Driving Business Excellence With Formal, Global Networks

Perhaps no one understands better than Dan Ranta, Director of Knowledge Sharing at ConocoPhillips, that the challenge of sharing knowledge is very real — while the potential payoff can be large. Seven years ago, ConocoPhillips launched a large initiative to create internal communities of practice that would enhance knowledge sharing within the firm. With operations in more than 30 countries, encompassing job sites often in remote locations, the international energy company knew that to continue on its success trajectory, it needed to rapidly and effectively harness the knowledge of its highly skilled but geographically distributed workforce.

Today, the ConocoPhillips' knowledge-sharing program — built upon 150 global "networks of excellence" — is ranked as best-in-class across industries, and has documented hundreds of millions of dollars in estimated cash flow from its start in 2004 to the present. To learn more about how firms can drive business excellence with formal, global networks, I spoke with Dan in preparation for his keynote this week at Forrester’s Content & Collaboration Forum.

1) Can you explain the reasoning behind the proactive and reactive components of your networks of excellence?

Reactively, people have questions and others have answers. A critical component of our knowledge-sharing architecture is a discussion forum that connects people who have questions to subject matter experts who have answers. This back-and-forth exchange — or peer-to-peer problem solving — is where know-how and know-what are readily shared. Over time, as global network leaders and subject matter experts evaluate the collective wisdom of their responses, the reactive exchange evolves into something proactive as they document what they know in our enterprise-wide wiki (OneWiki) environment. In other words, know-how and know-what become know-why — our intellectual content — and there is greater opportunity for employees to access, re-use, and learn from this proactively created knowledge. Another example of being proactive is when members of networks of excellence collaborate to head off potential concerns. This happens on a regular basis. In one particular case, several networks influenced portions of the operation to evaluate equipment that may have been involved in safety incidents at another company. By coming together proactively, the networks reduced the risk of a similar circumstance occurring within our own company.

2) How does the human operating model behind the networks of excellence work? 

The human operating model works by ensuring that knowledge sharing is behavior-driven, not technology-driven. Through the human operating model, and with clearly defined roles and designated resources in place, the business owns the global networks. It takes purposeful effort to create and maintain a global network, and the formal roles are critically important to sustain business value. Formal roles make a network global as well, since the core teams provide a global perspective that ensures each business unit understands what's in it for them.

3) What forces or characteristics have you noticed about the most active communities?

They are not afraid to ask questions, regardless of generations or tenure. Sharing knowledge is a “contact sport” and forming trusted relationships becomes the foundation for human interactions. So it's all about TRUST. With trust, there can be great participation and business value created.

4) What cultural and organizational prerequisites do you recommend for those who want to get serious about KM?  

They have to embrace an assigned model that links purposeful collaboration to how the business needs to improve. It takes many elements, such as business sponsorship, a business case, formal roles, engaged employees, and technology and content enablers that are easy to use and common across the company. That's all easier said than done. Most companies fail or have only marginal success.