Business Book Review

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Building A Knowledge-Driven Organization - by Robert H. Buckman - HOW KNOWLEDGE SHARING BEGAN AT BUCKMAN LABORATORIES

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The ability to apply our collective knowledge across time and space has allowed us to compete globally with rivals many times our size, and it may well be what has kept us in business as the market changed around us.
Communications is human nature; knowledge sharing is human nurture.
--Alison Tucker, Buckman Laboratories
When the author found himself running the family’s company in the early 1980s, following the deaths of his father and brother, he found that lack of information and knowledge seemed to be at the root of the company’s major problems. He was strongly influenced by Scandinavian Airlines’ former chairman, Jan Carlzon, whose operating philosophy was that “an individual without information cannot take responsibility; an individual who is given information cannot help but take responsibility,” and he began implementing this philosophy at Buckman Laboratories as the company’s game plan for the future.

What was becoming clear to Buckman was that every time the organization added a new operating company in another country, it improved customer service in that country, but it made it harder to move knowledge and experience across the organization. Buckman Laboratories’ team of experts could not move around the world fast enough to meet customers’ rapidly changing needs, and it became clear that they could not have people travel more. It had become a physical impossibility to meet customers’ needs solely with face-to-face meetings.

As a result, as the company began experimenting with the technology available at that time to transfer knowledge, Buckman began to understand the characteristics of a knowledge-sharing system, which he summarizes as follows: 1) Reduce the number of transmissions to one so as to achieve the least distortion of the knowledge being transferred; 2) Give everyone access to the knowledge; 3) Let everyone enter knowledge; 4) Make sure the system works whenever and wherever anyone wants to use it; 5) Make the system easy to use; and 6) Allow communication in any language.

In 1992, Buckman Laboratories created a new department, called Knowledge Transfer (KT), consolidating information services, telecommunications, and the company library. By bringing these departments together as one, and having the head of that department report directly to the CEO, the lines of authority were simplified, and knowledge sharing became easier. KT’s mission was to respond to global knowledge needs by planning and managing the resources necessary to rapidly disseminate Buckman Laboratories’ collective industry, technical, and market knowledge. It provided easy, and rapid, access to the company’s global knowledge bases and the sharing of best practices with all Buckman affiliates. In 1994, the company introduced “K’Netix, The Buckman Knowledge Network,” as the umbrella under which different programs and systems were housed. It now covers electronic forums, online libraries, a knowledge base, email, Internet and World Wide Web access, the company’s Intranet, project-tracking systems, customer relationship management systems, groupware, bulletin boards, and virtual conference rooms. This approach to communication enabled Buckman Laboratories to become a knowledge-drive organization.

The increasing interaction Buckman Laboratories experienced among its affiliates worldwide serves to illustrate two key concepts (or benefits) of a knowledge-driven organization: an increased span of communication and an increased span of influence for all employees. Online interactions, made possible by technology, eliminate physical distance as a factor in communication, and at the same time, reduce social distance, making issues such as positional power, age, ethnic and gender differences easier to set aside. An increased span of influence, then, follows naturally. “If anyone can talk to anyone, what matters is who listens—and why. Influence—power—accumulates around the people who make the most sense, and the whole social structure begins to slide into new patterns.” Buckman Laboratories has thrived, according to the author, because all employees—or associates, as they are called—have the same opportunity to expand their span of influence.

The networked organization Buckman developed became even more powerful than he originally imagined because it allowed for the redefinition of the time equation of work (the widely shared assumptions in any group about how long a task, or group of tasks, should take). “Instead of days and weeks, we now could do things in hours or at most in a few days.” Buckman Laboratories became a totally transformed organization. “It began with a technological network, evolved into business networks, and then transformed again into a fully networked way of life.”


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