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Knowledge management:
persistence pays off in the manufacturing sector

This article appears in the issue May 2017, [Volume 26, Issue 5]
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Enterprise knowledge management initiatives are challenging to initiate and sustain in global manufacturing organizations. Bringing KM principles to the culture of engineers and project management teams spread across the globe can be daunting. Here are two examples of companies that have persevered with enterprise social networking and other innovations as they promote cultural change.

A few years ago, a product development group at Lexmark International, a manufacturer of laser printers and imaging products, was designing a new printer. The team had received feedback from customers about some ideas for a particular feature and had come up with five different potential approaches to it. All had different considerations in terms of cost, reliability and ease of use.

The project leader decided to share the options in the corporate “digital water cooler,” a feature of the Jive enterprise social network that Lexmark deploys. The team posted a description of what they were trying to do. They even digitized sketches of the design options. “Within a day and a half, they got more than 40 responses from four different countries, and they were from not just developers, but also salespeople and service people—people they normally would not have talked to,” says Dennis Pearce, Lexmark’s enterprise knowledge architect. Based on that feedback, the final solution was actually a hybrid of the original ideas. “It wasn’t even one of their original ideas that won, but a combination of a few things,” he adds.

The digital water cooler is a feature of Jive that Lexmark has been using for about five years. Part of its purpose is to get employees comfortable with using enterprise social networking tools in a low-risk environment. “We wanted people to participate in the enterprise social network project overall, not just the water cooler,” Pearce explains. “We were pretty open about saying you can have social groups to talk about riding motorcycles or quilting or gardening.”

Often companies discourage that type of use because they perceive of it as frivolous, Pearce says, “but in our case, we found that the water cooler feature attracted a representative sample of the company. Because we can look at the data behind the people posting, we can segment by geography, business area, etc. It was pretty close to representing the proportions of employees in the company, so if we wanted to promote a survey or ask questions, it could be a valuable tool.”

Narrating work

Pearce’s opinion is that if you want the benefit of that kind of speed and diversity of ideas when you really need them, you have to have the audience already there ready to take advantage of it. “The way you get them there is by having this ongoing water cooler where anything goes. That keeps a constant audience there for when you really need them for business purposes,” he says.

Pearce has been involved in developing and nurturing several areas of KM practice at Lexmark. He even based his Ph.D. thesis on survey instruments he tested at the company to measure elements of a concept called “Working Out Loud,” in which employees narrate their ongoing work so it is visible to others in the organization through enterprise social networks or blogs.

Lexmark has created several technical communities of practice in its product development organization focused on engineering mechanical and electrical parts as well as software. “They each have their own space in our Jive platform to collaborate,” Pearce explains. “There are also quite a few virtual teams because we are a global company with facilities spread around the globe.”

Pearce, who is based in the IT department, says one of his efforts involves providing guidance on which IT tools those virtual teams should use for which tasks. They have access to Jive, Gmail, Google Drive, SharePoint, Google Hangouts and Cisco Jabber, among others. “Our educational efforts on these tools is focused on how to use them, but what we are missing are guidelines on when to use which tools for which purposes,” he says. “If you are a virtual team, you might be preparing for a virtual all-day workshop that is a one-time event or for a monthly department meeting. Those are two different things, and there are some tools that might be better for some things than others, so we are trying to build use case training that says, ‘If you are going to try to do this kind of meeting virtually, these are the best tools.’”

Besides serving as the community manager for the Jive platform, Pearce does internal consulting to virtual teams and communities of practice. Initially there was debate on whether the communities of practice wanted to do their product development on the Jive platform or keep it isolated on some other tool. In the end, they decided to switch to the Jive platform.

Consistency rules

Pearce was concerned about one thing: “In the past, we had multiple projects going on at the same time, and they all had their own little repositories of work they were doing, and each team had access to its work, but usually not to the work other teams were doing.”

The teams knew the material had to be restricted because it involved unannounced products, so they limited access. “Once we got into Jive, we still had to restrict it, because we can’t let everybody in the company see the work,” Pearce says, “but there is no reason that people working on one printer design can’t see what another printer development project is doing. In fact, that could be very useful.”

Now they have created a development environment where people who work in product development can access everything in the R&D spaces. That way, the different communities of practice and projects can see each other’s work. “When you create this type of thing, it becomes a matrix where groups working on a product and communities of practice around a technology overlap,” he says.

For example, a group such as acoustical testing likes to keep its documents together, but the project people also like to have the tests for that product in one place. “The nice thing about tags and widgets that can display all the content from a single tag is that we can do it however we want. We just have to agree to be consistent,” Pearce adds. That was part of the strategy, too—to come up with a tagging system, so that when content was created and tagged, no matter where it was put, as long as there were consistent rules, it would show up in all the right places. The tech communities can see everything about the technology, the product people can see everything about the product and testing people can see all their tests. “There is no technology magic,” he says. “It just takes some coordination.”

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