· 5 min read · Features

Technology Guide: Knowledge sharing - Keep everyone in the know

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Knowledge management is an HR success story. Many companies do it without even realising it. With the technology still evolving Sally Whittle looks at how four organisations are making it work for them.

Back in the 1990s, one term - CRM (customer relationship management) -was heralded as the saviour of modern-day business. It was abillion-dollar industry in waiting and, according to analysts Gartner,Forrester and Jupiter, would soon morph into what would distinguish thegood from the great - knowledge management.

More than 10 years on, the buzz-phrases have gone. In fact the Gartnergroup no longer tracks knowledge management in its famous 'hype cycle'curve of emerging technologies and predictions. But unlike CRM, whichreally did die a death, the group considers knowledge management to havebeen a success and become mainstream. Gartner estimates that 50% ofcompanies actually do knowledge management to some degree oranother.

"Knowledge management is a bit of an HR success story," says RoyIllsley, a senior research analyst with Butler Group. "HR realisedknowledge management is something you do, not something you buy. Ifcompanies have a portal, a content management system, a collaborationplatform or even a wiki (see page 12), they are probably doing knowledgemanagement even if it's not referred to as such."

Historically, many organisations with rigid hierarchies created barriersto sharing knowledge to allow managers to retain a sense of being'unquestionable', says Sergio Jankwoski De Carvalho, eHR deliverymanager with Arinso. "However HR has worked well in educating managersthat sharing knowledge is actually an important tool ofempowerment."

All of which means the market for knowledge management technologies isstill evolving. "Rather than just chucking everything on the intranet,we're seeing more organisations using collaborative platforms, desktopsearch and other tools," says Illsley.

So, just what does knowledge management mean to companies today? We lookat four examples.

NORWICH UNION - THE PURE KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT APPROACH

Norwich Union's HR advisory service is on hand to answer questions onany aspect of HR policy, but while inviting 35,000 staff to call the HRdepartment with any questions seemed like a good idea, it was notprepared for taking more than 12,000 calls per month.

In 2005, the company audited the HR advisory service and found many ofthe calls it took were about the same topics. "A high percentage ofcalls had factual answers that were not open to interpretation, and lotsof calls were on the same topics," explains Catherine Taunsey, head ofHR advice services, Norwich Union. "We began to wonder whether there wasa more cost-effective way to deliver that knowledge."

Taunsey's research turned up a self-service knowledge managementapplication from Transversal, which would allow employees to searchthrough a knowledge database for answers to thousands of questions. "Wecalculated that if just 15% of the calls were answered using thissolution, it would pay for itself within two years," says Taunsey.

The self-service platform doesn't handle all HR information - if anemployee asks a question relating to personal data, they areautomatically prompted to send an email to the HR department. However,non-personal information has since been re-packaged to allow it to besearchable. A team of two HR staff ensure that information is accurateand up-to-date.

The project has had its problems - most notably getting the variouslegacy systems to work with the new software. Nevertheless, it appearsto have been successful: 16% of calls have been diverted to theplatform. In its first four months, 14,500 staff have accessed the sitecreating more than 41,000 hits.

NORTH WALES FIRE SERVICE - THE UNIFIED SYSTEM APPROACH

North Wales Fire and Rescue Service protects more than 670,000 peoplespread over an area of nearly 2,500 square miles. To work effectively itnot only needs a lot of security and working practices information aboutits employees but also up-to-date information about who can useparticular equipment, and what training gaps there are. However, with apart-time and highly dispersed workforce, keeping information accuratewas a constant challenge.

"We did have an internally-developed program, but it was very basic,"explains Llinos Gutierrez-Jones, HR manager. In 2006, the servicedecided it needed a completely new HR platform that would becost-effective and flexible and, crucially, would provide a way ofcollecting and sharing employee information quickly and effectively.

In February 2006, the organisation introduced an HR platform based onWorkforce, from HR software specialist Bond. It provides a singleapplication for HR staff to record everything they do, explainsGutierrez-Jones. "It shows just about anything that would have been in apersonnel file," she says. Firefighters are given customised accessrights so they can view limited parts of the HR database. Even withinHR, only a few staff can see all of an employee's records, saysGutierrez-Jones. But people outside the HR function can also benefitfrom the system. For example, staff in the training department canaccess training and education details for employees, while payroll isable to view attendance records.

One challenge was to persuade staff to use a new system. "We ran focusgroups where we introduced the software, and tried to show them thebenefits," says Gutierrez-Jones. "We also asked people for their input.We shared the problems we were having and asked them how they wouldsolve them."

BRITISH PARAMEDIC ASSOCIATION - THE E-LEARNING APPROACH

The British Paramedic Association (BPA) exists to promote best practiceand professional development for the UK's 45,000 ambulance workers. Thistask has become increasingly important in recent years, as paramedicshave faced increased workloads and new legislation from the HealthProfessionals Council (HPC) that requires all paramedics to beregulated.

This means paramedics have to prove they are engaged in continuousprofessional development (CPD), explains Roland Furber, chief executiveof the BPA. "Every paramedic can be checked by the HPC, and must be ableto show a portfolio of professional development," he says. "The problemis, when you're working in an ambulance, your opportunities to recordthat sort of information is limited."

To assist its members, the BPA has rolled out a learning managementsystem from Premier IT, which provides them with an electronic CPDfolder. "Members can log in using a password, and then record situationswhere they have met specific professional standards," says Furber. Theyare also alerted to courses, workshops and online training courses. Thesystem also allows members to upload certificates proving they havecompleted courses. Some 4,000 members signed up to the system in itsfirst year, and Furber expects that figure to more than double thisyear.

Since the software went live in 2005, the BPA has worked with Premier ITto develop a second version of the system, which includes better linksbetween the CPD platform and training providers. The BPA has promotedthe new service with posters and newsletters in ambulance stations. Thebiggest challenge was informing members of their responsibility to trackprofessional development under the new regulations - many weren't awarethey had to.

FUGRO - THE E-LEARNING KNOWLEDGE-SHARING APPROACH

Oil exploration company Fugro has a highly skilled workforce spreadacross more than 50 countries. It includes engineers, oceanographers,scientists and geo-technicians. All of them require continuous trainingand development, but they also need to know what the others havelearned.

"Our challenge has always been that half of our staff work remotely andcan't always get to a course or share knowledge about training becausethe time or the location is not convenient," says Andy McNeill, chiefsurveyor with Fugro's Offshore Survey division.

Another challenge is that Fugro's employees often require highlyspecific training. Many of the technologies used by the company weredeveloped internally, and the best training on them is delivered by thecompany's own people, creating even more scheduling problems.

To address this issue, Fugro has invested in a web-based e-learningsystem from Mohive, together with a learning management system fromNetdimensions. The company is currently creating its own e-learningapplications, which will be introduced over the next three years.

The new programs are deliberately being rolled out slowly, to one groupof workers at a time. "We've learned from experience that there's nopoint launching this kind of IT project by emailing 5,000 people andsaying: 'Hey, this is how we're knowledge sharing now'," McNeillsays.

The first to go live on the platform was a graduate trainee course. Thishas been followed by others in health and safety processes, as well ascompany-wide induction.

Fugro is running training for administrators to explain the new systemto staff. McNeill doesn't expect problems. "There's a lot of interestwithout us even trying," he says.