Thursday 5 November 2009

Knowledge Retention and communities of practice - a story from the 90s

Using the Grease Gun
Originally uploaded by
US Navy
Here's another story from the archives, which we recorded in BP in the late 90s. This story shows that the issues of Knowledge Retention, and using this to build the Community Knowledge Base, are well over a decade old.

The Grease network aims to provide access to data, knowledge and experience for BP Lubricants marketing professionals around the world on the topic of Grease. For a long time, the centre of knowledge for grease in BP has been Mike, in Aukland, who with his many years experience has been a real asset to the network. Mike has been involved in developing new greases and improving the properties of current ones, advising on methods and efficiencies of grease production, in ensuring the application of greases is as good as it can be, and collecting information from customers to improve the product line.

Unfortunately Mike was due to retire at the end of 1998, and the Grease network needed to act fast to ensure a vital source of knowledge was not lost to the company.

Chris, the facilitator of the network, flew out to Auckland to spend four days with Mike, to try and capture some of his knowledge. She started with a list of issues, collected from the members of the Grease network.

"I sent a note to the network explaining what I was doing, and said 'what three questions have you always wanted to know the answer to?' I got piles of stuff back; loads of input. I used that as a starter; I pointed Mike at the issues and let him go. It was like flicking a switch - he just took off! As we went through the questions they generated loads of comments and answers, and also a pile of actions for the future ('the next guy should work on this, and focus on that', and so on)."

Chris took a tape recorder with her, and recorded all her conversations with Mike.

"I had a copy typist type it all up, but it is not studio quality and it needed a lot of editing. Sometimes the copy typist didn't know the words and typed what they sounded like, and you can see Mike's Auckland accent in the way she tried to spell it!

Chris and Mike also went through Mike's reference material; his slide sets and his bookshelf.

"Mike took me through his set of training slides, and we also raided his cupboards and shelves for books and literature in the public domain. So for a book, we could photograph the front cover (to go on the web site), copy the contents page, and ask Mike to write a 2-3 line abstract covering whether you ought to read it or not!"

Chris came back with loads of material, much of which she subsequently put into the Grease section on the lubricants Web site. The training slides that she went through with Mike were made into PowerPoint training packs, with Mike's tape-recorded comments as training notes.

"There can be two courses" explains Chris, "A basic course on 'What do we know about the product' and a more advanced course as well"

The questions and answers were made into a 'Frequently Asked Questions' on the web site, and the book reviews went on the web as well.

"We spent the last day talking about where we should take the business in future. We took this taped conversation, and turned it into a strategy document for the business network. This resulted in the business agreeing that they will fund grease globally next year, and we should put grease back into the Global Product Development Programme."

"The downside of all this is that we ended up with so much material, and there is so much we can do with it, but I have a day job to do!" says Chris. " It takes a long time to do all this - editing the transcript, putting the web site together - and if they had said 'You can take a month to pull it all together' I would have done a great job. Fitting it into the odd hour here and there does not get it done, and you don't get very far. Our Knowledge Manager has been invaluable, giving suggestions of how to handle the information we've got and the practical matter of getting the material into the Lubricants web site"

"Capturing knowledge from an expert is hard work. One thing I've learnt from this exercise is that it's taken considerable time and effort to turn my conversations with Mike into material like the grease web page and training packages for our sales staff. Knowledge capture is absolutely essential to the Lubricants business, but we've got to appreciate the commitment which is needed to make it happen."

People always smile when I tell this story, as Grease seems a funny topic for Knowledge, but industrial lubricants are complex things, and grease is vital to keep moving the wheels of industry and the machines of the armed forces. Although the story was written over 10 years ago, and the people have left, and the Grease network has evolved into new communities of practice, BP still applies the principles of Knowledge Management to its knowledge of its products and processes, in service of even better performance.

I remember Chris and Mike well, as we trained Chris in retention interviewing before she left for Aukland. This was one of the cases where we developed our skills and training in knowledge retention and knowledge harvesting, which we have been honing ever since.

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