Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, January 2001

Implementing A Knowledge Sharing Website

Dr Philip Hingston, School of Computer and Information Science, Edith Cowan University

ABSTRACT:

In June of 1999, as part of its Knowledge Management initiative Rio Tinto, one of the world’s leading mining companies, commissioned an intranet web site on safety issues. The site has turned out to be a very successful vehicle for sharing learnings from safety incidents, collecting and sharing statistics on safety performance throughout the group, and communicating safety policy and standards. It has also raised expectations that similar results can be achieved in other aspects of Rio Tinto’s operations. This article relates Rio Tinto’s experiences in implementing this knowledge sharing web site in the context of a pilot knowledge management programme, and analyses the factors that have made it successful.


1.   Context

1.1 The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of The Parts?

Rio Tinto is one of the world’s largest mining companies, with operations in the USA, Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, UK, Norway, Portugal, France, Austria, Italy, Sardinia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. It employs over 30,000 people world wide, plus contractors, and has annual gross turnover of around US$10bn. In the face of globalisation and an increasingly competitive commodity market, the company is always keen to utilise the competitive advantage that comes from its size and diversity.

Of course, with size and geographic spread come challenges also – How does the left hand know what the right is doing? How can the company’s activities be coordinated? How can it take advantage of its large intellectual capital base? Best practices have been developed throughout the group, but how can the company (and its employees) know what these are, who the experts are, and how to access them?

1.2 The Knowledge Management Initiative

Improvements in telecommunications, and in particular the rise of web technology, held out the promise of solving these problems and harnessing the company’s global resources, human and other. This belief led to the development of Rio Tinto’s Knowledge Management initiative.

It began with a small group of knowledge-based systems specialists and software engineers located in Perth, Western Australia. The team was enhanced by recruiting individuals with skills in knowledge management and organisational change. Since this was a “bottom-up” initiative, several pilot projects were selected to demonstrate the potential of knowledge management to senior managers. In parallel with the development of knowledge processes and strategies, a pilot intranet and portal known as K-Link (Knowledge Link) was established as a delivery platform.

1.3 The Safety Programme

The Knowledge Management initiative was in part a response to the drive for Best Practice sharing from the former Chief Executive, Leon Davis. Another major drive from Mr Davis was for improved safety performance throughout the group. The Chief Executive’s office, together with the Head of HS&E, Alan Emery, sought help from the Knowledge Management team, who suggested using K-Link to improve the distribution of Safety Notices to safety representatives at operating sites. This article relates Rio Tinto’s experiences in implementing this knowledge sharing solution.

2.   A New Way To Share Safety Learnings

2.1 Safety Notices Web Site

Safety Notices were already being collected centrally and distributed via mail, e-mail or faxes. A Safety Notice is a record detailing a safety related incident that has taken place within the Rio Tinto group. These details must be recorded as part of the procedure for dealing with any serious incident, and optionally for less serious ones. Occasionally, a Safety Notice might be used to pass on general safety advice or relate an incident that has taken place outside the group. The intention behind distributing Notices is to share learnings and prevent re-occurrences of similar incidents.

Initially, the question had to be asked – What’s wrong with the old way? The KM team believed that a web-based solution could revitalise and enhance the old process. The old idea was good – but the team thought it could be done better. Some concrete benefits were readily apparent - faster distribution, a single authoritative source, a streamlining of the process – others were less tangible, a glimmer in the eye – like a “feeling of involvement” and a higher profile for safety and for the HS&E unit. In the end, a leap of faith was required.

The initial release of the web site was built around the collection and communication of Safety Notices. Nominated users at each Rio Tinto operating site were given the ability to enter and edit Safety Notices on line. All users were able to browse existing Notices by date, business unit, incident location or type of activity, and to search for Notices using keywords. Administrators were given the ability to modify or hide any Notice, as a safeguard against unintended confidentiality or legal problems, or malicious misuse, none of which has occurred. Some existing policy and guideline documents were also made available, and a bulletin board was provided.

