There’s a wide-spread assumpt-ion around most knowledge management efforts that if you get the right information to the right people at the right time, they will do the right thing.

Not necessarily so, warns Scott Beaty, who heads the global skills practice for Shell Oil’s learning division

in Houston, Tex.

Beaty, a retired U.S. army colonel turned knowledge management advisor, says his experience at Shell taught him it was “”surprisingly easy”” to get people to share knowledge. The problem was converting this sharing to action.

Beaty stresses it’s not because of evil intent, rather it’s due to a basic human frailty, the inability or lack of desire to try something new.

Most knowledge management systems fail, he says, for the same reason some people have trouble learning to ride a bike. “”They try to apply the same principles they used when they learned to walk. You slow down, you back up, but when you’re on a bike, that doesn’t work.””

So it is with KM. “”There’s an assumption you put it (knowledge) into a repository and people will use it,”” says Beaty.

Well, not necessarily. What you end up with is lot of information that is online but nobody uses.

Shell uses a package called Livelink from OpenText Corp., which is an umbrella product name for at least a dozen collaborative and virtual teamwork tools that enable companies to manage multiple projects or programs across business units, divisions or departments. It’s especially useful for large global operations such as Shell with far-flung facilities all over the planet and with workers who have a high level of expertise.

Shell’s approach is to build knowledge management systems by creating “”communities of practice around high value problems.”” Oil well drilling, for example, is an expensive hit- and -miss proposition. By getting project leaders to share their knowledge about best practices, Shell was able to increase its success rate by a whopping 25 per cent. In other words, many of the benefits are measurable.

In another instance, Beaty recently helped managers create a common maintenance system for nine different refineries operated by Shell in the U.S. Initially, there was huge resistance from people who said it would be “”too hard to do.””

Getting everybody on the same system, however, got people to quickly identify “”a gap”” between what sharing information would accomplish versus what some workers said would not be possible.

The other key point? Beaty says it’s necessary to show leadership. “”At the end of the day, it’s the only way to go.””

Beaty, who says he’s done about 40 KM projects for Shell in the last two years, says the problem is seldom technology. “”It’s process-related, such as, not enough structural things in place to reward behavior to those acting for the greater whole.””

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