Making Knowledge Management Work: Companies Everywhere Are Striving to Turn the Theory of "Knowledge Management" into Workable Practice. Here a Senior Executive of Global Industrial Group GKN Describes the Positive Results of the Group's Eighteen-Month-Old Innovation and Learning Programme

Article excerpt

'As an employee of GKN you have the power and resources of a huge global company at your fingertips. Why not use it, and make your mark on our future?'

With those words in April 1999 GKN launched an ambitious knowledge sharing programme intended to harness the imagination of the company's 50,000 worldwide employees.

The theory was that those who work for our subsidiaries, spread between the automotive, industrial service and aerospace sectors and across 40 different countries, share between them a wealth of experience which had not been tapped to the full. Taking advantage of it would help maintain and encourage the culture of vigorous innovation which is vital for success in the 21st century.

While the company already had a programme to move decisively towards a growth strategy, our main concern as a senior management team was to ensure that culture of GKN would readily embrace the virtues of speed, innovation, empowerment, and the ability to manage risk. The creation of what we called our Innovation and Learning programme was one way of releasing the entrepreneurial spirit company wide.

The results so far

Promoted through GKN's worldwide intranet, the Innovation and Learning initiative has so far resulted in more than 500 ideas.

Inevitably, a significant proportion--10 per cent--of the submitted ideas are internet-related and a new business unit, GKN e-Business, has been specifically created as a consequence. It is run by the young executive who led the first stage of our innovation programme. The role of GKN e-Business will be to deliver maximum value from e-business opportunities by moving them quickly from the initial concept to becoming independent activities in their own right.

Innovation and Learning is not about seeking synergies nor, except at the very simplest level, is it about improving existing products and processes. It's about growth.

Informal advice came initially from 3M and Unilever, where managers generously shared their own experiences with us. This helped us realise that we needed to promote company-wide understanding of our technologies and that mapping them would help identify a number of common trends.

Clearly, the 200 or 300 most senior people in the organisation with access to networks and encouragement from colleagues were ideally placed to see their ideas through from theory to development, but what of everyone else? If you are not in that group, how do you get a good idea off the ground?

The answer came with the group-wide launch of the programme, using a network of divisional co-ordinators, backed by the latest communications technology, including CD-rom, intranet, and video conferences and traditional printed materials. We ran the launch like a new product marketing programme. The heart of a handsome pack handed to each employee by his or her divisional co-ordinator was a New Business Proposal form.

Available in five languages and entitled simply 'Your Idea', the form comes in three parts. The first simply invites the employee to 'describe the idea in your own words'--without prompts, hints, or potentially restrictive guidelines.

The second section poses a series of questions. Who would be the customers for your new product or service? How much would it meet their needs? How does your product or service differ from what is currently available?

Finally, the employee is asked to complete an 'attractiveness scorecard' assessing 'strategic fit'--a series of criteria to assess whether it is an idea for GKN or not--and 'attractiveness'--a further five-point scale to assess how much the project would cost, earn, and pay back, and over what period.

Some 200 part-time facilitators 'direct market' the programme, supported by a wider network of enthusiastic 'disciples'.

Once the two-page self-assessment, which is available in hard copy or on the GKN intranet, is submitted, the timetable for appraisal is set into motion. …