At Shell, Everyone's the Answer Man The oil giant saves hundreds of millions by fielding technical questions on a global Web bulletin board.
By Owen Thomas

(Business 2.0) – Any engineer at Shell with a tough question can usually get an answer from some other engineer. The problem has been finding that person.

The company's exploration and production division tried setting up experts in centralized offices. But that meant pulling its best people off the line. Connecting everyone by phone and e-mail didn't solve problems either. "You can share information via telephone," says Arjan van Unnik, head of knowledge management for the group, "[only] if you happen to know someone somewhere else."

So in 1998, Shell installed a private Web bulletin board that allows employees to swap advice. But as with everything on the Web, the trick isn't building it--it's getting them to come. Here's how Shell has managed to parlay its $1 million investment into cost savings of more than $200 million a year. -- OWEN THOMAS

1. Keep it simple. Shell runs its boards on a single Windows NT server, big enough to handle 40,000 users. It bought a perpetual license for SiteScape Forum software at $99 per user; other companies use software from companies like Web Crossing and Infopop.

2. Recruit the initial users. Employees are reluctant to try something new until they see others using it. Psychologists call the phenomenon "social proof," explains Web Crossing executive Michael Krieg: "You copy how other people operate." By actively enlisting a few high-profile experts first, Shell eventually grew its boards to 16,000 users.

3. Encourage diversity. Your first instinct may be to set up boards by division or location. You'd be wrong--the point is to encourage sharing across such artificial barriers. Instead, Shell created 12 "communities" grouped by area of interest: one for wells, another for surface drilling, and others for finance, procurement, and the like.

4. Enlist cheerleaders. At Shell, each community has one to three moderators, respected experts who volunteer their time. It has also appointed "champions" in every country; they drop in on people who should have information to share and ask why they aren't posting.

5. Archive the best advice. In the '90s, Shell spent millions on a document-management system to house all the answers anyone might need. No one used it. Now, Shell archives discussions from the boards, creating an informal--and popular--database of answers.