Learning about new ways of working
during a journey through a best practice knowledge base
- Christian van 't Hof -
In: Stanford-Smith, B., Chiozza, E. and Edin, M. Challenges and Achievements in E-business and E-work. IOS Press, Amsterdam 2002
Remember the traditional policy adviser. After carefully digging through endless piles of documents and interviewing all the stakeholders, he presents the solutions to your problems in a thick document, accompanied with a Power Point presentation. After hearing that your company really needs to change, you and your colleagues sit back and stare at each other: “Well… interesting”. But the “problem” the adviser set of with half a year ago might have changed, as well as the willingness to listen to total solutions. Especially in ICT policy, both organisational turbulence as well as good ideas change virulently, but not everybody has got a consultant waiting next to their office, handing them the right ideas at the right moment. What you need is cut and sliced ideas, coming at your desk the moment you need them.
At the same time, sources for relevant policy information grow exponential. One way to cope with the changing supply and demand of good solutions is to participate in a best practice knowledge base, in which both input (research data, examples, knowledge) and output (solutions, answers, lessons learned, advise) are flexible and instantly retrievable. Surely, this will not be an electronic oracle, replacing the traditional adviser. But these knowledge bases will support the hard labour of knowledge intensive management, structuring and funnelling their experiences in more flexible data flows. This article is based on a EU funded project called Best e European Practices, or BeEP, a knowledge base with best practices in ICT policy.
2. Learning from past experiences
When ICT policy is no more just about technology, but about people, the futuristic rush for the latest gadgets can make place for lessons learned from past experiences. Surely ICT driven innovations are changing the workplace everyday. But the body of research material on how people cope with new applications is becoming vast, showing recurrent patterns of behaviour. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that working in the Information Society is not just about technical skills. The emphasis in shifting to ‘soft’ skills like communication, team work and project management. To capitalise on the huge investments Europe made, meaningful examples can be circulated to learn from the past.
Just giving cases will not do the trick. For comparison and contrast, the described practices need to transcend their specific contexts. By identifying key factors within all these stories, cases become more comparable and easy to search effectively. Not just for user friendliness, but also to reflect the relativity of best practices: a success story for one context might be a disaster for another. Users should be able to lead the search through different perspectives, taking contextual factors into account. Not just variables on the surroundings, like location, company size or economic sector. The most important aspect of designing a knowledge base is the conceptual structure, or in other words the thematic textboxes that cut and slice the stories into appealing achievements.
These achievements can be your objectives, like: improving employee’s skills, supporting collaborative work, improving management of organisational knowledge or increased flexibility of work patterns. The value of such a learning tool then lies within the way the data about these practices can be organised in three-dimensional narrative strings, creating individualised learning paths for different stakeholders.
Best practice knowledge bases come in different shapes but they all boil down to a methodology in which concrete examples of meaningful practices (cases) are stored and structured in a way that they can be sorted and selected for specific needs for examples. This methodology has proven useful before, like in the projects PRISMA or ECATT. Big multinational, like BP, Shell, Siemens, Ernst & Young also built their best practice databases. Within our eEurope project Beep, a knowledge base is created that incorporates 300 case studies on ICT policy, with, among others, best practices in new ways of working.
3. Interrogating the knowledge base
Imagine I am a manager in a medium-sized, multi-locational knowledge intensive organisation. Some of the workers take their work home once in a while and some are constantly on the move and do most of their tasks with their mobile phones and laptops from a hotel room or from clients’ offices. They appear to regroup spontaneously when projects commence and each go their way when work is done. I got the feeling that our management is loosing grip on what is going on, that work is being done double and that valuable knowledge is lost. But I also don’t want to restrict people. Rather, I want to stimulate flexibility and self-organisation. As these things go in our company: I rang the bell on this problem, so I should come up with solutions. Time and money budget are always limited and an expensive consultancy trajectory is out of the question. To make things worse, my team requests a presentation this week! Sounds familiar?
This is the kind of situation where good examples from other, comparable organisations come in handy. The knowledge base asks me to assemble a matching profile, so I click on: “knowledge intensive company, Northern Europe”. A whole conceptual matrix unfolds, showing all sorts of buttons with promising titles. I choose “Knowledge Management”, “more flexible work patterns” and “supporting collaborative work”. Then cases start to pop up.
4. Case 1: Knowledge Management at Ernst & Young
First one in row is Ernst & Young. They have performed very well in Knowledge Management, according to the people who entered the case into the knowledge base. E&Y spent 6% of their annual revenues on Knowledge Management, creating huge databases and establishing all sorts of communities for knowledge exchange. According to an article from Thomas Davenport, their Knowledge Management gave every employee access to valuable knowledge, which contributed to a higher increase of their annual turnover of 44%. The company also received several awards for their Knowledge Management leadership. I read further.
