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TECHNOLOGY: The ultimate water cooler

Remember the telephone game? You line up with your friends, and then start at one end with a message, whispering it from one person to the next, down to the end of the line. The fun is in seeing how much is lost in the translation. Well, among colleagues in a large organization, that's no way to manage the exchange of knowledge, but it's too often exactly how employees communicate across levels and regions. No matter how much calling, e-mailing, and text messaging gets done, crucial information is lost.

The executives in charge of knowledge management at Giant Eagle, however, are learning to play this game by new rules, using a digital sharing system created in-house to prevent the loss of valuable ideas and lessons as they're passed back and forth through the organization. The system, using the interactive power of the Web, ensures that any piece of knowledge that's valuable to the organization is standardized, stored, and made available to those who would benefit.

"Our knowledge management system is about getting people to change the way they look at information or capture information," says Bob Guy, director of knowledge strategies for the Pittsburgh-based grocery chain. "Most importantly, it allows us to share that information with the right people at the right time."

Guy oversees the system, an intranet portal called KnowAsis. Launched just under six years ago, it has grown from a mysterious experiment in a corner of the chain's information systems division to a tool that an increasing number of users rely on as a critical business resource.

Put simply, KnowAsis is a repository for the storage and retrieval of knowledge. Information is entered into the system, stored, and retrieved by employees who need it. Essentially it functions like a companywide water cooler -- a place where colleagues gather to share ideas, to the benefit of all participants.

Guy says KnowAsis users fall into one of five groups:

-Headquarters personnel: Employees in the HQ buildings are included in this group. "That is a very distinct set of users, with specific needs that are different from our other groups," says Guy.

-DC employees

-Corporate store personnel: These associates are from Giant Eagle's 140 corporately owned stores (typically, there are anywhere from 10 to 18 user IDs in a store.)

-Independently owned stores (80 locations): "There are different kinds of usage and needs in an independent store vs. a corporate store," explains Guy. "There tend to be fewer user IDs among the independents, because the owners of those stores are the ones who determine who they want to have access to information and systems."

-Stewards: These are the subject matter experts of the business units, who input the information into KnowAsis.

While usage has increased greatly since the system was piloted several years ago, Guy sees room for further growth. "On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being where you really would like to be in connecting everybody with all the right information all the time, and not relying on any other system—any redundant means -- we're probably at a six and a half, maybe seven."

KnowAsis currently has approximately 6,500 users across the chain, with all stores, offices, and facilities connected. Still, Guy hopes the rate of adoption continues to climb as more users adapt to the system. The biggest challenge he faces is change management—persuading his colleagues to adjust the way they work, by integrating KnowAsis. This is proving to be a Catch-22 situation: According to Guy, it takes robust content to draw users, but it's the users who generate the content.

Tech-imposed discipline

The technology enhances the value and functionality of the system, by imposing disciplines on the processes of inputting and retrieving knowledge. First of all, information entered into the system has to be relevant, timely, and actionable, or else there's no reason to put it up. In addition, information must be consistent in its format, content, and location, so it can be found.

Anyone with access to the system can submit knowledge. The knowledge then goes through an approval process during which it is sent to the "stewards," the subject matter experts within the individual business areas. If the knowledge is relevant, the steward gives his or her electronic approval, and the knowledge is then sent to the knowledge management team, where the information is double-checked for standardization of such items as font size, margins, and file sizes.

"We have a centralized knowledge management administration group, which consists of about five-and-a-half FTEs to manage the system centrally," says Guy. "Each business area within the company manages its own information, deciding what's appropriate, determining the length of time it needs to be available, when it should be archived or deleted, and what kind of info it would like to share or have shared."

To manage the growing amount of knowledge in KnowAsis, Guy has hired a staff member with skills in library science, which Guy feels is necessary for the strict governance of the content that the system needs to function optimally. "An important part of the system is determining where a certain piece of knowledge or artifact should live," notes Guy. "We have 127 business areas identified in our company -- some of these include subgroups of subgroups in each business area."

The kind of knowledge that feeds the system is varied, ranging from planograms to sales letters, and from policies and procedures to anecdotal success stories.

"Let's say we have this manager who has a successful promotion," says Guy. "We have templates built in our system, so users don't even have to think about the standards and formatting -- it's already done for them. You click a button that represents the topic it falls under, such as a business area or specific season, and it loads in the text behind the scenes to build this document based on your experiences. And if you have pictures, you can send them to us via e-mail or memory card, and we will incorporate them after downsizing them for the Web."

Success stories with measurable returns are loaded into a section called Proven Practices. But not every success story carries enough weight, so there's another home for those. "They aren't Proven Practices unless there's some monetary value or some metric that can be measured and added to it," notes Guy. "If you have something that was nice and worked well, but you don't have a tangible benefit, we call those Tips and Tricks."

Even failures are valuable for the system, as they turn into successes when they prevent other employees from repeating them. This section is Lessons Learned. "One of these days we're going to associate some form of recognition with bringing problems to the surface in that manner, so people will feel much safer about sharing that kind of information," says Guy. "What we want to do is capture those things when they occurred, so that it's top of mind, and get it in the system; then we have a messaging system within the portal to publicize what's there, so people can be made aware of them."

Obviously it's not easy to foster such a shift in thinking, especially among industry veterans who might be reluctant to share either their successes or mistakes. "It's very difficult to get people to change the way they do things," admits Guy. "They're comfortable, and they're accustomed to doing what has worked for them for so long. We have to show them the benefits they're going to get, and that's a slow process. But we have numerous examples of people initially resisting, and then coming around. Once they do, they become strong supporters themselves."

Next, Giant, Eagle plans to switch from its homegrown system to a third party's knowledge management solution in September, which will feature a more familiar user interface as well as some added functionality. "It may help pull over some additional users," says Guy.

If it does, there's no doubt he'll be submitting another success story for the Proven Practices section. Otherwise it will be a Lesson Learned for all.
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