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The Flow of Work and Knowledge

While a Shell affiliate was developing an oil well near Damascus, a drilling tool became stuck near the surface of the well. The cable had snapped, wrapping around the tool and making it unable to be moved in any direction. No one at the facility or in the local Shell country operations knew how to fix the problem. At the same time as considering whether they would have to abandon the well, they promptly sent a message to Shell's Global Network covering expertise in well operations. The person with the greatest experience in the field was usually located in the Netherlands, but was currently in Bangladesh. After being contacted and put in touch with the local well-drilling team, he was able to run simulations and suggest different equipment to use, enabling the tool to be freed and the well to resume production.

How do you connect knowledge with its application? Every company confronts the same issue. However, Shell provides a particularly pointed example, with 81,000 people around the world, each developing highly refined expertise that can be of value across the organization. Shell has focused on developing networks of experts in a wide range of domains. It also collects documents and models that can be valuable to others around the world, but it recognizes that in the case of highly specialized knowledge, it is most valuable simply to connect people. Shell Exploration has developed three core global networks focused on technical disciplines, as well as a number of other ones covering business issues, such as procurement and competitive intelligence. The basic functionality of the systems is to allow anyone to post questions and get responses from anywhere in the world for possible solutions, or who or what might provide an answer. Often users find that others have already asked similar questions and can find the answers posted. In many cases, the exchange simply helps the people who have a problem to identify those that have the relevant knowledge, and they can then continue discussions by email, telephone, or if necessary by travel. Another initiative called Global Consultancy provides a "yellow pages" directory of leading subject experts throughout Shell's worldwide operations that can be contacted and brought in for short-term assignments to different locations and divisions.

The challenge of accessing and applying knowledge within organizations can be met through two main approaches. People's knowledge can be embedded into documents, models, and software so that many others can use it, and staff can be connected directly to others with relevant experience so they can apply their knowledge to a specific issue. These two strategies—sometimes called "collections and connections"—are relevant to every business. However, increasingly, providing connections to others is becoming the dominant tool. One reason is that, in today's business environment, innovation is essential. Following processes effectively is important, but the greatest value is created by enhancing how things are done, and this is almost always a complex, collaborative task.

As you saw early in this chapter, communities are a subset of networks. The idea of "communities of practice," which bring together the practitioners of a technical or work domain into collaborative groups, has recently attracted enormous management attention. In a business world increasingly based on applying specialist knowledge, this must be a primary emphasis, but it is easy to overlook the reality that most work today is multidisciplinary. As a result it is frequently the connections made across fields that are the most valuable. Building communities focused on specialist topics is invaluable, but what is more important is the bigger picture of creating a deeply networked organization. Managers must take five key steps.

1. Identify and empower network hubs.

Look at just about any kind of network you can think of—for example, the Internet or social connections—and you will see that a relatively small number of "hubs" account for the majority of connections. In the case of companies, there are always a few particularly widely connected people who not only know what is happening and who have expertise in their own division, but who also have valuable contacts in other parts of the organization or other locations. These people are the hubs who make the organization a network.

It's great to have an online system that lists the resumes and experience of every person in the company. Yellow pages initiatives of this kind, similar to that described in the previous Shell example, are often one of the first in any internal knowledge sharing program because they're relatively easy to implement and can have immediate benefits. However, they by no means reduce the importance of network hubs in connecting people. Having a personal introduction often makes a tremendous difference. Someone calling you because they've seen your name on a database is likely to elicit a different response than if they say they're calling on the suggestion of a trusted mutual contact. One of the reasons is that knowledge networks are in effect marketplaces. You trade your knowledge for other benefits, largely the ability to draw on others when needed. The more that social networks are involved in this process, the more readily the company can become an effective knowledge market. In addition, the network hubs know who really is the best in their field, who is likely to help, and how best to approach them—all information that is never shown on a database. In addition to providing online means of connecting people, companies need to identify the people who are already acting as network hubs and help them to be better at this invaluable function.