This case is actually itself about a best practice knowledge base. The goal of the practice is summarized as: “Capturing and leveraging knowledge from consulting engagements, having every consultant contribute to the firm’s stock of knowledge, and becoming known by clients as a valued source of knowledge and thought leadership.” (Davenport, 1997) The implementation of Knowledge Management went alongside a major restructuring of the company. The whole technical infrastructure was renewed and new organisation units came to live. E&Y created a Centre for Business Innovation to create new knowledge. A Centre for Business Technology would structure knowledge (methods, tools). A Centre for Business Knowledge was set up to gather and store knowledge. I decide to focus on the story about the last one, the CBK.
4.1 The centre of Business Knowledge as a Good Practice
The Centre for Business Knowledge (CBK) organized 22 knowledge networks within the consulting practice for each key domain of knowledge. Some were based on industries, e.g., energy; some involved particular consulting approaches, like business process reengineering, and some involved key areas of technology in which the firm consulted, like the SAP package. Another methodology consisted of "knowledge focus groups”, which focussed on narrower topics such as activity-based costing or shared corporate services. Each network met occasionally face-to-face, and had an online discussion and document database in Lotus Notes. Key to the success of the networks was a group of facilitators. Each network was assigned half a person to capture the knowledge from particular engagements, to prompt consultants to add their own learning, and to edit and prune the discussion and document databases. The consultants who performed these roles had expertise in the domains of the networks they facilitated; they rotated into the knowledge facilitator positions and then back into line consulting positions.
To facilitate the search for the right experts, the CBK created a database with the skills possessed by E&Y consultants. The firm had long employed such a database for assigning consultants to projects, but it had always been difficult to keep all the skill categories updated and relevant. The CBK and the Knowledge Process Committee worked out a model for evaluating and describing competencies, in which consultants were described by their supervisors. Combinations of competencies would also be assessed at team level, so that each client team has the requisite skills to succeed.
The CBK also developed a new knowledge architecture and taxonomy. The purpose of this architecture was to focus knowledge acquisition and retrieval efforts, specifying categories and terms in which E&Y needed to gather and store knowledge. Consultants and knowledge facilitators in searching databases and document files would also use the architecture. Key areas of E&Y knowledge would be represented in "Power Packs," a structured and filtered set of online materials including qualifications, sales presentations, proposal templates, and answers to frequently-encountered issues. Some knowledge domains would remain relatively unmanaged, and any E&Y personnel could contribute anything they wished to them.
Setting up this major Knowledge Management system, the CBK-Centre for Business Knowledge grew from 100 employees in 1996 to 650 in 2001. Next to that, the people that were involved in the technical backbone of this system have done a great effort. All computers were replaced for PC only. Applications were replaced, bringing down 200 and 300 local to 12 to 15 general ones, including Notes, the Web, the skill database, and a few others. In the end, all employees had universal access to the KnowledgeWeb, its knowledge-powered Intranet, including best practices, industry news, information on previous client work and articles from over 5,500 publications.
4.2 Lessons learned on Knowledge Management
This is way over the top for my kind of company. What kind of company is this? The E&Y profile shows that in 2001, the firm has 84,000 employees in 130 countries, with a global annual revenue of about €.10 billion. Not my kind of company. But I hesitate, the whole reorganisation into knowledge networks and the Knowledge Web sounds appealing. I click on a button called “lessons learned”.
It appears that the whole effort didn’t go as smooth as it seems. Next to organisational and technological change, there is also the matter of a company’s culture: the way people are used to do things. This is typically for our consultants, it’s hard to share knowledge with them: stubborn in their own ways of working, too hasty to write down their experiences and probably too afraid that the guy next door is their biggest competitor. Also, some kinds of knowledge exchange just can’t be supported with technology, like building relationships between juniors and seniors. These are tacit in nature and difficult to extract from the minds of practitioners. The E&Y consulting culture was traditionally based on pragmatism and experience rather than a conceptual orientation; while the culture was changing, there were many consultants who had entered the firm and prospered under the old model and found it difficult to aggressively pursue structured knowledge in systems and documents.
Another problem with these kinds of knowledge exchange structures is that it is hard to assess progress. The financial figures stated in the beginning are impressive: 6% investment, “contributing” to 44% increase in turnover. But how much did it really add to that? No one knows. Still, the knowledge base claims that this Centre of Business Knowledge integrated Knowledge Management into the daily responsibilities of Ernst & Young professionals. Its worldwide locations would ensure that the firm delivers significant client value through capturing, reshaping and transferring intellectual capital. I decide to put it to the test and call an Ernst & young consultant randomly, asking him if he currently used the database or is involved in a community of practice. No he isn’t. That’s were I stop learning from E&Y.
