IN FEBRUARY 1999, the global public relations company Hill & Knowlton (H&K) came to a grim conclusion: Its knowledge-sharing system had nothing worth sharing.
The organization was relying on an intranet that was designed to handle only certain types of internal information, such as staff bios and case studies, that were submitted in rigid templates. Unformatted content found in e-mail or research files couldn't make it onto the site. Moreover, the system depended on employees to voluntarily submit and update information, which they rarely did. As a result, employees seldom used the system. The company's most important resource -- the wisdom of nearly 2,000 PR professionals in 34 countries -- went untapped.
So the organization charged Ted Graham, H&K's worldwide director of knowledge management (KM) services, with the huge task of building a system that could capture all the company's internal knowledge, combined with helpful outside knowledge, like industry news from the Web and e-mail communications with clients, and make it available to employees at the click of a mouse. "We wanted to create one-stop shopping for [all kinds of knowledge] rather than having to go to four or five different places for all the things you need," says Graham.
Graham has spent the past year putting together hK.net, a secure extranet that enables employees to share knowledge with their counterparts all over the world. Better yet, clients can also post and access information.
Developed hand in hand with Intraspect Software of Los Altos, Calif., hK.net is a password-protected website that gives both employees and clients access to internal and external storehouses of information. Users log on directly from their browser and see an Hill & Knowlton news ticker at the top. Underneath, they can open one of several "cabinets" to access information by area or region. There's also a "News You Can Use" cabinet with company and industry news, as well as a toolkit containing administrative information, case studies and the "HK Directory," a frequently updated staff listing with links to biographies. The site also features "channels" for clients that contain budget information, e-mail archives, schedules and work-in-progress documents relevant to their accounts. Employees can contribute to a particular channel only if they're on that team, and clients cannot access other clients' channels.
H&K's worldwide advisory group -- an executive committee made up of practice leaders and office managers who meet biennially to tackle long-range issues affecting the company -- met in February 1999 to address the issue of knowledge management. Feedback from employees indicated that H&K's intranet was fallow because its data was outdated, irrelevant and largely inaccurate. Employees complained that it was useless for anything other than looking up biographies of other employees to figure out who'd be good for a new project. Even then, the bios were so out-of-date -- many belonged to employees who'd left the company as much as two years earlier -- that workers didn't trust the system to handle even this minimal function.
The group considered trying to revamp the existing intranet, but its creators had long since left the company. Building from scratch offered better odds of success. "Anyone brought into the role as leader of the old intranet would have so much baggage to deal with that they'd never succeed," says Graham.
Ultimately, the group, which was led by Tony Burgess-Webb, the newly appointed global Internet practice leader for H&K, identified three "buckets" of knowledge integral to a KM system: H&K's internal knowledge of its own products and services, external knowledge such as outside research, and economic forecasts and client knowledge, including account activity, templates and budgets. The group decided a portal-type intranet would best fill these needs. By June 1999 Graham, then responsible for KM services in the company's Canadian offices, was appointed as the worldwide director of KM services and was charged with finding a vendor.
The organization settled on Intraspect's Salsa application, built on the Intraspect Knowledge Seerver (IKS) platform, for its intranet/extranet. The company was particularly impressed by IKS/Salsa's ability to capture and archive e-mail discussions between H&K employees and their clients. "Our e-mail volumes had quadrupled since 1996, growing to the point where our real corporate memory lies in people's e-mail folders," Graham explains.
Intraspect's system lets an employee or client send or archive e-mails on hK.net by simply adding an account-specific hK.net e-mail address to the routing list. When someone sends an e-mail to everyone on a project team, the system automatically adds the hK.net address to the distribution list, and the e-mail goes into a client-specific e-mail repository. Each e-mail becomes indexed by subject and includes attachments. The archives are searchable by phrase or keyword.
Graham says that accessing stored e-mails increases overall efficiency. For example, when new members join projects, the first thing they do is read the e-mail archive to get up to speed on the client engagement. "The client likes this because they're not paying for the new person to become educated, and we like it because it lowers the cost of replacing employees," says Graham.
HK.net's look is also customized for each client. When clients log on to their hK.net channel, they see their own logo, as well as folders arranged to suit their preferences. "Hill & Knowlton didn't want clients to log on to a generic space that just says 'hK.net,'" says Jim Pflaging, Intraspect's president and CEO. "They wanted something where once you're in, it looks as if your agency has created a unique, private place."
Knowledge from within and without
Expert Analysis by Tom Davenport
I will grudgingly admit that the public relations business is heavily dependent on knowledge; though having been the victim of many a press release, I'm not sure how accurate PR knowledge is. Independent of its truth value, however, knowledge at a company like Hill & Knowlton still needs to be created, captured, stored, shared and distributed, and there is undoubtedly a lot of content to be managed.
A few things are distinctive about this case. First, it is still somewhat unusual to have a group of senior executives who will devote a major meeting to knowledge-management concerns, and that's what Hill & Knowlton's advisory group did. The company is also unusual in paying so much attention to knowledge for and about clients. Clients are obviously an important resource for any professional services business, but I have found that most organizations are too inwardly focused to give clients access to the knowledge they need. It's also impressive that Hill & Knowlton has devoted one of its internal knowledge "channels" to client-oriented knowledge.
The inclusion of archived e-mail in hK.net (is it ever confused with Hong Kong?) is an unusual and interesting approach, but one that raises some concerns. There's little doubt that e-mail now embodies much of any organization's knowledge, but it certainly isn't a very efficient packaging mechanism. I suspect that the archive will become quite voluminous over time, necessitating a human pruner to edit the useless content.
