Actually, It Is Like Brain Surgery Bruce Strong dreamed up fancy technology to help employees share ideas. Then came the tough part: persuading them to use the stuff.
By Suzanne Koudsi

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Bruce Strong had a problem. In a Web consulting firm like his, the whole business is pretty much locked away in the minds of employees. And Strong didn't feel that the consultants were sharing the ideas they had stored there. So in late 1997, he decided to design a knowledge-management system to help them unlock their thoughts and be more productive. Easy enough. After all, using technology to solve problems was what the company he had co-founded, Context Integration, was all about. Six months and half a million dollars later, he unveiled a new tool with a friendly acronym, IAN (that's for Intellectual Assets Network). Just one snag: Few of his people actually wanted to use it.

Resolving that dilemma set Strong on a two-year odyssey that still isn't finished. Founded in 1992 and based in Burlington, Mass., Context is exactly the kind of place where a system like IAN should work. It has always rewarded people for sharing what they know, and one goal of its employees is to become "gurus"--specialists in particular Web technologies who provide expertise and guidance to others. Strong thought IAN could build on that culture. He envisioned the system as a place where everyone at the company's five locations (there are now nine) could be, in essence, in the same room at the same time.

Today, two years after IAN's rollout, Strong is pleased to see consultants using the knowledge system: asking each other questions, swapping ideas, tracing earlier journeys on similar projects. But getting there involved a lot more than simply planting helpful technology in fertile ground. That's a sweet concept, but the reality of winning acceptance for IAN was far more difficult. "Coming out of the gate, we had a ton of good will," says Strong. "Then the challenge of real-world pressures start beating down on your head."

The truth is that getting people to participate is the hardest part of knowledge management. Carla O'Dell, president of the American Productivity & Quality Center, says that of the companies trying knowledge management, less than 10% have succeeded in making it part of their culture.

Context's first attempt at knowledge management, a database called the Technical Discussion, failed in part because no one was assigned to manage it. The database got cluttered, and consultants lost interest. So the team that Strong formed to create IAN developed something far more streamlined. The result was a program modeled on the solar system, with different aspects of IAN tucked away behind different "planets." Click one planet, and you'll find each employee's resume and the areas in which they specialize. Click on another, and you'll see guides to the company's various projects. In a third, you enter the consultants' discussion area.

To ensure that this little galaxy hummed from the get-go, Strong hired Mary Durham, a knowledge manager who specializes in databases. As IAN's caretaker, she oversees all the data that come in and out, makes sure that categories are consistent, and keeps it from getting clogged with out-of-date information.

With the right software and the right librarian in place, Strong started trying to build excitement around IAN. He demonstrated the tool in job interviews and made it a big part of the standard training program. Most newcomers took to IAN. Melinda Cross, an associate consultant who started with the company last July, used IAN's inContext planet to learn how people at Context design projects. IAN's friendly walk-through on company methodology saved a veteran the trouble of explaining it to Cross. She now spends about five hours a week using IAN--about four hours pulling out data and the rest of the time answering questions or posting notes.

But many consultants didn't take to IAN as quickly as Cross did. "There were some people who were really constant, strong contributors," says Durham, "and there were other people who weren't participating."

Some reluctance surfaced simply because IAN was a bother: depositing notes or project records into the database was one more task in a consultant's busy day--and worse yet, it was a task that didn't have any obvious urgency. Even more important, IAN forced consultants to reveal their ignorance. Asking a trusted colleague a question is one thing, Durham acknowledges; posting it for the whole company to see can be downright intimidating. Abdou Touray, who's been at Context even longer than IAN, says that consultants don't like admitting that they can't solve a problem. Moreover, he adds, they resented management's trying to impose what seemed like a rigid structure on their work.

Objections like that didn't wash with Strong or with Stephen Sharp, the new CEO who came aboard in July 1998. They were convinced that IAN would help Context provide better, more consistent service. Sharp started publicly recognizing people who stood out as strong IAN contributors. He also made IAN usage part of everyone's job description.

He even started paying them to use it. Each IAN task has now been assigned points. If a consultant puts his resume in the system, he gets one point. If he creates a project record, he gets five. Durham acts as judge, deciding if entries are worthy of points. The totals are tallied every three months, and the score accounts for 10% of a consultant's quarterly bonus. Before these metrics were introduced in January 1999, only a third of Context employees were rated as good or better for IAN usage. Two months later, that IAN usage had almost doubled. "You don't want to be the person that doesn't use IAN at all," says Strong. "It's your performance--it's how we view you as a person in the company."

Needless to say, such measures can't guarantee devoted users. The only thing that can really turn a skeptic around is a good experience with the program. Ken Sheldon, a technology manager in Houston, wasn't converted until one Sunday morning when he was working on an e-commerce project with a Monday deadline and got stuck on a tough software problem. Desperate, Sheldon posted an urgent query on IAN's pager system--but since it was a weekend, he didn't expect much of a response. In less than an hour, he received the first of several solutions from expert colleagues and was able to finish his work. Now Sheldon contributes to IAN discussion groups more often. "Since I see the value of having other people contribute to answer my questions," he says, "I try to help out too."

The pager gateway that Sheldon used was suggested by the IAN advisory board, a group of employees who meet via conference call to discuss IAN. That board is one way that employees work to keep IAN evolving as the 340-employee company grows. "The volume of information is going to be much greater," says Chuck McCann, who is head of internal services. "People will not have the time or the tolerance to poke through it and find what they need."

The ultimate question, of course, is whether all this effort has paid off for Context. Strong says that one of his goals is for IAN to help make the private company more profitable. In theory, it should. International Data Corp. estimates that FORTUNE 500 companies wasted $12 billion last year as employees duplicated one another's work and waded through disorganized files. Investors could get a sense of whether IAN has helped the bottom line later this year, when Context is expected to go public. If Context's IPO takes off, Sharp may never again have trouble convincing his consultants that knowledge management pays.