Clicking further on the topic of Knowledge Management I find other companies. Like BP, that has done a great deal on communities of practice and even provided the whole staff with personal web pages. Another interesting company is Phillips, who created their own Yellow Pages, an on line device that helps you finding the right expert within the company. But, enough of the big multinationals with their all-pervasive Knowledge Management structures. I am convinced that our Intranet can be expanded for use of knowledge sharing within our company. Creating some expert chat groups will probably also help. Surely a “Who is Who directory” will be a future possibility. But within our slightly smaller and more flexible company, the informal talks that go on near the coffee machine or during projects, will still be the most important knowledge sharing. For now. I continue the journey through the knowledge base, adding “company size” to the search criteria. Within the thematic framework, I tick on the boxes on flexible work.
5. Case 2: Solvision, making change structural
The first recommended case in flexibility is Solvision, a middle-sized Dutch company in IT-project management that made the flexible office their core philosophy. People move about all the time and change roles in different project teams. This is more a company like ours, so I read further.
5.1 Organizing flexibility
It started with a group of people that envisioned a networked organisation in which most responsibility is given to the individual workers. They called it Solvision: solutions through vision. The founders knew that it is impossible to make a blueprint for a flexible, non-hierarchical organisation. Instead, they just waited how the business structure would evolve, guiding the process with five general principles: continuous change, knowledge infrastructure, virtual offices, virtual communities and participation. Eventually this should meet three objectives: high employer’s satisfaction, highly adaptable production and business growth.
This market orientation on adaptable production urges their initiatives to be temporary, so they created the concept of “business projects”. Work is not carried out by departments, but by temporary autonomous teams of three to fifteen people. They group together or separate whenever the market requires. Functions aren’t fixed either: there is no hierarchy, just changing roles in different projects. By doing this, an organic, evolutionary process is created that meets the requirements of an ever-changing market. These business projects are autonomous in meeting their goals and developing products and services; they also have their own administration and accounts. Stimulating entrepreneurship, the team also decides how to share the profits, the salaries and who to hire. All this information is open to all, through the Intranet, without authorisation. Still, the structure is quite self-regulating: only one information manager is needed to organise this.
5.2 Changing places
At this organisation only 18 out of 500 of the employees are on a fixed spot. These stationary workers include the Office Management and the support centre. Everyone else, including management, uses flexible places. In the office buildings, empty desks are provided, supplied with a network cable to plug in the laptop, only a few computers are stationary. Phone traffic is arranged through mobiles. If physical mail (letters, packages) is received, the employee gets an e-mail warning. Fax is all arranged electronically. Project meetings are never regular, always incidental. Meeting places in the office can be booked through a booking system on the Intranet. A more flexible social space is created with The Grand Café. This is the lower floor of the office building, which actually looks like a bar, with a real beer tap, smoking people and all. This place is used for meetings with costumers, talks with new colleagues, project start off meetings, brainstorm, etc. Some meetings are more regular. Every now and then there is a seminar, on which every employee is invited to talk about an aspect of how the company works.
Along with the flexible physical office, a virtual office was created with a growing number of facilities: a dashboard from which everyone can keep track of performances (financial, innovative, external, internal), a relation management system, a textbox for reading and writing news items, financial reports for business projects, contact information, access to companies or initiatives, knowledge on products and markets, discussions, “spill your guts on the digital fence” (ticker tape application), a birthday list and company achievements. Technical support is arranged by The Lodge, a company within their network, whose performances are formalised in a Service Level Agreement. Every business project pays a fixed amount for every member, every month.
5.3 Lessons learned on flexible working
Other than Ernst & Youngs case, the Solvision way of working did not involve in a major restructuring of an existing company, it evolved naturally. There were also no high investments in management and IT. In fact, every employee “buys” or “rents” the stuff needed internally, using the project budget. There is also no heavy information management; the flow of information is mostly self-regulating. On 500 employees, there are only one information manager and 18 members of support staff. In order to enable staff to do this, every new employee gets a two-day orientation course on the flexible office concept and the company’s philosophy. This is essential for working within the virtual office. Also, the key to their success is getting the right people through advertising this philosophy in the network, resulting in a fast growing network of small companies. In fact, Solvision is now evolved into The Vision Web, a network of companies.
