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Friday, September 09, 2005

Knowledge-based Communities of Practice at AMS
by Rowan Wilson

Motivating people to contribute their knowledge is a challenge for anyone responsible for knowledge management. How do you get people who are already working 10 to 12 hour days to spend "just a little more time" writing something down to help someone else? American Management Systems (AMS) has capitalized on a culture in which sharing what people know has long been the key measure of success.

Through its Associate Program, the business and IT consulting firm, ranked 13th largest worldwide, has formalized previously informal communities, provided incentives for participation, and leveraged collaborative technology to provide an infrastructure for knowledge-sharing across the organization's 55 offices worldwide. With close to 8,000 workers, AMS found it increasingly challenging to leverage know-how across the company. Capturing collective intellectual capital and making it accessible to client engagement teams, no matter where or when it's needed, is vital to AMS's ability to deliver business success for clients. In short, knowledge management is a strategic imperative.

Recognizing this challenge, the company began a series of initiatives in 1993 designed to ensure that each engagement team had access to the best of knowledge. The most recent of these initiatives, the AMS Knowledge Centers, added to the existing infrastructure the concept of knowledge-based communities of practice.

Each Knowledge Center is a worldwide "virtual community" of people throughout AMS, connected by interest and expertise in a specific discipline. Members of the communities are called Knowledge Center Associates. Each community is led by a team of coordinators whom the company recognizes as leaders in their respective disciplines. AMS expert practitioners are selected as Associates for their specific expertise. Knowledge Center Associates make a formal commitment to share their knowledge in a tangible way through an annual Associates Program. This can be a research paper, a written insight into a new technology or project management technique, or a sample deliverable. Completed programs are added to a Lotus Notes-based knowledge repository and are catalogued and indexed with the help of a team of professional reference librarians. This knowledge base is accessible to all AMS employees.

Not everyone is invited or selected to become an Associate. Individuals are recognized at the level in the organization where there is a person who has direct responsibility for their performance evaluation and promotion path.

Knowledge Center Associates are also committed to solving problems "in the moment" by responding to directed e-mail and voicemail messages. All AMS personnel, not just Associates, have access to the corporate groupware system and intranet links to the Knowledge Center communities. The highly committed Associates, however, form the heart of AMS's KM program. In addition to "virtual" communication, Associates also participate in face-to-face conferences which focus on sharing best practices and lessons learned. Through these communities, AMS can leverage every bit of expertise that its employees generate every day all over the world.

Since 1996, when AMS formalized its Knowledge Centers, a lot has been learned about supporting and sustaining knowledge-based communities. These lessons-learned fall into the following basic themes: recognizing individual achievement; building group identity; motivating and rewarding participation; celebrating successes; and delivering value.

It's essential to create a strong identity and sense of community: "We're trying to create the environment that would have self-formed in the coffee room twenty years ago." Community members receive special business cards and are invited to attend meetings and workshops around topics of interest to them. A technology infrastructure facilitates communication among the members of each community: voicemail and e-mail distribution lists and a home page database for each community. These databases, which have grown in usage over time, provide a place where people can "request help" or post good ideas.

Individual successes are measured in terms of leverage - a term which is used internally to recognize the value of contributions. Promotion nomination forms use this word to describe how important leveraging knowledge is to being recognized as a company leader. The most re-used contributions from the on-line collection are publicized by acknowledging both the author and contributor (if they're not the same person). A list of the "top ten" most requested items from our deliverables collection is published in the quarterly K-News from the Knowledge Center's on-line newsletter. The re-use of individuals' contributions is also being reported, and an award is given to the Knowledge Center Associate whose example is re-used the most times.

The result for AMS is highly leveraged engagement teams who have AMS's collective knowledge at their fingertips. Through the effective use of a collaborative work environment and fundamentally, and most importantly, through people and the processes in place designed to support knowledge-sharing, AMS is able to deliver on its commitment to connect engagement teams with all global expertise - to deliver the right person or the right experience at the right time. This is knowledge management: people, processes, and technology working together to deliver value.

The Communities of Practice at AMS promote knowledge-sharing by:
  • Recognizing individual achievement: associates must be nominated to join the program; nomination criteria recognize both interest and experience.
  • Building group identity: branding through business cards and "community" events; virtual "coffee room" created for each community.
  • Motivating and rewarding participation: top contributors recognized; performance appraisal system rewards knowledge-sharing.
  • Celebrating successes: conferences and awards; reporting the top ten re-used contributions.
  • Delivering value for individual: examples libraries; AMS 'Know' Hotline; instant peer group - especially important for new hires; networking/growth opportunity.
  • Delivering value for the company: enhanced knowledge-sharing; improved client relationships; faster, more effective proposals.
  • Delivering value for AMS clients: each client engagement team leverages the collective knowledge and experience of all of AMS.
taken from Knowledge Management Review

5 effective KBC of practice such as:
- foster innovation by encouraging free flow of ideas;
- improve customer services by streamlining response time;
- improve revenues by sourcing inputs/supplies as well products and services to market;
- improve employee retention rates by recognizing the value of employees' knowledge and rewarding for it;
- improve streamlining operations and reduce costs by eliminating redundant or unnecessary processes.
Rowan writes "The most re-used contributions from the on-line collection are publicized by acknowledging both the author and contributor".
I am not convinced that number of "re-use" (a definition would be useful) of a post is the only good value measurement criteria for a contributor. You could have someone posting many contributions with each one re-used a few times only. In total however, this person could have a number of re-use higher than the winning post.

Peter-Anthony Glick
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