Furthermore, the system seems to rely heavily on individuals remembering to add key e-mails to the archive. A little button that pops up when an employee sends an e-mail to a client address saying "Would you like to add this to the client knowledge archive?" would be very helpful.
Then there is the question of motivation for the knowledge behaviors that Hill & Knowlton is trying to elicit. Worldwide Director of KM Services Ted Graham and his colleagues are to be credited for worrying about motivation. They've established several motivational mechanisms -- rewarding managers for their units' sharing behaviors, trying to confer reputational benefits and giving away the cutely named "beenz" for knowledge accesses.
But my experience suggests that what drives desirable knowledge behaviors is not these little trinkets, but rather real rewards -- promotions and salary increases. The kinds of rewards used in this case suggest that the company cares about knowledge management, but only about as much as participating in the United Way campaign. In a knowledge-intensive business like public relations, the best knowledge creators, sharers and users should inherit not beenz but the Earth.
For security purposes, access is customized for each user, too. For example, employees have access to a client channel only if they're working on that account. And degrees of access vary from "read only," where all they can do is view certain documents, to "edit," where they can alter or delete files. Clients, obviously, can access only their own channels. Successes
The company rolled out hK.net to three practice groups and regions starting in October 1999. After a successful trial run, the system was rolled out to the rest of the organization this January, and so far it seems to be a hit among H&K employees. Angela Bartolucci, a Toronto-based employee, says it's a big time-saver. For example, Bartolucci spends about half her time marketing the company to prospective clients, an activity that includes putting together "credential packages" that highlight the business' experience in a particular industry. The package includes descriptions of past projects as well as bios of staff who'd be involved in the account. Frequently, the elements she needs have already been created by someone else at H&K for a different package. "[In the past] we'd be reinventing the wheel each time," she says. "Now, through hK.net, we'll have access to all this information not only across Canada, but all over the world."
HK.net also eases the transition when a key employee departs, says Lorraine Doherty, account director for the company's advanced technology practice. "When people leave in midproject, I'm fairly comfortable that whatever they're working on is posted on the extranet," she says. "We no longer have to search through a hard drive, worrying that the knowledge is either somewhere it shouldn't be or just in the employee's head."
Clients like it, too. H&K client UPromise in Brookline, Mass., is a startup that eenables parents to earn college savings through credit-card spending. Its PR director, Liz Carpenter, says hK.net was indispensable during launch preparations. By getting on the site, she could see which media contacts H&K was talking to or view press kits and media documents at various stages. But the most useful feature has been a calendar that's kept updated on the site. "Just before we made our announcement, we had several different spokespeople doing interviews," she says. "Schedules are difficult to manage. So I had one central place to check the schedules to know who's interviewing with whom and when. It's great to be able to update that information in real-time.
Although hK.net undeniably has a lot to offer, the company still struggles with getting its employees to incorporate the system into a daily work routine.
One issue is connectivity. The company's 68 offices are hooked up to the Internet at varying speeds. For example, Toronto and New York City boast T-1 connections, while Paris is stuck with a 14.4K trickle of bandwidth. Graham must be realistic about what kind of information the bandwidth-challenged offices can contribute or receive. "In some cases we're trying to have them rely on their e-mail system to contribute things instead of using their Web browser," he says. "They'll attach a document, and it'll go into a repository. On the retrieval side, they may get an e-mail notification with a URL attached that'll take them directly into a document instead of having them browse or search the site."
Graham also must persuade sometimes-reluctant workers to post information on the extranet as a matter of routine. Bartolucci says it's been slow at first, but she sees people gradually falling into line as they acquaint themselves with hK.net's capabilities. "The problem is that right now, we're all socialized to just use [what's on our local networks] and when something new comes along, it's hard to push everyone into it," she says. "Technology alone can't make things right. People need to be trained to use it."
People also need to be motivated to use it, so H&K has built an incentive system. The company offers bonuses to managers whose departments contribute the most (though it's totally up to the managers to see how this trickles down to subordinates). And recognizing that cash isn't the only incentive, H&K has added "reputational" incentives via a "best-seller" list that publicizes the most frequently accessed contributions. The theory is that if you're on the list, your coworkers will recognize you as an expert on certain subjects. By becoming an acknowledged expert, "you'll end up with better assignments," says Graham. "Who gets to fly to South America to work on an exciting new project? Is it just someone nearby, or is it someone who's really an expert?"
Though this reputational motivation is largely theoretical at this point, H&K is institutionalizing it by making knowledge sharing a part of performance reviews this fall. "We've gotten tired of people just saying 'I'm an expert' when they haven't earned it," says Graham.
Another challenge is getting people to seek knowledge on the extranet. H&K is dealing with this by hiding "beenz," a form of micropayment created by New York City- based Beenz.com, throughout the site. Every time you open a document or contribute information, there's a chance you'll collect beenz, which can be redeemed for books, CDs and even Caribbean vaccations. But H&K is also using a more basic approach: putting many of its internal announcements on the extranet and sending employees the links, instead of e-mailing the announcements directly. Once they're on, they can see what else hK.net has to offer.
Once people get comfortable with hK.net, Graham hopes they'll explore beyond their own client accounts. "We want them to be able to see what else is being done around the network, so that they can leverage that," he says.
This story, "Don't Lose Your Mind Share" was originally published by CIO.