Blow your mind: the lessons of knowledge management

Most companies are organised around their function. But when their primary
function is to think, where do you begin? In the case of MindTree, the answer is
with its people, or “minds” as it likes to call them. The company’s name
suddenly makes sense. It is a hierarchical organisation (as are most, in truth)
but it offers staff a great deal of autonomy and plentiful support, both human
and technical, to maximise their effectiveness. It does this through an unusual
form of knowledge management.

MindTree is an IT services company, about 20% of which is dedicated to
helping clients with product innovation and the rest to providing a range of
services such as strategic consulting, application development and application
implementation. It currently employs almost 8,000 people, mostly in India, but
in an increasing number of countries around the world. Unlike many companies
which started out in one country and then expanded, MindTree was an Indian/US
hybrid from the very first day.

The strong knowledge management (KM) function at the heart of the
organisation puts as much emphasis on knowledge creation and sharing as it does
on capture and re-use. As a result, it emphasises employee development,
creativity, sharing and collaboration as well as the capture and re-use that
would be typical of a traditional content management-centric KM system.

To give an idea of the company’s prominence in the field, last year it won
two firsts and a second in the Asian Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise Awards,
run by Teleos and the KNOW network. It was top-ranked for “innovation in
knowledge-based products/services/solutions” and “maximising enterprise
intellectual capital”, and ranked second for “developing knowledge workers
through senior management leadership”.

Raj Datta has global responsibility for innovation, knowledge sharing,
collaboration and re-use. His official title is vice president and chief
knowledge officer, and his background is in software engineering as well as com
pany management. He’s lived, studied and worked in both the US and India, and
took full-time responsibility for KM in 2003, having done it for 5-10% of his
time before that. He actually kicked off the community model in 2002.

You can get a sense of where the man’s coming from when you see what he’s
been asking conference-goers. He asks which set of words resonate best with
them: prescriptive process, brittle, mandated, closed, static, inertia,
detached, compartmentalised and isolated; or self-organised, configurable,
voluntary, open, dynamic, energy, passion, social and connected? Most people go
for the second set. He then expresses bafflement that organisational
interventions nearly always smack of the first type.

“If we believe that knowledge creation and innovation is largely a human and
social act, and, very importantly, if we believe that such acts are voluntary
and self-determined, then, strategically, we have to pay a lot of attention to
the second set,” Datta points out.

To him, knowledge management is about setting values and creating an
ecosystem in which employees and the company can thrive. Judging from the
majority of online comments about MindTree, it has certainly created a very
satisfactory work environment. Datta believes it to be unique and says: “We
believe that intelligent people value a company that pays a lot of attention to
culture and key values such as openness, transparency and communication.” This
certainly sets it apart from many other companies, probably the majority.

The key values he refers to can be summarised by the acronym CLASS:

Caring: for each other, for clients, and for stakeholders

Learning: personal development and innovation

Achieving: aspiration, accountability and action orientation

Sharing: teamwork and knowledge creation

Social responsibility: corporate citizenship and integrity

It might sound corny, but Datta believes that organising a business around
CLASS values is instrumental in attracting and retaining talent.

Relationships and communication are key to innovation and getting work done.
People at MindTree seem to work hard because, somehow, their work becomes such
an important part of their lives. Job satisfaction and the recognition of others
probably play as big a part in the reward system as the salary.

For many employees, especially those working far from home, you get the sense
that it is almost a substitute family – an emotional and intellectual support
mechanism. Many employees (in the Bangalore offices especially) work a 60 to
70-hour week because work and play have become so intertwined. “Play doesn’t
just mean sports and cricket,” Datta says. “It could mean writing a blog,
creating software or pushing your great idea passionately.” In a strong parallel
with the open source movement, many MindTree ideas have found their way into the
mainstream as a result of employees working them up in their own time.

The KM ecosystem flows from creation and innovation, through capture, sharing
and re-use. This lifecycle approach is clearly different to the traditional, and
somewhat tarnished, style of knowledge management in which the primary driver is
to capture knowledge before it leaves the company.

MindTree’s ecosystem consists of four spaces: mind, physical, social and
virtual. Each contributes to employees’ ability to develop their skills,
knowledge and relationships and, most importantly, to share their discoveries
with others.

