Employees Share Pearls Of Wisdom

Texaco and other companies use knowledge management to turn expertise into assets

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 7, 2001

8 Min Read

About a year ago, Texaco Inc. brought together the leaders of dozens of informal groups of workers within the company. The purpose was to figure out a way to tap a database so often unreachable by any software--the human brain.

Texaco's Lessons Learned Summit in Houston had its roots in a "thinking expedition" the White Plains, N.Y., oil company had organized in the fall of 1998, when it brought together managers interested in learning how to get people to share their job experiences, both good and bad, as well as tips and external contacts, with others in the company. Participants were taught how to recognize small cliques that often form around a work-related interest, to identify the leader, and to support such informal communications. While some companies may see these networks as promoting idle chitchat, Texaco recognized them as a source of information it hadn't been able to get into an Excel spreadsheet or Word document: knowledge that employees gather through on-the-job experiences and store in their heads.

At the Houston meeting, the leaders of these informal groups--geologists, oil-drilling experts, and other specialists--listened to experts explain the dynamics behind human networks and how they can help a company become more competitive by sharing their knowledge on a wider basis. It was a first step in getting employees excited about providing information to the company at large and led to Texaco deploying technology to turn all the free-floating knowledge into a better-managed asset.

Today, Texaco's knowledge-management arsenal includes PeopleNet, a custom-built application that lets employees build a personal profile and post it as a Web page on the company's intranet. The content of the profile doesn't have to be purely work-related: Pictures and hobby lists coexist alongside users' summaries of their job expertise.

The PeopleNet content and the company's E-mail systems are linked through KnowledgeMail from Tacit Knowledge Systems Inc., which monitors an employee's E-mail, moving phrases that seem to reflect a person's expertise on a particular subject into a private profile accessible only to that employee. The person then chooses which phrases to publish in a public directory to help others distinguish him as a potential expert in an area. Someone searching for an expert in marketing crude oil, for example, would get a list of people associated with that phrase; clicking on a name in that list would call up a profile of the person in KnowledgeMail, as well as a link to the person's PeopleNet profile.

Knowledge-management helps Texaco unearth experts and pump up the company's productivity, says Old, director of information.

KnowledgeMail has been used by 300 people at Texaco through a pilot program for the last year and a half. It's been so successful that it will be extended to several thousand people during the next six months. John Old, the company's director of information, recounts a meeting in which Texaco execs were sharing ideas on knowledge management with a business partner. In demonstrating KnowledgeMail, a colleague typed the word "wireless" and the top name on the retrieved list was a systems architect who was in the room, but had never been identified as someone knowledgeable in wireless technology. "In any large company, there are lots of conversations in E-mail that you're not aware of, and there are lots of hidden experts," Old says.

Texaco, which has 16,000 employees and revenue of $51.1 billion, doesn't view its knowledge-management projects as a "separate investment that must generate standalone returns," Old says. "The focus is usually on improving processes or creating new ways of working." In general, professionals can spend as much as three-quarters of their time looking for sources or information needed to do their jobs, so making that process faster will automatically increase productivity, he says.

High-tech vendors apply the term knowledge management to describe products ranging from analytical and content-management software to instant messaging and E-mail. However, experts say, companies that are serious about helping employees share knowledge need to make sure they encourage workers to learn from each other, then introduce the technology that makes it easier to do so on a wide scale.

Texaco acknowledges it might not have gotten to first base with its knowledge-management initiatives if it hadn't learned to respect the informal interactions that have traditionally served as a means--however imperfect--for transmitting knowledge throughout a company. For instance, managers learned that employees are less apt to hold frank discussions among themselves about how they do their jobs if they think management's watching, Old says. People won't share their failures unless they know there won't be repercussions, although sharing failures is a way to make sure others in the company don't make the same mistakes.

Ericsson Canada archives public E-mail threads to increase its knowledge base, Hemre says.