It is hard to say if profits would be higher or lower without this way of working. Other IT companies have grown rapidly too. But, according to the people who put the case in the knowledge base the flexible office did result in a higher work satisfaction. Another indication is that their sickness rate is substantially lower than other comparable companies.
Then I read that the case ends in 2001. I wonder how it went on and if they survived the burst of the Internet Bubble. The knowledge base also gives contact information and I call Solvision the same day. Getting one of the project managers on the phone, he invites me over to the Grand Café on the lower floor of their flexible office. There he explains me all about their way of working. Perhaps our company is interested in a project with Solvision?
The difference between our company and Solvision is that they started from scratch. We are faced with a full functioning company that needs some guidance in their flexibility. Their idea on business projects, in which flexible working also includes governing your own team budgets, is something our company can adopt. This case also convinces me that knowledge management structures should evolve from the people doing the work and should not be forced from above like with E&Y.
Still, I need to know more about implementing teleworking in an existing organisation. What kinds of problems might I expect with teleworkers? Perhaps some figures are needed to show if teleworking will increase or limit our productivity. Before starting with my presentation I do a thematic search on telework. That’s when the knowledge base starts spitting out a large number of cases: on local governments, EU projects, multinationals, etc. It appears that teleworking is a thoroughly investigated issue. I need to bring the search down to the private sector in Northern Europe. I randomly click on one of the cases and start reading.
6. Case 3: Interpolis, telework for raising quality and productivity
This case illustrates how Interpolis, a large insurance company applied, various forms of flexibility to work processes on a large scale to change the behaviour of its employees in order to motivate them. They state that it is partly due to this that their turnover has increased significantly over the last five years. Interpolis used to be a very bureaucratic company, but now it is known for having very advanced office concepts, involving, amongst other things, teleworking. Here again, we see the flexible office: no fixed office space but multi-user, multi-functional desks.
The goals in this case were: create a flatter organisational structure with a new employee evaluation system, increase profits, enhance the satisfaction of employees and clients and give all employees the opportunity to telework from their homes. They stated a target of 25% of the employees (600-700 people) teleworking by 2002. I skip the part on how this all was achieved, with all the plans made, people involved and all. I just want to know the results and the kind of problems I might expect with telework, so I select the textboxes on “resources” and “lessons learned”.
6.1 Lessons learned on telework
It appears to be difficult to measure the actual increases in productivity due to teleworking, but this company claims there has been an increase due to higher work satisfaction. Their calculation goes something like this: 400 employees working 2 day/week at home will cost €.860,000 extra. This is 0.3% of total company costs. If employees become 5% more productive, the company will save €1.1 million. This was their estimation, but see how it turned out.
One of the mistakes teleworking organisations can make is to think that it saves major costs on office space. But nobody works at home all the time, so they need two desks: at home and at the office. Both desks need to meet official ergonomic standards, which is costly. Even in the case of Interpolis, who could create fewer desks than they had employees, didn’t save money on space. According to this company, cutting costs on using less office space due to flexible desks, while spending on workplaces at home, has a break even point estimated at 3.5 days of teleworking at home. But on average, people work no more than two days at home, which makes it more expensive. When 350 employees were teleworking, at an average of 2 day at home, the total cost came to € 636,400 annually. Further, unanticipated costs drove some budgets of the scheme into debt. For example, logistic costs are underestimated. Some files are digitised, but not all. Most employees need huge customer files, which are sometimes more than a meter wide. Therefore some of the files had to be brought home by courier.
Expenditures are clear, but the total benefits of the scheme are harder to calculate. One positive side effect was that, as a result of teleworking, sickness rates went down and employees with disabilities don’t have to travel and can more easily schedule rest periods. Further, the results on work satisfaction were also quite positive. According to a company survey, 95% of the employees state that the outcome of the project meets their positive expectations: they can concentrate better on their work, are more relaxed, have less travelling time, and are better able to plan their work. Positive cultural change was achieved, with the consequences that employees are very motivated and that a higher quality of service is being provided. The present flexible way of working suits employees’ needs more and at the same time is not in conflict with those of the company. All this results in employees having a more open attitude and increased teamwork. Awareness of the company name has also increased and a more positive image created. Sound impressive, but did it all capitalize into 5% higher productivity? Who knows.
This case also supplies some interesting practical lessons learned. The technology must work well so that people (almost) don’t notice it. If this happens, it strongly motivates people, whereas technology that does not or only works half, seriously demotivates. Another reason why the technology has to work perfectly is to prevent customers from noticing the difference. Major problems occurred with putting clients through to teleworkers. If the line was occupied, or the employee wasn’t there, the line went dead. Putting through from a telework place to other employees also resulted in technical difficulties. A new system had to be developed to cope with this problem. Another difficulty was getting all the workplaces at home to meet legal requirements in the same way as at the office (e.g. ergonomic chairs). Finally, an important lesson from this scheme was that two days at the office is regarded as a minimum for having enough time for settling appointments, meetings and maintaining social bonds.
