BEST PRACTICE -Jaidev Majumdar

Mining Value From Managing Knowledge

Tata Steel has cut costs and wired 8,000 employees to share knowledge that will benefit the organisation. Now it wants to hook the entire 40,000 employees into this programme

Sample this: Like all major steel makers, Tata Steel faced a difficulty in getting rid of the boulders ('burden' in mining parlance) that invariably crops up while extracting coal from the mines. Disposing these burden continued to be an expensive proposition for the company until Tata Steel's engineering department suggested that they be used for constructing drain walls, for instance. The suggestion was lapped up immediately and implemented right away.

Tata Steel claims that inter-department knowledge sharing initiatives like this one has helped the company save Rs 10 lakh during 2003-04.

As the company strives to take its Knowledge Management initiative forward, there is one problem facing it: how to bring the involvement of the entire 40,000-odd Tata Steel employees into this fold? Says Ravi Arora, head of Knowledge Management at Tata Steel, "So far, we have been able to connect about 8,000 employees under this Knowledge Management programme. The biggest challenge facing us now is to con- nect the shop-floor level workers who have a problem interacting in the English language."

Knowledge Management was initiated at Tata Steel way back in July 1999 with an objective to shift the basis of growth from natural resources and physical assets to intellectual capital, which has become a source of innovation, growth and value today. Knowledge Management was brought under the more ambitious change management initiative called ASPirational Initiatives to Retain Excellence, or ASPIRE, across Tata organisations in 2,000. But now, it is increasingly gaining critical mass.

While the Tatas are also on the lookout for a vernacular computer interface to connect the employees and thereby broadbase the initiative, efforts are also on to interconnect other Tata Group companies with Tata Steel.

According to Arora, Tata Steel has saved Rs 30 crore from knowledge sharing initiatives in 2003-04, up from Rs 14.80 crore during 2002-03.

New Task

While knowledge sharing has so far paid rich dividends within the company, Tata Steel is pushing for a bigger bottomline savings during the current fiscal. As a first step, Tata Steel will connect its subsidiaries.

Tata Steel is planning to connect about 20,000 group employees within a year by extending the initiative to other group companies. Currently, the Tata Group has about 2,10,000 employees on its rolls. The Knowledge Management framework at Tata Steel rests on a Knowledge Repository which was created as per guidelines laid down by consuting firm McKinsey. The repository was built up initially with voluntary contributions from officers working in various departments who shared their work experiences which included best practices, learning from failures, improved and new practices adopted, customer and supplier knowledge etc.

Sharing Knowledge

The Knowledge Repository was followed by creating Knowledge Communities which are actually groups of like-minded people who come together to share what they know and learn from one another. "There are 29 such communities that are in existence today. They exchange e-mails giving valuable infor- mation that can be adopted by others," says Mr Arora.

He also adds that writing mails did not come easily to many employees, therefore, the company waited for two years to acclimatise them with writing before making it a mandatory practice.

"For example, the Tata Steel maintenance department may have discovered a particular brand of grease that reduces the wearout of a rotating equipment significantly. A maintenance knowledge community may recommend the use of this grease to their counterpart in Tata Tinplate," explains Arora.

Another significant development of the Knowledge Management initiative has been the formation of a "Ask Expert" system. Under this system, any employee facing a particular job related problem may seek advice from experts who are available online. Currently, there are about 250 such experts at Tata Steel who provide expert assistance to the employees.

However, Tata Steel's claims of knowledge sharing paying rich dividends has been discounted by other steel makers. "Many of their practices are common and has been in existence for years in other organisations," says a spokesperson of Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), the country's largest steel maker.

Dear Robinhood,

If I may add to the TATA experience, Knowledge Management seems to me to have always been with us but the issue is how do we maximize its benefits.

Basically I believe a Company's Mgt should be part of it if not initiated by it.

At the point of recruitment/entry the HR should by analysis know personnels that have flair for different things-data collection, brain-storming, repairs, correcting as against criticising, reading etal he now taps into this when the need arises.

Another point is the workplace culture- are staffers allowed to express themselves- especsially intellectually? are they shot-down, or looked at scornfully when expressing a different opinion or taking an opposite position?

To buttress the above I would make reference to David Hill who in his book-Getting Heard said "there is no such thing as a stupid idea."

In addition note that even a stopped time-piece is correct twice a day-at a.m & p.m

In the light of the above Mgt should gather information, allow intellectual expressions, collate the readily useful ones for its use and others for future adaption when the need arises.

Another angle of encouraging a Knowledge Mgt environment is to schedule In-House Workshops to be anchored by Heads of Depts of officers who might have attended on seminar, training or the other to share their experiences with other colleagues-in this way the Human Capital Quality is reinforced via knowledge sharing.

Employees should be encouraged to read widely beyond their field/s and this would broaden their faculties to the point that they should be able to contribute to issues outside of their core area of specialization eg a lawyer should be able to define simple terms in human resources and an accountant should be able to identify a beacon on a piece of land.

The work place should be knowledge friendly, book usage encouraged-library availabilty, brainstorming beneficial and above should avoid stereo-typying the seemingly intelligent guys around.

Others are expected to learn from them.

Hope I have shared some with my colleagues via this medium.


Afolabi Ajayi

From Nigeria, Lagos
Hi. :) Can you please provide insights into the ASPIRE programme of Tata Steel ? And if possible, what new changes in Organizational Assessment in HR has been adopted since 2003 ?
From India, Pune
hey, i am working on reserach project of knowledge management....please provide me more knowledge about it so that it will be helpful. regards, anshu
From India, Gurgaon

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