Breaking Down Barriers to KM

Isaac Kirzner had a problem in getting attention. As group senior vice president for information management and strategic technologies at ABN Amro North America, he is responsible for collecting large amounts of corporate information and preparing and distributing it cost-effectively. On top of that, he must persuade people to actually read the information.

Amsterdam-based ABN Amro Bank N.V. is Europe's fifth largest bank and the 16th largest in the world, with more than 22,000 employees worldwide. Kirzner's department at the New York regional office was responsible for codifying the operating procedures of all the bank's departments in New York, as U.S. banking regulations require. All procedures are subject to inspection by both internal and external auditors.

Those procedures were published as a series of reports in ring binders that were expensive to produce and distribute. Updating them was tedious--each replacement page had to be inserted by hand. Yet despite all the effort and expense, almost nobody read the reports because it was difficult to find the information they needed within them. "People would rather ask the person at the next desk or search through their files," says Jim Keller, vice president for knowledge management in New York and part of the KM team reporting to Kirzner. "Reading them is the last thing anybody's going to do, until the auditors come in and it suddenly becomes a high priority."

Kirzner saw the potential savings in distribution costs and staff time by moving to an electronic solution, and he insisted that the system have superior search capabilities so employees would really use it. Kirzner chose a data management product called Folio. "We liked that it indexed every word in every document and highlighted every occurrence of the word you were trying to find, so you didn't have to scan the entire document," he says.

When Kirzner moved to Chicago along with ABN Amro's treasury division, he proposed extending the use of Folio to data management for the bank's offices and operating divisions throughout North America. Harry Tempest, CEO of ABN Amro North America, became interested in the potential of electronic publishing and agreed to be the executive sponsor of such an initiative.

"We immediately began converting all our widely used documents into Folio--everything from bulletins and newsletters to huge bank directories that previously existed only on the mainframe," Keller recalls. "Since every word was indexed, you could search by name, phone number, name of city or anything."

Promoting use

Even with high-level support behind it, the online system had to break through barriers of habit and company culture. Kirzner and Keller began to think about how to make it second nature for employees to look for information there rather than ask the guy at the next desk. They concluded that the information people need is often less compelling than the information they want. Sometimes, even for a banker, the killer app is not thousands of searchable pages of banking regulations but a lunch menu. "Begin with the familiar and build on that," advises Jack B. Rochester, an analyst with the Delphi Group in Boston. "If you start off saying, We want you to use the system to analyze protocols, you scare people away."

Kirzner's team found that initially the big hit was an online telephone directory they created. Then they included, in his words, "anything that people could use that would relate to their jobs," from the cafeteria menu in the Chicago office to information about the city of Amsterdam, where ABN Amro's world headquarters are. Daily access to useful information got employees accustomed to using Folio, which led them to accept the online manuals as a resource.

In addition, the team began to do in-house marketing, including using e-mail to send out announcements about new features and running "ads" on payroll stubs. The KM department now writes a regular column for ABN Amro's employee magazine. Most importantly, although they did no formal user testing before the launch, they survey employees by telephone to ask what features they are using and what new features they would like to see.

Keller emphasizes that the promotion of services has been as crucial as the services themselves to the successful deployment. "People do not realize how critical internal marketing is," he says. "People spend millions of dollars creating sites and tell everybody to bookmark them, but then current employees forget about them and new employees come in and aren't told they exist. Our difference is we're constantly in their faces--we ask HR to notify all new employees of our site, we constantly survey for site improvements, we immediately respond to all customer queries, we work with training and development to offer customized training, and if they can't attend these sessions, we go to them on site and work with them individually."

New horizons

Today ABN Amro has a Web-based knowledge library and knowledge sharing system where employees can access commonly used lists, directories and forms; consult bank policy manuals and regulatory materials; and post PR, HR and other employee-related materials. Additionally, they have access to industry and market analysis as well as product and service information for developing customer proposals and learning about new sales and marketing opportunities.

Combining marketing with data mining, the KM team has produced a cross-selling component that tries to solve a basic problem of information dissemination in large corporations: people often have no idea who all of their company's clients are--or even exactly what their own colleagues do. They interviewed across departments and produced a comprehensive electronic fact sheet including all of ABN Amro's offerings and the names of decision-makers at prospective clients.

"We're so big, many of us don't know what the other person does," says Keller. "People would spend time wining and dining potential clients without knowing that they could get an introduction from another department that the prospect was already working with." According to Keller, now that the fact sheet is available more people are talking to one another and generating leads.

ABN Amro has no formal, corporate-wide policy on what information goes on the KM system. Although departments such as human resources and training and development were quick to see the advantages of a centralized knowledge base, others went their own ways. The internal communications department, for example, promoted its Web portal, to which the KM team has now created links to provide supplementary information for its site.

Some of the competition began because the Folio product lacked Web features. In 1999 NextPage Inc. of Lehi, Utah, bought Folio and incorporated its features in a Web-based product called LivePublish. "We should have gone to the intranet two years ago, but not everyone in the bank was connected and the connection speeds were too slow," Keller reflects. "By the end of first quarter 2000, we felt that the intranet could effectively handle our needs, and we converted to LivePublish. From more than 18,000 employees, we average only 2,000 hits per day, but we hope to double this number by 2002."

ABN Amro is now evaluating NextPage's new product, NXT3, which operates on a peer-to-peer model. Looking ahead, Keller says, "If knowledge is truly power, then peer-to-peer could help our bank become a formidable competitor in the new millennium."

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