Jumping straight into deploying knowledge-management technology was a temptation for telecommunications supplier Ericsson Canada Inc. "We have a tendency to grab technology first," says Anders Hemre, director of enterprise performance at the company's Montreal research unit. But Ericsson officials wisely took a step back to look at the company's culture, values, and people before doing so.

Through surveys, Hemre found that the research group's growth--doubling to 1,700 workers in four years by 1999--had undercut the sense of community. So Ericsson identified informal groups that had formed around work-related topics, such as Java programming or the mobile Internet, and worked to help those cliques expand and form new groups to further disseminate ideas and information. People gather informally to discuss work outside their cubicles every day, Hemre says, but "to capture that and put a little bit of structure to it to help it along, without overengineering or overmanaging it, is the trick."

Once the groups were identified by talking to employees in the various research divisions, Ericsson appointed a community leader for each group and gave workers time to meet on a regular basis; there was no agenda for these meetings, which still take place. "You form the community for learning, but it's not necessarily organized or heavy-handedly managed," Hemre says.

Moving online has let the communities Ericsson has formed reach farther. Ericsson has been running a pilot of Orbital Software's Organik for nearly a year with 150 users and plans to expand it to 1,000 users next year. Organik requires employees to create profiles by filling out a form that Ericsson stores in an Oracle database. When a person searching for an expert finds a match in the database, Organik will send an E-mail notification to that person that his help is being requested.

E-mail communication between the two people is tracked by the software, which builds a Web-accessible thread. If others join the discussion, their E-mails become part of the thread. In addition, the software adds the subject matter of a person's E-mail to his or her profile, rating the person's level of expertise based on the number of times he participates in discussions on that subject. Previous discussions can be searched by subject matter and viewed by anyone, which increases the knowledge base.

Once Organik is fully deployed, preliminary estimates show Ericsson Canada will recoup its cost within six to nine months, based primarily on completing projects faster by helping people find experts and get information more quickly, Hemre says. Within two years, the software is projected to give back half of its cost through increased efficiency. Organik costs Ericsson $100 for each of its 1,000 registered users.

Knowledge-management initiatives have also taken hold at LabMorgan, the Internet strategy and incubation unit of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Jeanne Feldhusen, head of knowledge management and screening, says the lab uses Intraspect Software technology to help employees filter the hundreds of business-plan referrals received for investment or incubation possibilities each month. The platform lets users access all previous expertise and feedback on similar propositions the company has received, so they can measure new proposals against them and know what questions to ask to further probe a new plan's merits. Since the deployment, the lab says it's been able to avoid duplicate screenings of similar proposals and has generated significant gains.

But the lab thought first about how it works as an organization before jumping into the technology. "The collaborative tool pushed thinking about our processes and how we work together," Feldhusen says. "The core has to be a mind-set of sharing and accomplishing a common goal. We designed the software to support the processes we use." But she acknowledges that deploying knowledge-management initiatives might be more challenging in dealing with very established processes. "How do you motivate people to move to new ways? [Our advantage is that] we're in an area that's highly innovative."

At Thomas & Betts Corp., a $2.2 billion electrical parts maker in Memphis, Tenn., motivation is decidedly nontechnical. Board games in which teams compete on solving business problems teach managers the importance of sharing ideas and information. "It gives employees a good sense of the roles and functions other people play in the company," says Gary Bodam, director of training and development. Once they realize that their willingness to share knowledge affects the bottom line in games, they're more open to making changes in how they operate in the real world, he says.

But Thomas & Betts also is using technology to foster knowledge sharing. The company runs an E-learning-management system from ThoughtWare Technologies Inc. that tracks employees' continuing education, such as public speaking or engineering. The data is logged in an SAP human-resources system and can be used by managers looking for the best candidates for jobs. Says Bodam, "It's all become part of the overall knowledge base by which we'll try to move the organization forward."

Photo of Old by Brent Humphreys

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