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Building a customer-focused learning organization

This article appears in the issue July/Aug 2000 (100 Companies) [Volume 9, Issue 6]

"Think big, start small and build incrementally" is the mantra adopted by the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in its approach to managing knowledge.

With 4,500 people in offices throughout Ontario and headquarters in Toronto, the WSIB's job is to share information about workplace health and safety, to help employees return to work quickly and safely, to ensure appropriate healthcare for injured workers and to compensate workers with work-related injuries or illnesses.

According to Ash Sooknanan, WSIB knowledge manager, the board is becoming a more customer-focused learning organization.

"We are building a culture of mutual respect, of openness to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and of listening to our customers and our colleagues," he explains. "As we move forward, a picture emerges of a revitalized organization that is a highly valued member of Ontario's social and economic community--with an important part to play as a knowledge manager and trustee of workplace safety information."

The data resources of the WSIB and the knowledge requirements of its staff, customers, clients and healthcare providers are enormous, according to Sooknanan.

"Coupled with our emphasis on harnessing and using our knowledge," he says, "is the need to recognize the challenge we face in dealing with a wide range of information and content in multiple and varied media."

To meet its KM objectives, the WSIB started the project with a small team working to capture and share information. That eventually led to the birth of the board's Intellectual Capital KnowledgeBase (ICK), which is comprised of about 175 Lotus Notes databases. It includes WSIB's team communication, collaboration and workgroup repository tool, TeamWorX, which has seen 400% growth over two years, according to Sooknanan.

The ICK is a three-tier client-server application, developed in a Lotus/Domino platform, which uses Windows NT workstations connected to OS/2 and mainframe servers. A GUI front end accesses data from the databases and provides e-mail capability. As the WSIB moves forward, Sooknanan expects that other new tools will be added to meet the board's KM needs.

The WSIB Web site is described by the knowledge manager as the board's "other key KM initiative." With the goal of providing 24/7 information support to customers, clients and staff, the board has seen site usage grow to more than 35,000 visitors per week.

"We're now in the second phase of development, and we expect site usage to continue to grow," Sooknanan says.

In implementing knowledge management practices, Sooknanan offers the following advice:

• Start with a small work group, either a project team or a functional area, and develop a range of separate knowledgebases, rather than one large one;

• The team must understand the value of the system and support it. Without team commitment, you're finished before you even start.

• Keep it simple. Knowledge management systems are difficult to implement, so don't compound the problem by making them any more complicated than they have to be.

• Fight the natural tendency of knowledge creators to defer documenting their thoughts until they're fully formed. People should document their thoughts as works in progress so that they can benefit from the comments of others, and refine their contributions over time.

• Don't underestimate the cultural impact--the cultural aspects are just as important as the technology that enables KM.

• KM systems must be dynamic and evolving. Static knowledgebases fall into disuse.


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