BP Amoco actively develops individuals who are well-connected across the organization. Employees contact these widely connected hubs when they need to access expertise and resources, but don't know where to find them in their far-flung organization. The managers of these network hubs try to ensure they have the time available to fulfill this role in addition to their normal responsibilities. Connecting people becomes an informal part of their jobs. Many firms now use network analysis software to identify who are the network hubs for valuable information flow and use this to nurture people in these roles or to promote better working structures. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Australia has used network analysis for some of its service lines to identify which people are the most useful in winning business and the most generous with their ideas, time, and contacts. This helps individual practice groups and partners to develop more effective strategies for working within the broader firm.

2. Nurture communities of specialists.

Montgomery Watson Harza is one of the world's largest environmental and infrastructure engineering firms, engaged in projects such as building the world's biggest centrifuge to treat digested biosolids (let's keep that in engineering-speak) for the City of Los Angeles, and constructing wastewater treatment facilities for an Intel chip plant in China. Because its work depends on highly specialized engineers spread across more than 30 countries, it has placed a strong emphasis on developing focused knowledge communities. Its initial work concentrated on identifying those groups who already had substantial useful interaction and providing them with the tools and resources to work more effectively. For each identified community, a knowledge leader was chosen, who commands the respect of his or her peers, has the necessary social skills to form cohesive and productive groups, and, very important, has personal ties to key knowledge leaders, especially in other regions of the world. These nominated leaders are given both classroom and online training courses on how to run effective communities, and are supported by dedicated staff in their community leadership roles. Technology plays an important role in being able to intermediate communication, but the role of face-to-face contact is clearly recognized. Community members are provided with the budgets to meet regularly to complement their online activities.

Even though nurturing communities of specialists is only one element of creating the effective flow of knowledge and work in an organization, this often provides an essential linchpin for all efforts to build knowledge networking. The affiliation felt by people who have a common field of expertise or practice can be very powerful. They usually want both to learn from their peers and to share their knowledge actively. These initial networks can help to seed broader based initiatives and collaboration.

Organizations should begin by identifying the informal communities, that is, the groups that communicate and get together for no other reason than because they find it a valuable part of their work and personal development. They often don't think of themselves as communities, but they're likely to be quietly doing marvelous things for the organization. If a community is already thriving, allow it to continue, but offer resources such as communication tools, recognition, and possibly a formalization of its role. Because most workers are short of time, it can be very useful to make it part of key members' job descriptions to participate in internal communities.

One of the most important success factors for communities is leadership. The reality is that effective groups are almost always centered around a person or small group who moderates, encourages, connects, seeks resources, and generally makes a disparate and often distributed group cohesive. There is a clear set of skills required, and training in community leadership for those who are nominated or fall into that role is invaluable. At the same time, good leadership requires respect from the community members. Schlumberger, a large oil services company, has placed a strong emphasis on connecting its technical experts and field engineers in communities. Community leaders are formally elected by the members, ensuring that the leaders are trusted by their peers and are virtually always well-connected. The voting turnout for community leaders exceeds 50 percent, reflecting the importance members place on the issue.

3. Create adaptive systems.

Too much structure in trying to enhance internal networks and collaboration usually results in the unforeseeable—and most valuable—interactions never happening. On the other hand, allowing things to happen by themselves usually means that very little happens. How can you tread the delicate boundary between creating enabling structures and ways of working without stifling the unpredictably useful connections from emerging?

Eli Lilly's Research and Development group has implemented an internal collaboration system designed by CompanyWay, a start-up that applies to collaboration the principles of how swarms of insects can demonstrate organized behavior. The system allows a broad range of participants to propose ideas, add comments, and assess the value of each others' ideas and comments. As discussion on a particular topic proceeds, the groups' collective judgment is applied to determining whether to pursue or abandon the idea, and how best to modify and apply it. Over time, the contributors whose comments are consistently rated highly by their peers gain privileges in the discussions. Throughout the process, participants are allocated credit points depending on how their contributions are assessed. One of the most useful aspects of Eli Lilly's implementation of the system is that a number of users who were not formal experts made some of the most valuable contributions, as assessed by the group. Ideas are the true currency, and leaders emerge through the quality of their input rather than their titles or qualifications.

