A knows the answer to B’s problem. C knows B has a problem, but left the pub before D said A had the answer. Hmmmm. If only there was some way of pooling all that knowledge …
Like “meeting a colleague in the pub for a chat” is how Paul Lester describes knowledge management systems. Half-way through a pint is often the time you discover that the chap who sits opposite you at work has the answer to that curtain-walling problem you’ve been struggling with for the past few days. Every individual builds up his or her own bank of project experience and information over the years. Now, Lester, who is group managing director of Balfour Beatty, is behind an investment of up to £5m that will create an Internet-based system to capture that information for the rest of the company to share.

Balfour Beatty is one of a number of construction firms planning to exploit the knowledge bank accumulated within their walls. This month, Ove Arup & Partners appointed Tony Sheehan as knowledge manager, with a remit to develop a knowledge management strategy for the firm. Architect ttsp has had a knowledge centre under development for the past 18 months to collate all the information staff at the practice might need to know.

Is knowledge management just one of those buzzwords that defy definition? It would seem not, if ttsp’s experience is anything to go by (see opposite). In its simplest form, knowledge management means harnessing skills and information held in disparate parts of a company and by different individuals so that they are easily accessible and exploitable by all staff. “The trick is to structure it so that people can get at it quickly,” says Charles Hobson, a visiting senior fellow at Manchester Business School, who offers courses in knowledge management.

IT is the vehicle that makes this happen. Useful information such as project details, client contacts and product specifications can be held on computer databases. By using an intranet to connect the firm’s PCs, all this data can then be accessed by anyone in the company. And, as most PCs come with a CD drive, information such as British Standards can be kept on CD-ROM, saving vast amounts of space.

Tapping into your unknown resources could be the best way to get ahead in the current competitive environment. Properly harnessed, it could yield more priceless information even than chats down in the pub.

Manchester Business School offers executive development programmes on knowledge management. E-mail Charles Hobson on chobson@man.mbs.ac.uk or phone Manchester Business School on 0161-275 6333.

How knowledge centres can improve your golf

When Albert Hayden, a former partner in architect ttsp, wanted to fix up a golfing day for clients and colleagues, he did not spend hours sending out invitations. Instead, he flicked through the practice’s database of clients and staff to see who actually enjoyed playing the game. Within 15 minutes, the marketing and business development consultant had a list of 16 keen golfers.

Ttsp has worked hard to create a resource in the office that can be accessed by staff to answer any sort of niggling enquiry, from what is the best ceiling tile to who in the company speaks Macedonian. About 18 months ago, the practice turned its technical library – a mountain of product catalogues and British Standards information – into a “knowledge centre”, under the command of knowledge manager Mike Everson.

The centre, which occupies part of the ground floor at ttsp, contains databases, access to the Internet and a library of CD-ROMs, which among them harness just about all the information held by staff in the company, as well as offering a gateway to data beyond its walls. “The knowledge centre is the heart of ttsp,” says Everson. “It is the cumulative intellectual capital of a company.”

Underpinning that intellectual capital is information technology. Using the Microsoft suite of products, Everson has developed in-house databases containing information on products, projects, clients and contacts, as well as an image library. These databases can be accessed through the PC in the centre or through any staff member’s desktop PC. The centre also holds a wealth of information on CD-ROM, including publications by 200 construction bodies, thousands of British Standards and details of more than 5000 products.

The easily accessible information is used to offer a better service to clients. As Hayden explains, a client might come to the firm needing an office for 1000 people, for which it wants hard-wearing carpet tiles; it also wants to know how long the carpet will last and how to clean it. By keying in the word “carpet”, ttsp’s architects can sift through the product databases and find the carpet best suited to the client’s needs. “Without the system,” says Hayden, “we’d spend hours thumbing through catalogues and samples to find the right one.”

The databases are kept up to date by the knowledge centre staff. Part of their remit is to continually test new products and enter their findings into the system. For example, every three months, Everson and his knowledge centre co-ordinator, Alan Lavenu, swap their desks and chairs for new models to assess their comfort, style and wear. This information is then logged into the centre and made available to everyone working at ttsp, which can be invaluable when specifying furniture.

Linking the whole system together is an intranet, which gives access to everyone’s diary and is used for booking meeting rooms. It also connects users to the knowledge centre bulletin. If a member of staff has a question related to a project, he or she can post it on the bulletin and wait for someone in the office to respond.

Recently, one of ttsp’s architects needed information about raised auditorium seating. Not being an expert, she put a message on the bulletin. “Rather than sit down and plough through the library, there is immediate access to someone in the practice who knows,” says Hayden.

The benefits of the knowledge centre are hard for Everson and Hayden to quantify. They are also not keen to put a price on how much it costs to run, saying only that all practices need to maintain a library. Certainly, there have been time savings in finding products and having fast access to previous designs. As Everson says: “How do you put a price on knowledge?”