Her latest idea is borrowed from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and is called My BMS Experience. It started when Bickerstaff invited a 34-year company veteran to give a talk looking back on his career. She expected about 100 to give up their lunch hour to hear the talk, but instead 250 showed up creating a standing-room-only situation. "It's like going back to the campfire, letting people tell their story," she says. "Creating opportunities for people to share what they know. That's a huge side of managing knowledge."

At SAIC, a team that has experience in a particular area meets in person with a team embarking on a similar challenge. For example, a group with experience creating a system for granting credentials to physicians in the state of Florida became the de facto team on state government projects. After a project is complete, team members meet to analyze what worked and what didn't. They codify their findings in SAIC's KM system. At the end of each workday, project teams meet to examine the gap between their to-do lists and what actually got done.

It is axiomatic that people issues are the thorniest aspect of any technology initiative. KM is no exception. And don't expect getting individuals involved to come cheap. Shell's van Unnik estimates the annual cost of the KM system at about $5 million, with the majority of that sum going toward engaging community members. "The cost is man power," he says, including two to three full-time employees per major online COP (of which Shell has 12). But with an estimated annual return of more than $200 million, the investment is more than sound.

Costly in both time and money as it may be, you cannot avoid the heavy-lifting of getting people involved. Says SAIC's Engstrom, "You have to systematically embed knowledge sharing into the culture as opposed to overlaying it on top. You can't bolt it on and force people to use it. The atmosphere of trust has to be there first."

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Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer who can be reached at lauren.paul@comcast.net. Send your knowledge management war stories to KM Editor Megan Santosus at santosus@cio.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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