Knowledge Management programs do not come from nowhere. There is usually a set of circumstances which combine to bring KM to the forefront.
Gorelick et al. These circumstances include
- A structural need for knowledge sharing
- A successful proof of concept
- Inspiration from outside, and
- A compelling business case
In 1995 a significant organizational change occurred in BP’s structure. It went from a traditional hierarchy to a federal organization. The federal structure had a small central core with large semi-autonomous business units outside the core. The leadership in the central core provides enterprise-wide vision, and everyone is expected to consider themselves as being under the “same flag”. However, for each unit in the federation, separate performance contracts are negotiated that drive strategy and operating tactics... A crucial path to success is asking for help and reusing knowledge from elsewhere in the federation.
To encourage the cross-business-unit teamwork and open communication essential to the federal structure, the Virtual Teamworking (VT) project was initiated. This project aimed to allow the creation of virtual teams, with geographically separated members, brought together by desktop video-conferencing.
The model for this initiative was to address People, Process and Technology issues simultaneously. Thus the project deliverables were a technological solution plus a coaching process, that facilitated people connecting from disparate locations using PC video conferencing. Kent Greenes was selected to lead this initiative.
An important message that ‘the VT project was more than technology’ was sent when the VT project did not report into the information technology organization, but rather to the BP Group Chief Executive, part of the small central core of the federal structure. VT was expected to create a more enabling technology in the new flattened organization....
The value of the VT project was confirmed at a meeting Kent had with Sir John Browne (BP CEO) to report the results of the VT initiative. Browne was “grinning from ear to ear” as he said that his idea had created the ability to align and engage people in a way that couldn’t happen before. It encouraged transferring of experience that led to commitment, and from commitment came delivered results.
Information to Knowledge
In February 1996, the VT team realized that the virtual teams they were supporting were not working with only data and information. They were seeing interactions about knowledge. It became evident that the “real value”was sharing know how and experience - tacit knowledge....
In the third quarter of 1996 the Technology Advisory Board of BP senior scientists, R&D etc., external professors and industry experts met for one of the two or three colloquia BP delivers annually. This colloquium was focused on the enabling use of IT. A memorable event was Dr. John Henderson's (Boston University) rousing speech to the group on knowledge and leadership. Among the stories Henderson told was this story from the US Army – a compelling story that provided BP with a vision of what KM could make possible.... The IT Colloquium ignited the KM fire at BP by legitimizing Knowledge Management....
The Genesis of the KM Team
After the IT Colloquium, a task force was formed with 5-10 executives, members from each business stream and thought-leaders from business units as well as central functions such as HR, IT and organizational learning. This task force was charged with assessing the state of Knowledge Management in BP and making recommendations...
The task force concluded that the BP environment had many factors conducive for Knowledge Management, such as a team structure, the IT infrastructure with the Common Operating Environment (COE) and results-based behavior orientation. However, there was a lack of ability to capture what had worked, and training and development was recognized as not being the place to embed and generate learning about knowledge processes. The task force concluded that there were good things happening, but that a major knowledge effort was needed.... (and) recommended that a dedicated Knowledge Management team be sanctioned, containing core team members from the existing VT team.
The task force presented its recommendations to the Managing Directors. The presentation was very persuasive. A half billion dollars annual saving was the anticipated “big prize” for BP, if they found a way to better leverage know-how. The KM initiative did not have to be built from the ground up. The new team would build on what had been developed in the VT project. They would focus on raising awareness and piloting to leverage the “good stuff” happening within BP. The goal was to embed Knowledge Management within the businesses.
The steering committee approved all the task force recommendations with one exception. One member raised a concern about the KM effort being a central function. Keeping with the principles of the federal structure he believed that the business streams should own the Knowledge Management function. Kent agreed that ultimately it should not be a corporate unit or be organized to live forever. He vividly remembers saying; “I won’t let it become a corporate thing. We will revisit the existence of a KM Team year by year”.
Within a week a decision was made to establish a central KM team with Kent leading it, reporting to a corporate Managing Director. Kent believed that this was a way to ‘join VT and KM at the hip’, to keep going with what had started to change the business and provide a lever for further improving performance.