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CH2M Hill captures, shares knowledge

By Vicki J. Powers

Communities of practice are helping CH2M Hill recapture its small-company culture from the early days when employees could connect with an expert in one or two phone calls.

It all began two years ago when three senior managers at CH2M Hill experienced a "reality check" in which they acknowledged that they didn't know who knew what any more—nor did anyone else. As the organization had doubled in size, it had become difficult to access the firm’s knowledge and resources.

For CH2M Hill—a 57-year-old engineering, design and construction firm headquartered in Denver—acquiring and sharing knowledge is fundamental to its business, especially because it manages more than 10,000 projects at any given time out of 150 offices. The company had developed many systems through the decades to attempt to collect and store its information resources and knowledge.

“Historically, we’ve always practiced some form of knowledge management,” explains Bill Wallace, retired senior VP/director, New Markets/Technologies. “We just never called it that. Our people need to have good access to all of our project experience and expertise. That’s fundamental to our business.”

Despite several attempts to centralize the information, the systems never performed. Employees, faced with client proposal deadlines, continued stashing résumés, project reports and proposals in their desk drawers. It was certainly not the best approach, but it provided a temporary fix.

But the “reality check” of 2001 led CH2M Hill to develop a Knowledge Management Task Force to explore the idea of KM, make recommendations and develop an action plan. Mike Kennedy, president of the CH2M Hill's Transportation Business Group, recruited other senior leaders who could achieve support and buy-in. Their assessment revealed 40,000 virtual office pages in ad hoc KM systems that employees had created to meet their “perceived” needs. Left unchanged, CH2M Hill management realized that its ineffective knowledge systems would reduce productivity, enable competitors to leverage knowledge better and result in missed opportunities to share knowledge.

CH2M Hill decided to seek outside guidance from Houston-based American Productivity & Quality Center, a nonprofit resource that helps organizations identify and implement best practices and performance improvement. APQC conducted a KM assessment and strategy development exercise that began by interviewing “thought leaders” at CH2M Hill. Those leaders showed an openness to the concept of KM, according to Bob Newhouse, APQC project manager, and stressed the importance of using systems and approaches to fit in with existing workflows.

Newhouse says, “The CFO had a great quote: 'We’re not out to build a corporate edifice.’ That’s what makes their KM journey so interesting, because they haven’t built that centralized corporate group. It takes a little risk, and it’s harder to maintain focus, but in the Transportation Business Group it has really taken hold. They are planting seeds that will take hold for others, and it’s very much a part of their culture.”

Designing “like” communities

The KM Assessment revealed several steps to pursue a KM strategy—one of which involved creating communities of practice around business disciplines. CH2M Hill defines a community of practice (CoP) as “a virtual network of like-minded professionals with online technology tools that help them quickly share and capture knowledge.”

The company launched the Public Involvement (PI) CoP in November 2002 with 60+ members representing Water, Transportation and Environmental business units. The PI community sponsors monthly “Hot Topic” calls, which average 35 to 50 virtual participants each month. That encourages interaction across offices and business groups. The community also participates and shares through an e-mail distribution list to “Ask the Community.” Questions generally receive five to 10 responses each within 24 hours of posting.

Lorraine Jameson, a Dallas-based community involvement manager, participates in the PI CoP, which helps her feel connected as the only PI involvement person in her office. “The most value I get from participating is the ability to quickly interact with every other PI professional in the organization by e-mail to solve problems or provide resources,” Jameson says. “To have a whole work group available makes me more valuable for the client.”

Embracing technology

Another aspect of the PI community is storing and sharing knowledge through its dedicated library within the CoP Web site. The group currently has 100+ files in its library, including items such as training resources, marketing materials, sample documents and external links to Web sites.

“The most surprising aspect of the community is how eager they were for information and how hungry they’ve been for a sense of connection to others,” says Marie Keister, VP (Columbus, Ohio). “I serve as a clearinghouse to find the connection and am tasked to know where the knowledge is.”

CH2M Hill’s corporate IT department built the entire system for the PI community in-house by using applications already in place. IT created the taxonomy structure, and the information is stored as data in a SQL Server database. The front end is built with Active Server Pages, and the indexing is handled by the database and Microsoft Index Server functionality. Although it took 200 hours at the front end to develop the entire system, it provides huge benefits and flexibility to the users.

“After doing a needs assessment, we realized we wanted to customize each library based on the needs of each community,” explains Heather Wilkerson, technical communications specialist in CH2M Hill’s Denver headquarters. Wilkerson worked with IT in designing the system and currently supports five communities that are in place or in development.

“Technology has strongly and positively impacted the communities’ success,” Wilkerson states.

Targeting new communities

CH2M Hill started a Security & Preparedness CoP last year based on a new need after 9/11. The Security Web site links hundreds of security professionals across many lines of technology and business divisions.

“Without this site, our people would have to scour the firm to find this critical information,” says Wallace. “By setting it up right, it brings order and structure to a brand new capability.”

In April 2003, CH2M Hill launched another community geared to a different segment. The Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) CoP has 200+ members focused on sharing technical best practices and providing technical support. That group is not as concerned with connecting practitioners—like the Public Involvement group—but in sharing best practices.

CH2M Hill plans to develop future communities that focus on Transportation Modeling and Environmental Analysis & Development.

“The most beneficial outcome of our knowledge management effort is that we’ve been able to dump the ad hoc systems and create systems that make sense,” Wallace says. “We would have saved millions of dollars and lots of frustration if we did this years ago. Employees are understanding the business value of this to the firm.”

Vicki J. Powers is a free-lance writer based in Houston, Texas.

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