In today’s business climate, capturing staff knowledge and managing that data is more critical than ever as IT leaders grapple with downsizing, hiring freezes, and manpower fluctuations. All these changes allow expertise to take flight as staffers leave for more stable ground or get pink-slipped. The trick to stemming such a knowledge drain is instilling a knowledge management (KM) system before the drain drip becomes a gushing data loss.
That’s what Xerox Corp. did when it realized invaluable on-site solutions created by engineers in its 24,000-member customer service unit couldn’t be efficiently shared among the engineers and the support staff.
The document solution company based in Stamford, CT, which reported $19 billion in revenue last year, was investigating ways to improve customer service and discovered that service engineers sometimes faced equipment problems that could not be solved through the usual support channels.
"The answers to these scenarios weren’t found in the training books or documentation or even vendor updates. But our engineers are extremely creative and their job is to solve these problems, so they work through it,” explained Dan Holtshouse, Xerox’s director of corporate strategies. “And while they’re willing to share their newly created solutions, the audience was limited to the half-dozen people in their home office."
That knowledge stopgap prompted Xerox to investigate the most logical way for engineers to share with the entire service community.
Eureka! A KM system that employees use
Following an in-depth study of workday behavior, Xerox designed Eureka, a KM application that leverages Xerox’s Web-based DocuShare tool using an Oracle database. By logging in to Eureka, engineers can now easily document newly created solutions using various templates via their office laptops.
However, just because engineers now had a way to input and store new knowledge, it didn’t mean staffers were jumping up and down to participate, Holtshouse said.
"The big challenge [in KM] was the work practice and the motivation elements. We designed the application around the SE [service engineer] community, incorporating a browser interface since we knew engineers browsed the Web quite a bit. But we still couldn’t figure out how to get engineers to take the time to input the data," he recalled.
The response by Xerox engineers isn’t unique. According to an April 2000 report by the University of Southern California's Center for Organizational Effectiveness and the executive-search firm Korn/Ferry International, 64 percent of knowledge workers say they are vastly underusing organizational knowledge and the electronic tools created to help them share it.
One reason the Xerox staff was reluctant to use the KM system was that participation would be an added duty to an already tightly controlled workday—essentially, staff would need to ‘‘share" in the little downtime available to them. Xerox tried a number of incentives to book employee interest and learned that professional credit was the key. With a quick app revamp, Eureka provided engineers an ability to "author’’ their solutions.
"Once we enabled them to attach their name, it became a professional peer process. They’re proud of their solutions and are recognized for it," Holtshouse explained.
Xerox saw a 10 percent reduction in labor and cost improvement just within the initial Eureka rollout in France. That return on investment jumped tremendously as the company opened the application to its Canadian, European, and South American engineers. Today, Eureka is a global effort supporting six different languages with high staff participation. Xerox has 92,500 employees worldwide, with 50,000 in the United States.
"We’ve accumulated over 50,000 solutions in just a few years, with 70 to 80 percent participation of engineers inputting an average of once a week," Holtshouse said.
With Eureka, an on-site solution is captured and available for use by everyone, thus avoiding another engineer, in a different location, from having to reinvent the same solution. Xerox estimates that Eureka has prevented at least 300,000 redundant solutions.
In addition to making their employees more efficient, the system is clearly saving Xerox money. Take the equipment problem a Brazilian engineer still couldn’t solve, despite using Eureka, equipment manuals, and the available help. It seemed the only option was to replace the customer’s color copy machine—a $40,000 cost. But before the engineer submitted the equipment order, he decided to check Eureka one more time. A Canadian colleague had entered the solution to his problem into Eureka a few hours earlier, so the potential $40,000 copier replacement became a 90-cent part replacement.
While Xerox’s KM effort wasn’t prompted by the economic slowdown that is now hitting many corporate IT shops, Holtshouse said knowledge capture is vital no matter what the business climate.
"When the economy was booming, there was all kinds of competition for skilled workers, and they were jumping the fence and that knowledge was leaving. Now with downsizing, you have the same problem [knowledge loss] but for different reasons. While you may be laying off [workers], it doesn’t mean you don’t need what they know—you just can’t afford them. You still need a way to capture the expertise and retain it," he explains.
Designing a system to match the culture
Xerox has been recognized for its "world-class efforts in managing knowledge" by Teleos, an independent knowledge management research organization, and The KNOW Network, a Web-based community that shares best practices for knowledge management.
Xerox has ranked among the top 10 Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises (MAKE) since the award was created in 1998. In addition, the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) selected Xerox’s corporate engineering center as one of five benchmark organizations for "building and sustaining communities of practice" last December.
"Communities of practice are fast becoming the most effective way to connect people who need knowledge with those who have it. They cultivate new and innovative ideas to guide important business decisions," said Carla O'Dell, APQC president.
Holtshouse believes successful KM is tied to understanding a community’s work culture and that one solution doesn’t fit every community’s needs. Technology takes second place as a tool to enhance a KM process, he added.
Experts say implementing KM first as a small, short-term pilot project—such as Xerox did in France—fosters collaboration across disciplines, exposes organizational weaknesses, and gives management immediate and measurable results before long-term plans are made.
"Each community works differently and has different motivations. We’ve been taking a community at a time and building knowledge sharing solutions for each. Management is a blend of technology and process change through culture change," Holtshouse said.
What’s the key to your company’s culture?
If you were to implement a knowledge management system in your office, what would a system designer have to know about how your employees work? Is your culture collaborative, competitive, or creative? What motivates your people? Tell us what the key to a successful KM implementation would be at your office.