Knowledge management is tricky business. How do you get something out of the head of one person and into the head of another? Employee turnover is a fact of life. When you lose them, you lose everything they knew. This reminds me of a Harvard Business School case study about NASA and their knowledge management challenges at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory (humor me… I just scanned all of my case studies this week so I could get rid of 3″ of paper on my bookshelf).
The story below, taken from the book Wikinomics (buy it… it’s phenomenal), is by far the best knowledge management success story I’ve ever read. It will open your mind to a better approach to knowledge transfer.
The story that tops our list is the one about how Geek Squad agents instinctively started using online multiplayer games to stay in touch as the organization grew from 60 to 12,000 employees in just three years.
The ironic part of it is that Stephens [Geek Squad founder] had spent considerable time and effort building an elaborate internal wiki for exactly that purpose—to help keep all of the agents in the loop and to gather their input into the business. But the wiki was slow to take off, and Stephens was perplexed. He was always harping on the agents to use the wiki to communicate, but, at first, few of the agents bothered. Geeks are supposed to love wikis, so what was the problem?
Then one day Stephens asked a deputy director of counterintelligence at corporate how things were going in the field. “I worry about those agents in Anchorage, Alaska,” he said. “There’s about twenty of them there, and I worry about them staying connected to the mission.” The deputy director said to Stephens, “Oh, those Anchorage guys, I talk to them all the time.”
Curious, Stephens prodded him to reveal more details. So the deputy director sheepishly told him that they all play Battlefield 2 online. “With each server you can have 128 people simultaneously fighting each other in a virtual environment,” said the director. “We wear headsets and use Ventrilo software so that we can talk over the Internet while we are running around fighting.” Stephens, who now joins in himself from time to time, says the agents taunt each other, saying, “’Hey, I see you behind the wall.’ But then, you know, while we’re running along with the squadron with our rifles in our hands, one of the agents behind me will be like, ‘Yeah, we just hit our revenue to budget,’ and somebody else will be like, ‘Hey, how do you reset the password on a Linksys router?’ ”
Stephens was aghast when he first learned of the agent’s antics. “I just stood there in the hallway going, ‘Oh my God,’ I’m sitting here trying to build this shiny playground with all these tools for collaboration and I failed to notice what the agents were already doing. While I had my head down doing this in preparation to open the wiki’s floodgates, the agents had self-organized online in probably the most effective and efficient collaborative tool that’s already out there.”
Stephens says that the agents now have up to 384 colleagues simultaneously playing at any one time. “They’re talking and they’re hanging out, and often they’re talking shop and swapping tips,” Stephens said. Geek Squad agents had just unofficially added another collaboration tool to the palette. Stephens says the experience changed his thinking completely. “Instead of trying to set an agenda,” he said, “I’m now going to try and discover their agenda, and serve it.” Stephens even muses that he may get the agents to hack Battlefield 2 into a Geek Squad video game that he can use for training and recruitment.