One of the impressive aspects of BP is the degree to which it has integrated strategic work with knowledge, and has learned to work across organizational silos (i.e., distinct units within an organization) so that expertise is shared, efficiencies are magnified and innovation is enhanced. They work with a knowledge management model to create a “whole that is greater than the sum of the parts” (Collison and Parcell 2001, p. 37).
Leadership: Lord Browne, CEO, clearly communicated the importance of knowledge and sharing knowledge for organizational learning and performance through strategic documents and conversations. He said, for example, “Anyone in the organisation who is not directly accountable for making a profit should be involved in creating and distributing knowledge that the company can use to make a profit.”
He also said, “Most activities or tasks are not onetime events. Our philosophy is fairly simple: Every time we do something again, we should do it better than the last time.”
The leadership of BP clearly communicated the value of knowledge sharing and generation – recognizing the importance of knowledge to the long-term competitiveness of the organization.
Strategy: Good strategy leads to a comprehensive suite of cultural shifts, human connections, processes, tools and measures. Knowledge and performance are linked: the strategy embeds improved knowledge work in business to effect positive outputs and outcomes for business priorities. The BP value proposition involved speeding up the sharing of know-how, efficiencies, adaptation for competitiveness and innovation. BP’s knowledge management professionals emphasize fast and easy collaboration across boundaries (Greenes 2003).
BP staff wanted to develop a model and ways of talking about knowledge management that both spanned the breadth of this integrative field and was simple enough to talk about easily. The result is shown in Exhibit 4.
They chose to use the term “knowledge management” despite its shortcomings because they considered it to be a comprehensive term that could encompass the development, acquisition, sharing and use of knowledge – as well as being one that would probably not be associated with any one specific unit such as the executive, human resources or information technology.
Exhibit 4: BP’s overall integrated approach to working with knowledge as an asset.
Source: Adapted with permission from a presentation by Greenes (2003)
The central concept is the effective use of knowledge to support business goals and improve business results. BP developed the “learning before, during and after” concept which many other organizations have adopted. In BP’s terms, a peer assist is a good tool for learning before; an action review helps learning during; and a retrospect supports learning after something is completed.
In some cases, it is appropriate to document and store information that emerges in these processes as explicit knowledge assets. Greenes (2003) suggests that most effort be invested in peer-to-peer and community connections. But he acknowledges that it is worthwhile to try to capture some critical knowledge or organizational doctrine. BP’s knowledge repository (which serves a different purpose than regular files for payroll or travel) is a very attractive database with innovators featured in photos, videos and stories. Users can click to read or see more, and they can contact an individual to learn more about how to improve their unit’s work by learning from the improvements.
Employees at BP connected with each other and the knowledge base through the intranet, discussion forums and expertise locators. Because BP’s many communities span organizational boundaries and connect different functions and geographic locations, they were viewed as the glue holding the people and processes together (Greenes 2003, pp. 32–33).
One of the biggest challenges for knowledge managers is to find successful ways of working with organizational silos, as important know-how is often trapped within work units. When a member of the public used the BP website to ask Lord Browne about how BP works with knowledge management, part of his reply addressed this challenge: “Our experience has shown that an organization based on a federation of self-standing business units is very good for delivering financial performance, but is not ideal for transferring know-how around the company” (as quoted in Collison and Parcell 2001 p. 45).
Exhibit 5 shows how knowledgeable, successful units in the organization are expected to bring other units up to their level, for the benefit of the whole organization and its customers. These achievements provided a new plateau from which performance can be further improved.
Exhibit 5: Fostering Knowledge Flow for Performance at BP
Source: Adapted with permission from Greenes (2003)