Has the water cooler become the economy's nerve center? Knowledge transfer, i.e. talking, is vital

ON EXCELLENCE

April 12, 1993|By TOM PETERS

Some call ABB Asea Brown Boveri, the European heavy industrial firm, the most decentralized large company in the world; $30 billion in revenue springs from 1,200 companies, averaging 200 people each. Consider the $1 billion Power Transformers business: It's four times the size of its next biggest rival, but these proceeds come from 25 factories in 16 countries. The average ABB operation is smaller than its largest local competitor.

"We are not a global business," Chief Executive Sune Karlsson insists. "We are a collection of local businesses with intense global coordination. This makes us unique."

But how do you exercise global coordination to add value among numerous, autonomous enterprises?

"Our people are working on the same problems and opportunities day after day, year after year, and learning a tremendous amount," Karlsson says. "We want to create a process of continuous expertise transfer. If we can do so, that's a source of advantage none of our rivals can match."

Karlsson's "if" is the billion-dollar question, and the answer is to create the much ballyhooed, but little understood, "learning organization."

Karlsson is not alone in trying to solve the learning puzzle. Buckman Laboratories, a $200 million (revenue) specialty chemical company based in Memphis, Tenn., has a market value that exceeds its hard-asset value by $175 million. CEO Bob Buckman suspects that sum comes from employee knowledge knocking around the system.

Pondering those figures led Buckman to an obsession with "520 connected brains available to work on any problem." He juiced up spending on information technology and in mid-1992 shifted all information activities to an aptly titled Knowledge Transfer Department. It aims to "provide easy and rapid access to Buckman Laboratories' global knowledge bases and eliminate time and space constraints on communications."

Buckman makes it clear that only those who get with the new program will succeed.

"The most powerful individuals in the future of Buckman Labs," he says, "will be those that do the best job of transferring knowledge to others."

Echoing these ideas, journalist Alan Webber contends the profound shift toward a brain-based economy means reconceiving "work as conversation." There once was a time, Webber wrote in the January-February issue of Harvard Business Review, that "if the boss caught you talking on the phone or hanging around the water cooler, he would have said, 'Stop talking and get to work.'

"Today if you're not . . . talking with colleagues and customers, chances are you'll hear, 'Start talking and get to work!' In the new economy, conversations . . . are the way knowledge workers BTC discover what they know, share it with their colleagues and, in the process, create new knowledge for the organization."

For example, Brook Manville, director of knowledge management at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., is trying hard to get several thousand dispersed consultants, always on the run, to learn more effectively from one another. Webber suggests that Manville might better be called "director of conversations" or "internal talk show host." One candidate to fill this new corporate Geraldo role is the librarian -- or "cybrarian," per Michel Bauwens, information systems manager at British Petroleum.

Bauwens says information in corporate libraries usually belongs to the "nice to know," rather than "critical to survival," category. Moreover, he adds, many companies have decided "information is not a core competence, but something that can be carried out, cheaper and in a more efficient manner, by outside information brokers." At BP, for example, the central Business Intelligence Unit was cut from 15 people to one person.

Yet Bauwens has no ax to grind. "It is not my intention to blame anyone," he says, "but to point out that the fault may be in an outmoded organizational model that finds its expression in the existence of a central corporate library."

In his "cybrarian's manifesto," Bauwens argues the library should become "client-centered . . . cutting through the hierarchy and developing direct contacts in a networking model . . . consisting not only of external data bases, but also of E-mail, bulletin boards and computer conference systems."

Location counts as much as bits and bytes: "Instead of huddling together among colleagues in a central location, we should be working in ad hoc teams closely integrated into the corporate fabric."

Add it up, Bauwens writes, and "the corporation serious about its information needs may [need] a network of cybrarians -- i.e., librarians able to navigate in 'cyberspace' -- strategically located throughout the company."

I must admit that "librarian" brings to mind Miss Pinkins, a dowdy old maid with gray hair pinned up in a bun. I'm not sure I've actually ever met such a person, but the image lingers.

Yet the new library/cybrary function, the internal talk show host role and the knowledge-transfer activity are quickly becoming central to corporate strategy. Whether it's Brook "Geraldo" Manville at McKinsey or Miss Pinkins turned cyberpunk, the issue is of prime importance. As Karlsson, Buckman, Manville, Bauwens and all too few others know, the first to get this building block in place will have a matchless advantage in tomorrow's marketplace.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-8200.)

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