The mind space, while somewhat abstract, is the most important because it’s
where people develop their thinking skills. Discussions take place on subjects
such as systems thinking and software tools are made available, either as a
formal part of the company’s KM system or separately. Staff are introduced to
things like the TRIZ Ideation series, mind mapping, Edward de Bono’s Six
Thinking Hats, SCAMPER, and so on.

The physical space is a lively workplace designed to facilitate planned and
spontaneous interactions. A whiteboard or flipchart is never far away.

The social space is where employees build their social networks and
relationships and, most importantly, trust in each other. The company has over
45 knowledge communities covering everything from deeply technical subjects to
religion. This is where people chat, brainstorm, explore ideas and so on.
Related to this is an annual techfest called Osmosis, which provides a chance to
gather together and share knowledge through a series of events.

The virtual space is supported by a number of collaborative and social
software tools that allow staff to find and connect with each other, write
blogs, jointly author wikis, have discussions and collaborate on projects such
as building re-usable components called TechWorks.

Dig into the virtual space

The virtual space, with its technological underpinnings, is where the
modern-day version of the company’s KM system lives. The older, more
traditional, KnowledgeNet repository system is used less and less, in favour of
the collaborative and social tools. The three primary toolsets are Open Mind,
Project Space and Neuron.

Open Mind allows people to work on software ideas. This is where TechWorks
(re-usable components, libraries, frameworks, utilities and tools) are
developed. Amazingly, almost all TechWorks are created by staff voluntarily and
in their own time. Over 100 such teams exist and 75% of the company’s headcount
is registered here.

Project Space is where all of a team’s knowledge is supported. This includes
release management, idea management, continuous knowledge capture, software
re-use within an account, document management, issue handling, action item
tracking, surveys, discussions and so on. Again, over 75% of the company’s
headcount is registered here.

A system Neuron is supported by idea nurturing processes to enable continuous
improvement and innovation from anywhere in the company. It covers the entire
lifecycle of an idea from inception to deployment, including the patenting
process. Idea requests can be generated and these can be worked on by applying
the creativity principles and tools and the resulting proposals filtered for
feasibility. In MindTree, ‘failed’ ideas don’t die; they are parked in case
further insights bring them to life again. To date, 21% of submitted ideas have
been deployed and eight patents filed.

Although all the opportunities and tools are there for the taking, none is
mandated. People have to use whatever they feel is appropriate to the task at
hand and at their particular stage of development. “The chances are, if they’re
intelligent people, they’ll do something good,” says Datta.

When it comes to identifying community champions, it is important to avoid
those who want to be the sole expert for answering all questions. This is
especially true in community sessions where a vital skill is to encourage
discussion. It is also important to build some redundancy into the champion
system. A single champion who gets called away by higher priority project work
suddenly becomes a bottleneck.

With regard to trust, this builds most quickly when people have face-to-face
interactions. When it comes to re-use, people are likely to re-use something
from someone else when they have seen their face. Of course, in a distributed
organisation, this isn’t always practical, but trust, according to Datta, is
“transitive”: if someone you trust recommends someone else, then your trust in
the new person is higher than it would otherwise be.

The bottom line for the company is that the KM ecosystem improves project
schedules, resourcing and margins, all by a few percentage points. The bottom
line for staff is that the initiatives make for a human-centric and satisfying
work environment.

Mindtree’s knowledge management charter

The charter, drafted in 2003, establishes systems, processes and culture that
help staff continuously build their intellectual capital:

  • The key emphasis of the KM function is on enabling knowledge sharing,
    software re-use, knowledge creation and innovation.

  • Other functions contribute to intellectual capital, but the KM function
    drives the definition and measurement of this.
  • The primary mechanisms for knowledge sharing are through KnowledgeNet (a
    traditional repository with a controlled taxonomy and workflow) and communities.
    These are strengthened by a more robust and comprehensive next-generation system
    and by systemisation, virtualisation and institutionalisation of communities.

  • Software re-use is achieved through detailed developer guidelines and
    education, implementation of a repository and building solution packs.

  • Knowledge innovation and creation is established via education, processes
    from idea generation to patent filing, a system to support these processes, and
    the creation of innovation communities and events.

  • The knowledge culture is strengthened by a rewards and recognition
    programme, setting KM-specific objectives and emphasising KM in performance
    management, as well as incentives such as publishing accomplishments in a
    newsletter and externally.

  • The knowledge assessment theme is used to judge competence and capability
    and to serve as input for measuring and building intellectual capital.

  • The KM function formalises the defining processes that result in the
    systematic establishment of KM.

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