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KM advice: Start small

By Vicki Powers

"Starting small" with a knowledge management initiative was a theme that echoed throughout sessions at the KMWorld & Intranets 2003 conferences in October in Santa Clara. A variety of experts and people in the trenches described that critical element to success.

A U.K.-based organization, United Utilities, learned the hard way about the importance of starting small, after a "big-bang" approach failed. Sarah Dean, an IS strategist at United Utilities, explained that the organization's first try with knowledge management was aimed at addressing high-level challenges across a broad section of the organization with a technical solution.

"Our first initiative ignored the people element and paid limited attention to business readiness activities," said Dean. "We also lacked project sponsorship and effective communication--all the familiar potholes."

Dean said the start-small approach worked for her organization because initial KM attempts had left senior management disenchanted. The efforts proved expensive in time and money and failed to deliver any benefits.

"It would have been impossible to get approval for another large-scale initiative," Dean explained. "I needed to demonstrate that we had learned our lessons and found an approach to doing KM. We proved that the approach could work without spending large sums, and this helped our credibility."

That people-led approach allowed United Utilities to get KM back on the corporate agenda. Some of its early wins through small KM projects focused on smoother incident management, faster bid production, and reduced risk and cost for IS projects.

Microsoft provided another example at the conference of a grass-roots effort that achieved success and expanded to a global initiative. In the past, Microsoft relied on e-mail and portals to collaborate and share information internally. All of that information and thousands of portals were not indexed or searchable by others. Three employees in retail communications developed a new intranet solution with a small budget and some support from IT.

"By gathering good customer feedback and by solving real needs, we built something that worked very well for a small number of people," said John Porcaro, Microsoft's group manager of retail communications. "Of course, we always thought of the big picture and made sure the small start would be able to scale into something bigger."

Porcaro said management recognized that the solution would work for a larger team. It wasn't difficult to win them over, he said, because they had designed a strong solution that could be rolled out fairly quickly.

By keeping scalability in mind, the team has found it easy to adapt the existing solution, add minor functionality and move forward. In just a few short months, Microsoft employees have created more than 50,000 SharePoint sites to support their internal collaboration.

Smaller is better in large organizations, according to Art Murray, managing director at George Washington University's Institute of Knowledge Management. Murray likes to quote the classic example of innovation at 3M when Post-It notes began as an experiment in a small group. Its popularity quickly spread by word of mouth.

In Murray's faculty KM initiative, the group initially involved just a few faculty members who volunteered to share their teaching materials with others using Entopia's (entopia.com) Quantum tool. Those individuals believed in the project and worked on their own time. As a result, no one noticed what they were doing. It started as a manageable subset of two to three courses and grew from there, according to Murray.

"A small, grass-roots group of self-motivated people is a great place to start," said Murray. "It has a high chance of success and little chance of getting bogged down in bureaucracy. If it fails, no damage is done. If it succeeds, others will want to hop on board."

Peter Katz, executive VP at Entopia, ranked getting started, even if you start small, as the first principle to achieving successful knowledge management. Katz helped with the technology for George Washington University's initiative. He believes that changing the culture of an organization to become knowledge-enabled is largely a function of momentum. It requires doing enough small things to eventually shift the balance to where the benefits are blindly obvious.

"The organization will be light years ahead of the ones that spend months or years putting together the perfect solution," said Katz. "You're just losing time if you're waiting for a perfect solution. Live it. Learn. Fix it. Live it again."...................................................................................................................................................................................

Vicki Powers is a freelance writer who has written a variety of knowledge management and business-related articles, e-mail vpowers@houston.rr.com

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