While an increasingly mobile workforce can bring a company many advantages, there are also, as document management firm Xerox found, potential downsides.
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Back in the heady days of the early 1990s, more and more of the organisation’s engineers found themselves working from home or on the road. This enabled them to work more flexibly, but it also meant that the increasingly isolated engineers, were not meeting on a regular basis. While customer service was improving, the sharing of technical know-how was tailing off.
“We were losing that ‘engineers around the coffee machine’ scenario,” says Chris Wise, a European technology manager for Xerox. "If we committed to employing a mobile workforce, how were people going to share knowledge? All that implicit information, short cuts and friendly advice that people pick up from each other when working together.”
Around 1993-94, the decision was made to develop a company-wide knowledge management system, a central repository for all the ‘soft knowledge’ and problem-solving tips that, for the most part, exists in the heads of employees rather than on file.
A specialist team was set up to look into the best way to approach the issue. According to Wise, only 25% of the funds made available for the project were spent on the technology. The vast bulk of the investment was used to formalise the way people worked and map out step by step the processes employees went through when seeking out and passing on information or knowledge.
Wise says, "The technology we were proposing to use for this project was not complicated. What was difficult was getting cultural buy-in. Knowledge management has to fit in step with working processes - the technology must shape around the way humans work - not dictate it. I wanted to ensure that the knowledge management project was a business priority not an IT priority."
Xerox even employed anthropologists to study the way the engineers worked. "We found that the engineers used the company manual in so many different ways. Some cut their manual up and pieced it together in a way that made sense to them, others used highlighter pens while others used personalised indexing systems."
Intra-region pilot schemes took place in the US, UK, France and Canada before the global knowledge management system, now christened Eureka, went live in 1997. The technology was straightforward - a simple HTML-based website accessible through Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser and password protected. This meant that engineers could access the system from anywhere. Research later showed that half of the users were accessing Eureka from home.
Another problem encountered by Wise and his team was the dilemma of persuading the engineers to contribute to the system. How do you motivate someone to write valuable things down at 3am at the end of a 10-hour shift? What’s in it for them?
At first, Xerox offered its engineers a $25 bonus for each tip or piece of knowledge that was valuable and not in the company manual. "We soon became aware that we couldn’t continue on this tact," laughs Wise. "We now have over 35,000 tips on our system. We realised it would get expensive."
Eventually, it was discovered that people were more likely to take time to contribute to Eureka if they were given recognition. "Each tip was attributed to whoever had entered it," says Wise. "If people see their name up in lights they feel rewarded and consider they have been acknowledged."
Another "cultural" obstacle that Wise encountered early on in the project was the reluctance of team leaders and line managers to fully commit to the concept of knowledge management. Many initially saw its introduction as more work and a distraction to their workers, to say nothing of the potential stress that any user training might cause. Wise got round the problem by, as he says, "doing a PR job".
“I visited individual line managers and explained the benefits of Eureka. I also made sure that throughout the company a big deal was made of the system. For example, we had a much-publicised countdown to the launch. People started to feel as if they were part of something important - those that weren’t started asking ‘Why haven’t we got this?'”
News of the success of Eureka soon spread out of the engineering sector into other parts of the company. Currently, alongside the 1,000 Xerox UK engineers and 18,000 engineers worldwide, an additional 2,000 other users from Xerox’s analyst, manufacturing, logistics and finance departments have joined the system. Recently, the UK sales staff also launched a pilot scheme.
But how does Wise measure the tangible contribution that Eureka has made to the company? “Using various metrics, we calculate that Eureka, three years in, is making a 5% difference to the bottom-line performance,” he says. “We compare those engineers who have access to Eureka with those who don’t and look at issues such as how many spare parts have been ordered, how much time is spent on each job and how many times each engineer has to returned to a job."
Tales on how Eureka has helped individuals in their work also helps to promote the success of a system - Wise recalls a recent incident where an engineer in Brazil was having a recurring problem with a colour printer.
When he inputted the symptoms of this intermittent fault, he came across a solution proffered by one of Xerox’s Canadian engineers who had found himself in the same situation. He followed the advice in Eureka and the fault was cured, saving all the hassle and cost of replacing the machine.
"This is a saving that can be traced directly back to the service provided by Eureka," continues Wise. "Eureka has become part of every working day for many. There are a lot of engineers who, if they have a spare 10 minutes or so, will log in and have a quick browse around the new entries to the system. Eureka is now starting to be used proactively rather than in reaction to a problem.”