Topping up the well of knowledge

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The Independent Online
THERE are some 17,000 Price Waterhouse accountants and consultants using Notes, the new work-group technology system from Lotus Development, says a report in CIO magazine, but most applications of the software have been mundane. Why?

'Fostering the shared work-group vision that lies behind Notes has proved elusive,' the writer of the piece, Thomas Kiely, concludes.

Devising the right sticks and carrots is the issue, said Sheldon Laube, national director of information and technology for the dollars 3.8bn ( pounds 2.5bn) consultancy firm. The following question must be answered in the affirmative by a cast of thousands: 'Is it worth their time to enter information, for someone else's benefit, on the gamble that, somewhere down the road, information will appear in Notes that is useful to them?'

Mr Laube has sidestepped this issue so far and settled for practical uses of the system. Case in point, from CIO: 'A banking consultant in Washington picks up regulatory gossip and, sensing an opportunity, broadcasts a message to the 200 or more Price Waterhouse banking consultants throughout the United States, who immediately broach the subject with their clients.'

That boils down to an 'e-mail' use of Notes, according to Professor Wanda Orlikowski of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has studied Price Waterhouse. 'It isn't the same thing as collaboratively working together on a joint project,' she said.

Brook Manville, co-director of information and technology at McKinsey & Co, the consultants, understands the distinction that Ms Orlikowski is making. He is also overseeing a major implementation of Notes - but McKinsey's avowed emphasis is fundamental transformation of the company's professional practice.

McKinsey has typically thrown very bright, energetic people at a client project. Mr Manville calls it 'the 'we're smarter than everyone else and that's enough to maintain our advantage' strategy'.

But competitors are catching up. McKinsey's next step, according to Mr Manville, is to leverage its collective experience by systematically developing and sharing institutional knowledge.

Knowledge development at McKinsey revolves around 30 or more 'practice centres' - voluntary, virtual communities of consultant specialists who offer their expertise to colleagues. Getting these centres to view knowledge development in marketing terms is the first step. 'They should think about growing their 'mind share' with consultants throughout the firm,' said Bill Matassoni, a McKinsey executive.

McKinsey summarises what it has learnt from some 1,500 projects completed each year in the computer database. But these records are not viewed as dusty electronic archives. Mr Manville, a statistics fanatic, urges practice centre leaders to measure usage of the databases - and even to publish 'best-seller lists' of the most valued, and used, documents.

However, such tactics still fall well short of the mark. The Organisation Performance Practice, the firm's largest practice centre, has gone much further. The centrepiece of its activities is the Rapid Response Network, operated by four people better characterised as consulting psychologists than technical support staff.

The network team responds instantly to internal customers' questions with referrals to McKinsey experts and to customised material culled from numerous internal and external databases. (The human touch counts: send too many documents and the already besieged consultant is overwhelmed; send too few and she or he is disappointed. Ducking such basic issues as these is the weak point of most knowledge-management schemes.

All 60 consu1tant specialists in the Organisation Performance Practice have also agreed to act as 'on-call consultants' a couple of weeks a year. They guarantee a response, within 24 hours, to queries from consultants in any of 58 offices in 28 countries.

Finally, the rapid response people perform extensive follow-up interviews and track 'customer satisfaction'. They even publish an annual report on their activities.

The bottom line is trying to get harried consultants to use the firm's reservoir of knowledge routinely in their client work and to take the time to replenish that reservoir. Beyond the practice centre activities, McKinsey is slowly developing the 'cu1tural value' that measurable contributions to the firm's knowledge base are essential for satisfactory performance evaluation.

Mr Manville has barely started, as he readily admits. But he's asking all the right questions.

Fitting together the pieces of the knowledge development puzzle may be the foremost challenge for corporate America in the coming decade.

Copyright TP Communications