At Parsons Brinckerhoff, an approximately 10,000-employee engineering firm, knowledge gets very granular—like hands-on experience designing a particular type of bridge—and it’s often needed immediately to solve a project problem or win a new engagement. So a KM strategy that connects subject matter experts is crucial. But no one KM product has cut it for the firm, says Christopher M. Rivinus, the company’s leader of knowledge systems. So while his company uses some KM tools, it also supports a big do-it-yourself effort.
“If you cannot get people to change their behavior, you’re sunk,” Rivinus says. “The more complex the [KM] product, the harder it is for people to change.”
Today, he’s beta testing Microsoft SharePoint 2007, which he hopes to use in the future to crawl e-mail messages for some content. But e-mail crawling alone isn’t ideal, he says. “I’m more interested in a tool that tells me this person has written about this topic three times a day for so many years. That’s a tool that would be important to us as engineering consultants.”
To make up for this and other KM app shortcomings, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s DIY effort stresses what it calls practice area networks, or PANs. Since 1994, the firm has encouraged these groups of like-minded experts to form voluntarily. Today the firm actively supports 54 PANs, around industries like aviation, or areas of expertise like tunnel engineering.
PANs help engineers get answers from global experts quickly, Rivinus says, and they spur less formal communication, say on career development.
At first, the groups primarily used e-mail and meetings to share knowledge, but they now use webcasting as well, so sessions can be recorded and broadcast on demand, Rivinus says.
CIOs who want to set up a DIY effort will need to allocate administrative support and training funds to make it work, he says. “These people are providing business value. You have to give them real resources,” Rivinus says. For example, he says, make sure the leaders get training. And keep participation voluntary, he advises.
What kinds of results have the PANs delivered? The firm’s CADD PAN tracks the number of floating software licenses (shared among staffers) worldwide and keeps the number and expense to a minimum. It also helps IT make better upgrade decisions, he says. In another example, the firm’s environmental community of practice responds to specific inquiries from clients, then turns appropriate answers into best practices, which can often be used to help win future work, Rivinus says.