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447,000 Heads Are Better Than One

Thinking about implementing a knowledge management (KM) program? If not, you should consider just how much brain poweryour organization isn't using to its full extent.

Knowledge management (KM), not surprisingly, is about thinking. Thinking differently. At least differently for many people in the U.S. Randall Sellers, Director, Knowledge Management, for the Americas region of Siemens Corp., explains, "Here in the Western world—especially in America—we are self-focused. We learn as much as we can. We improve our skills, our knowledge, our know-how." Which, he says, is a good thing. But we do it individually. You learn. You improve. Organizationally, this is insufficient. And inefficient. "We need to take this to the next level, to share and collaborate."

Which is what KM is all about.

Worldwide, Siemens has some 447,000 people in 193 countries. In the U.S., it employs over 73,000 people. Sellers has been with Siemens for 12 years. He's worked in a variety of positions, from sales and marketing to manufacturing. Prior to taking his current post in September, 2001, Sellers was an internal consultant. Which led him to understand the power of KM.

Consider what a consultant does: He goes from operation to operation for a finite period of time. When engaged at Operation A, he helps provide solutions to problems, be they related to product development or in production operations. When at Operation B, he might do the same. One of the things that Sellers recognized was that there was often a commonality of issues when he went from one place to another. For example, even though a Siemens VDO Automotive plant is producing intake manifolds and a Siemens Transportation Systems facility is dealing with railcars, Sellers points out that they both must deal with production, logistics, human resources, and a variety of other issues that might superficially seem to be different but that are fundamentally the same. Their individual solutions to problems might have benefit to other parts of the organization. But chances are, those solutions stay in-house, with the exception of the knowledge that an internal consultant might carry from one to the other.

"As a stockholder," Sellers says, "I could see that we were wasting money." It is analogous to the proverbial reinvention of the wheel. People were facing the same problems here, there and elsewhere. Solutions were happening one at a time.

KM's roots at Siemens goes back to 1996-97 in Germany, when a number of people within the corporation who shared an interest in KM formed a group, or, in KM parlance, a "community of interest." They researched the subject. Checked into what was being done by other organizations. Discovered the benefits. So by 1999, the central board of Siemens AG decided that KM was sufficiently important to the entire business to create an organization that would be responsible for the worldwide rollout of KM. When you consider the number of people who are employed by Siemens, finding the means through which these people can share what they know is certainly an important boon.

Challenges. Because KM implementation has a lot to do with establishing a network to collect, categorize and share information—which means things like databases and intranets—there is a tendency to think that KM is something that the information technology (IT) people deal with. But Sellers points out, "In my opinion, the technology or IT role is a small one. I think it's 20% IT and 80% change management—dealing with cultural change and human interfaces." The IT portion is the enabler. "The soft side is the larger portion of KM activities. It's the more difficult side. IT is challenging, but it is easier to get servers installed and software up and running than it is to get people to change the way they think and act differently within organizations."

Which is to say that the human resources (HR) function is critical to the success of KM. They must convince people that it is important to share ideas and information. HR must also come to grips with the fact that whereas performance measurement has long been based on individual performance, it is now not just a matter of how well the individual does, but how well the organization performs.

That is, say there is a network setup. People are encouraged to participate in communities of interest. These communities post their information. Best practices are established. People from the other side of the world who may be facing, say, a supply chain difficulty, go onto the network and discover what someone in, say, Auburn Hills has done to deal with the issue. That way, they don't have to experience the same trial-and-error routine.

But all of this is theoretical unless people can be convinced to participate, to share what they know. (Siemens has done a good job of this, given that it has been acknowledged by Teleos, an independent knowledge management research company, as being one of the top-ranking KM practitioners in the world.)

Another challenge, Sellers says, is convincing managers, which he describes as being "challenging." And for good reasons. For one thing, there are plenty of programs that managers deal with—or have dealt with (as programs tend to be here today, gone tomorrow). "Knowledge management is an enabling technology, not a standalone program," Sellers says. Another difficulty with regard to convincing U.S. managers of the value of KM is, he says, based on the fact that they tend to be more numbers-driven, or quantitative, than their European counterparts. So one of the things that he does is to work with managers in developing a business case, including the numbers, such as achieving improvement in economic value-added (EVA). He notes that they can measure improvement in development time, the reduction of redundant work, quicker responses.

"There's a lot of low-hanging fruit out there," he observes. Superior KM can help people do a better job of harvesting it—as well as that fruit that is tougher to attain.