How we improved the productivity of knowledge and interaction workers by 10-15% through the introduction of a collaborative process & knowledge management solution. In other words, a documentation of the values attributed to enabling and empowering employees to be in charge of a greater part of their work situation.
It is also a summary of insights regarding how to handle the issues of control and information security, things that a major enterprise would never give up despite potentially great benefits of a more open culture.
Knowledge management quickly becomes very abstract, but the definition we stuck with is that it is all about making sure that everybody knows what and when to do that which is expected of them. Another important comment is that a generally accepted fact today is that our brains should not focus on memorizing huge amounts of detailed data. The natural solution to that is best described metaphorically as writing books and building libraries, today this is done digitally.
Many organisations (especially large industrial enterprises) are soo good at writing books and building libraries that it has spawned another problem: the library is so big it is difficult to find the right book, and near impossible to find the proper page.
At a basic level of abstraction downstream this core problem the following symptoms can be identified:
- Long ramp-up times of newly hired talent
- Long transition times for inexperienced employees to become experienced
- Long internal adjustment times attributed to change efforts
- High ratio of mistakes and internal quality errors
Two years ago I was the “new guy” at an engineering department of a large industrial enterprise. To learn the ins and outs of my new department and get a clear and detailed understanding of how to solve the typical assignments was quite frankly a mess. The number one strategy for knowledge transfer was to stand next to more experienced engineers and scribble down notes of all the details as they happened. (Notes I knew would be obsolete within a matter of years or perhaps even months).
Being part of the internet-generation as well as a dedicated DIY-enthusiast I knew that if all I need is the internet to teach myself how to build anything from tube-amplifiers and studio-speakers to plastic 3D-printers there must be a smarter way to teach the “new guys” at my company what they need to know to quickly start performing at an acceptable level. Confronting my manager at the time with these thoughts ended up with me in charge of a project trying to find that better way.
In the project we quickly saw that the topic of knowledge management carries a lot of stakeholders. To not fall in the trap of trying to fix everything for everyone we decided to aim for solving for the extreme in hopes of satisfying the in between. In our case the extreme was the typical newly hired talent, a range of other stakeholders were taken into account but considered secondary.
Making office knowledge open source(ich)
The short description of the solution was to design a process centric collaborative knowledge management strategy that was to a high degree inspired by the open source culture on the internet. In order to support this strategy a dedicated knowledge sharing and contextual information filtering system was developed.
The contextual information filtering system makes sure that every piece of information is displayed in a manner that reflects the bigger picture contexts. The main contexts that were taken into account are best described as the hierarchical context, the project context and last but not least the process context. Information hierarchically tied to one department is for example automatically linked with departments up- or downstream any shared "big picture process" (sales ⇒ quotation ⇒ manufacturing ⇒ logistics as a simple example).
An important aspect of this strategy is that it in effect delegates the burden of micro management to all relevant stakeholders. The word relevant being important and in essence mainly meaning the people performing the tasks in question. This allows authority figures in the hierarchy to focus more wholeheartedly on large scale goals and problems that carries a higher value potential than micro management.
Requirements (i.e. challanges)
Trust: The nr one Requirement.
The suggested solution poses a problem if “the company” cannot trust that its employees are striving to achieve as good results as possible for the company. In the following discussion trust is taken for granted because, frankly, it’s not often that employees are actively working against their own company and if that’s the case the company have bigger problems to solve before focusing on optimising knowledge management.
Control: The nr two Requirement
In hierarchical low trust cultures the right to interpret as well as the power to change the collective knowledge is guarded closely and kept within the “political territories” that reflects the hierarchy of the organisation. The most obvious symptom of this is high levels of micro management.
Luckely this was not the case at my company but still, even if the trust levels are high and the official ambition is to adopt a more open culture, large enterprises cannot give up the control over their projects, processes or structures all together and hope for the positive effects to end up being more valuable than the negative effects attributed to the potential chaos. Hence any transformation must retain a very real level of control.
Encouraging a symbiosis between hierarchical control and “open” control
This philosophy in tandem with the dedicated IT support system allows for a far more extensive “valuable control” in the sense that everything that is contributed to the shared knowledge of the organisation is made visible in all it’s relevant contexts and continuously evaluated by all stakeholders. In essence it works like evolution, any information deviating from the optimal path will be removed and the knowledge representing the smartest way to achieve a goal is the knowledge that survives.
As a final comment on the topic of control, authority figures and internal/external experts are still able to contribute with “surgical interventions” when necessary. In fact this concept solution allows such efforts to spread through the organisation much quicker.
Regarding information security
Anyone working with knowledge or information management on a major organisation will probably shy away from the phrase: “make office knowledge open source” with very relevant complaints about information security. The philosophy of this project was always to create a culture that is as open as possible. But technically, the actual information shared on the platform is of course assigned certain security attributes requiring the proper clearance level prior to read or edit access.
The values of using social technologies in enterprise settings is actually a well documented topic. One of the most exhaustive studies is “The social economy” released by the McKinsey Global Institute in July of 2012. A very important conclusion in that study is that accumulated over a range of activities social technologies in general have the potential improve the productivity of high skill knowledge & interaction workers by as much as 20-25%.
To verify these and similar conclusions published in other reports a series of interviews and survey investigations were conducted to evaluate the concept solution after a 1 year test period. During that period 2 talents were recruited to the department in question.
Short term values of collaborative process & knowledge management
We considered the MGI-study as a reliable source and in our evaluation efforts concluded that with this concept solution it is possible to realise at least 50% of the productivity potential tied to the following activities: 1) e-mail handling, 2) Searching & gathering of information and 3) internal communication and collaboration. All in all the total short term productivity potential is about 5.5% or 8.7 hours per month and employee, see exhibit 1.
Long term values of collaborative process & knowledge management
The main purpose of this project was always to solve the problem of long ramp up times of newly hired talent. The evaluation indicates that improved knowledge and information management enables a among other things a reduction in ramp up time of newly hired employees by 50% and internal adjustment time attributed to change efforts by about 35%. All in all the total long term productivity potential is about 7% or 14.3 hours per month and employee, see exhibit 2.
Easily shared insights
Influencing a conservative industry giant is quite a different challenge compared to for example shaping a new startup, but the values attributed to progressive management philosophies can be just as real.
If I were to list the three most important things required to achieve what we did it would be (in ranking order):
- You need a sponsor from high up in the hiearchy that believes in the project and the solution you try to accomplish.
- Involve users and stakeholders very early and listen to their feedback, It is valuable and also, if you try and change how people work they must see the value of the change and this is much easier if they feel that they are included early in the process.
- Rely on people that are smarter than you when you develop the solution, it just gets so much better.
The slightly longer discussion
We found this project very interesting and since it is very much inspired by the open source culture we decided to start a blog aiming to share our insights and hopefully inspire great discussions on the topics of enterprise 2.0, collaborative management, knowledge & process management etc. please check it out at www.papriun.com
A proof of concept prototype of the dedicated contextual information filtering / collaborative process management IT system mentioned in this case study was developed by Alejandro Garcia, Tove Attof and Oscar Björkman. They were involved as master thesis students and this project would have been nothing without them.