The networks are alive, so we need to treat them as living systems, allowing behaviors to emerge rather than imposing rigid structures. When ants forage for food, they lay down a pheromone trail. When they are in new territory, they walk around more or less randomly, but when they stumble across food, they will take it back to the nest and return for more. Because ants will tend to follow paths that have stronger pheromone trails—that is, have been walked along by more ants—other ants will discover the path and go to the food, further reinforcing the path and bringing other ants to take the spoils. What the ants are doing is actually collaborative filtering, in which the best discoveries of individuals are made known to the group. Building these principles into collaborative systems, as CompanyWay and others are doing, creates dynamic ways for the intelligence of groups to emerge.

4. Develop a collaborative culture.

In 2000 Buckman Laboratories was named the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise. It could bask briefly in the accolades, but it had been a long hard slog, and it's by no means over. As chairman Bob Buckman noted, 90 percent of the work in building its famous knowledge-sharing capabilities was in shifting the company's culture. Its online knowledge-sharing system, called K'Netix, is world-class, but as anyone who has worked to implement collaborative systems knows, the technology is the easy part.

In the early 1990s, Bob Buckman in his then role as CEO played a leading role in transforming the company's culture. The bold move to make information openly available at all levels of the firm was embraced by some, but many middle managers were unenthusiastic, while others were openly hostile, going so far as to forbid their staff to participate in the systems. Without initially providing explicit rewards or censures, it began to become apparent to staff that those who actively shared their knowledge gained better opportunities, whereas the recalcitrants stagnated in their careers and were sometimes visited by the chairman for a quiet word. Continued initiatives including a knowledge-sharing conference helped to cement the message over time, but perhaps most important was the obvious positive impact of the evolving culture on the success of the firm. Many Buckman employees refer to the firm's code of ethics to provide a clear direction for their daily work. The new CEO Steve Buckman led an 18-month effort to bring together input from across the company to develop a simple list of guiding principles. Management sees the code as a foundation for building the culture the company requires to succeed.

Buckman Laboratories' experience illustrates many of the issues of building a collaborative culture. Enabling connections between staff is of little use unless they are willing to collaborate by sharing knowledge and actively working together. Whatever a company's current situation, it needs to improve collaboration in order to succeed in a hyper-networked economy. There are no silver bullets, just an ongoing commitment to basics. There is no substitute for clear leadership. If those at the top of the firm continually reaffirm the importance of effective collaboration, this provides a platform for change. Messages need to be repeated and consistent. All communication programs should be designed to convey the importance of collaboration, and remuneration and recognition programs must reflect personal contributions. Many firms, for example, Siemens, Xerox, and IBM Global Services, have implemented processes to reward people depending on how much they contribute to know- ledge systems, but these are easily abused and don't change underlying attitudes. Collaboration in some form must be a component of employee assessment, and even more important, promotion opportunities must be linked to behaviors. One uncooperative person progressing successfully in a career can undo the benefits of an entire communication program. However, the crux of the issue is people realizing that their ability to do their own jobs well depends on effective collaboration from others, which in turn relies on how well they contribute.

5. Foster external networks.

When Bristol-Myers Squibb, a $16 billion pharmaceutical company, examined the relative success of its research divisions, it found that its oncology division had performed especially well for an extended period. The major difference between the researchers in this division and those in others—and the likely reason for the better performance—was the span and richness of their networks and interaction outside the organization. Other pharmaceutical firms, such as GlaxoSmithKline, have also placed an emphasis on building active communities and interaction beyond the boundaries of the organization.

Any firm that doesn't actively nurture connections with the broader community of its clients, suppliers, partners—and even competitors—risks isolation from the vital flow of information and ideas through the economy. No firm today is self-sufficient in knowledge and ideas. Specialists must engage with others outside the firm. As you saw in Chapter 3, work processes are now often distributed across several companies. Those who work together within that process are a community, whether they recognize it or not.

Every effort should be made to get your staff to actively engage outside your company. Provide the communication tools for your specialists to create communities with their peers. Encourage staff to get involved with academic groups through teaching or research. Sponsor informal gatherings with the primary intent of building useful dialogue within your broader community. Assisting company alumni associations can help build broad external connections for the firm, among other benefits. It has always been important to hire people with strong personal networks and the ability to form wide connections, but this is now becoming a dominant factor in staff selection.

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