Knowledge Management as a Survival Tool

It's never easy to get approval to spend money on a new business initiative. Spending becomes even trickier to justify when the economy softens and budgets shrink. With the current downturn, though, has come a realization. Chief executives are recognizing knowledge management as a critical tool in protecting their companies from an economic slide. KM can sharpen a company's ability to compete by retaining and making accessible information that might otherwise be lost when employees leave.

Zamba Corp., a consultancy specializing in customer relationship management (CRM), learned that lesson when the economy stumbled in early 2001. In 2000, Zamba was in the midst of an expansion that had swelled its staff to about 300 employees from 35 in 1996. In the wake of this rapid growth, company executives realized that they had not addressed the management of Zamba's client data, which was scattered in databases across six U.S. offices.

This lack of an integrated repository made it increasingly difficult for staff to locate knowledge needed to serve clients effectively. "We could get away with sending company-wide e-mails requesting knowledge about a client when we had 35 people, but not with 300," recalls Adam Hameed, director of knowledge management and best practices for Zamba in Minneapolis.

Run by a Council

In late 2000, Doug Holden was appointed CEO and president of Zamba. Previously he was an executive vice president at KPMG Consulting Inc., where he became familiar with knowledge management as a business strategy. One of his first actions at Zamba was directing the company to install a centralized KM system.

Holden knew that a KM strategy could directly impact sales and employee performance, so he insisted that the KM effort at Zamba be led by management, not by the IT department. "Knowledge management helps us coordinate efforts around the selling cycle or the delivery of client services, so it is a management tool," says Hameed.

Hameed and representatives from each department formed a council to develop and deploy the system. Initially they set out to identify problems in sharing information relevant to their jobs. This did not take much searching. Project managers did not know which employee had documentation about a current client. The Zamba network had no directories for locating a document by client name, date or topic.

The task force concluded that the best platform for these needed business tools was a collaborative, Web-based application that could support a searchable database of e-mail messages, memos and transcripts from instant messaging sessions.

One of the key characteristics the council sought was flexibility. Since Zamba had grown without a formal knowledge management strategy, forcing employees to adjust to a new application could cause problems. Some workers might leave the company out of frustration rather than adapt, creating an even greater outflow of knowledge.

Following a recommendation from CEO Holden, the task force selected the Intraspect 4 platform from Intraspect Inc. of Brisbane, Calif. The platform, which Zamba calls BrainZ, allows employees to place documents in public folders on a central server and contains a searchable database for locating them later.

When expansion plans were put on hold in early 2001 due to the sluggish economy, Zamba refocused its KM effort on retaining knowledge. With normal employee attrition of between 15 and 20 percent and the company unlikely to replace staff in the near term, being able to accomplish the same amount of work with fewer people became important.

"We originally saw knowledge management as part of an aggressive growth strategy," says Hameed. "When the market dropped, we realized KM isn't just a growth strategy--it is a hedge to maintain information."

Employee Innovation

To convince employees to buy into using BrainZ, training classes articulated the company's KM strategy and how the new platform fit into it. The council expected the application to solve 80 percent of the data-sharing problems it had identified. The remaining 20 percent would be addressed once employees had a chance to integrate the application into their work habits. The rollout began in January and concluded in February.

Zamba built training classes around how various departments within the company would use the platform. Staff from Zamba University, an in-house training group, taught basic navigation skills and rules for data sharing and storage, encouraging employees to use the communications features in ways they were comfortable with.

A Canadian Zamba team provided an early use for the knowledge repository. It stored information on what U.S. team members must bring to enter Canada, such as a birth certificate or work visa. The file also contained directions to the client site and where to get the best currency exchange rates. "It may seem like minor information, but it helps ease the transition for new team members coming on board," says John Murphy, a project team leader for Zamba in Minneapolis. "Enough training was provided to learn to use the system and to create preferred ways in which to use it."

The system's flexibility has allowed employees to integrate the new platform into their daily work habits with minimal disruption, according to Andrew Warzecha, vice president of electronic business strategies for Meta Group Inc. in stamford, Conn. "It is critical to select technology that can change its skin to the processes and culture of the employees that use it," Warzecha says.

Ultimately, the best individual employee enhancements will be incorporated into BrainZ as a standard set of tools. Zamba's KM council will select the winning enhancements. "These are people who think about business processes and with whom contemporaries discuss potential solutions to problems," he says. "Working with them shows employees there is an avenue for their ideas to be heard and that management is not ramming this down their throats."

The latter point is critical, since successful KM strategies tend to be management-driven, as Zamba discovered. "KM deals with front-line business processes, which is a senior management issue, not an IT issue," says Warzecha. "If done right, it can support client and employee retention" in tough economic times.

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