6.2 A one-hour course in e-work
I cut and paste some of these figures and lessons and move on to the next cases. Further down the list there is Siemens, who draws a formal and signed agreement for teleworkers. This is a document worth requesting, we can use this contract ourselves. Then there is Hewlett Packard, with interesting examples of collocated experts working closely together. After an hour of travelling through all these stories I have actually learned something. Surely it didn’t give me the golden formula and none of these examples fully fits my requirements, but put together I can get a clear image of what is possible. For my presentation I select several practices as best: the knowledge networks from E&Y, the business projects and flexible office from Solvision, from Interpolis their cost rates and the teleworkers contract from Siemens.
Reading through all these possibilities, it also makes me more aware of the kind of organisation we are in at the moment. We should force too much alien structure on our company, but looking at facilities in place with others, there is a lot to gain. Tomorrow I will prepare a presentation for the management team, using the experiences from these companies. Not as scientific proof that this concept of flexible offices is the best, but as a rhetorical instrument: this can be done.
7. Conclusions: the strengths and weaknesses of a knowledge base
Looking at this learning exercise, some points of ponder can be made. One major weakness of this tool is that the knowledge it presents consists of derivatives from derivatives. First of all there is the relative value of proof that can be extracted from these case studies. The evidence that a certain practice contributed to the performance of a company is always hard to measure. Some, but not all cases will have independent evaluators. Others will have served a strategic goal or are just a means of window dressing for the company. Second, these bits of information on the cases travel through different contexts before arriving at your desk. The evidence is established within a specific context: place, time, method of investigation, perspective of the evaluators, etc. One can say that a knowledge base with 300 cases is dealing with 300 different contexts from which their facts are derived. After that, the team that maintains the knowledge base cuts up and shuffles the facts of the case and benchmarks its performance – another context through which the facts travel.
Another weakness of a best practice knowledge base is the relative notion of when a practice is “best”. If a company increased its number of teleworkers immensely, but all the workers are depressed because they don’t see their colleagues anymore and are governed by a strict command structure, is it then still a best practice? By the way, is teleworking always good as a goal? These questions force the developers of a knowledge base to include a broad variety of perspectives, so the user can decide what is good or bad. A certain case can then perform very well on one factor, say more flexible work access and underachieve on another, say participatory decision-making. Especially in the dynamic changes in ways of working, the people involved have very different, sometime contradictory, ideas on what is best or not.
To cope with this demand for multiple perspectives and meaningful contexts for case material, a robust conceptual structure is needed to organise the data in a recognisable ontology. Within the Beep knowledge base, cases can be sorted out on a large number of different so called Key Factors, i.e. descriptions within important themes. Examples of Key Factors relevant for new ways of working are for example: “more flexible work patterns”, “employers support to continuous learning” or “supporting business processes”. Achievements within these Key Factors are measured by several indicators, i.e. measerable changes, like “increase in percentage of employees that telework”.
These Key Factors can be seen as changes that are relevant changes that occur in the Information Society. They are derived from both EU and relevant research literature. For now, this might sound a bit abstract, but it comes down to a matrix in which bits and pieces of the valuable cases are organised in little text boxes. With a large number of indicators on which these practices can score, the adaptability to user requests are endless.
Finally, but still important, a best practice knowledge base needs a great deal of work in order to become valuable. Just creating the structure and hoping cases come freely and people use it spontaneously won’t do the trick. The Beep project started out with a large team from different European nations, working for 2,5 years to make this tool work. This article was written in April 2002. The knowledge base was then still in development, preparing a public launch in late autumn. At the E2002 Conference, more data will be available on the outcomes of this exercise.
E&Y case Thomas H. Davenport “Knowledge Management at Ernst & Young” (1997) from: http://www.bus.utexas.edu/kman/E&Y.htm and Linkage Inc. Newsletter, 2001
Solvision Case Solvision produced a document that was sent in order to obtain the Telework Award 2001. This document is used as a primary source. Another key document is “The Vision Web”, about their business formula. The organisation was also visited by Christian van ‘t Hof on the 26th of February 2002, were he talked to Andre Boudestijn and Marielle Roozemond. www.solvision.com
Interpolis case Couzy, Michiel “Telewerkproef Interpolis valt in de prijzen.” In: Computable, 7th of November 1997, nr 45, page 11