Each Safety Notice contains details under the headings of What happened, Where it happened, What were the causes, What has been done about it as well as optional digital photographs, and contact details for further information. The emphasis is on giving enough information so that management together with safety professionals and business unit representatives can take steps to prevent similar incidents in the future. This could mean a change to equipment or procedures, or more commonly, first line management or the safety representative would use the Notice as an illustration to reinforce the safety message. This is often done in the course of regular “toolbox talks”.

2.2 Management Support

Participation in the use of the web site was strongly driven by senior management. This high-level drive was critical in overcoming initial apathy and even hostility towards the idea, which was seen by some as unnecessary corporate interference in their operations. There is also a natural reluctance to admit to making mistakes, by submitting Notices. To counter this, it is important that submitting a Notice is recognised as a valuable contribution to Rio Tinto’s (and the operation’s) safety effort, and senior management must consistently reinforce this message. Some operating sites had very poor Internet access when the web site was first launched (some remote locations still do), and strong pressure was helpful in encouraging operations and beleaguered IT departments to take steps to improve their access.

2.3 Embedding Within Work Processes

An early enhancement to the web site was the ability for users to subscribe to the Safety Notices service. Subscribers receive regular advice by e-mail about new Safety Notices, and can choose to get full descriptions, or shorter descriptions and a hyperlink to the full version on line. This benefits individual users - they do not have to constantly check the web site for updates, and yet they can be assured that they will be advised about any new incidents that might be important to them in their roles.

Following the success of the initial implementation, the web site is constantly being enhanced. The site will now be used to collect, combine and distribute safety statistics from the operations. The bulletin board has not been well used to date, and it is being enhanced so as to improve its usage. The amount of information available to assist management on site is growing. The site is becoming an identifiable “one-stop shop” for safety issues within Rio Tinto.

3.   Benefits

3.1 Improved Performance

The proof of the pudding, of course, is in whether safety performance has improved. And the good news is that it has. As of June 2000, LTI’s (lost-time injuries) are down 33% on the same period for 1999. The total of all injuries is down 24%, and the number of shifts lost is down 29%. The graph shows monthly LTI figures, as a percentage of target, from July 1999 to June 2000.

What part of this improvement can be attributed to the web site is impossible to say, as there have been other developments in the safety drive at the same time, but there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence from users, in the form of responses to a request for feedback to demonstrate the value of the system. Responses were received from about half the active users of the web site. Of these, 77% gave a positive assessment of the site and its effectiveness in their organization. The number of active users has been steadily growing, with a 32% increase from March to April, and a 63% increase from April to May. The number of Safety Notices posted in the first half of 2000 was already 70% of the total for the whole of 1999, despite the reduction in the LTI figures.

We hypothesise that the improved performance comes in part through

         More reporting of incidents and a faster, wider distribution of learnings leading to reduced repetition of unsafe acts and conditions;

         Enhanced safety awareness leading to greater adherence to safety principles.

 However it must be recognised that a drive for improved safety standards right across the Group together with an adoption of the Dupont SMAT (Safety Management Audit Training) programme have also been major contributing factors. The development of a set of minimum safety standards and audits on a two-year basis against those standards is another important factor.

3.2 Added Benefits

There are additional benefits aside from improved safety performance and a reduction in lost time. The whole process of collecting safety information from sites is being streamlined. For example, new Safety Notices are available globally as soon as they are entered on site, removing delays, repeated data entry and handling costs. As a bonus, the data are immediately available in electronic form, for further processing, analysis and reporting.

An unplanned consequence of the launch of the site has been to catalyse the improvement of telecommunications access throughout the group. This makes other benefits of improved communication available to the company. In fact, partly as a result of the success of Safety Notices and other K-Link web sites, a true global intranet is in the process of being implemented. This will greatly improve the performance and availability of existing internal web sites and other services, and opens up technology options such as e-commerce, desktop videoconferencing and workflow solutions for the future.

As a knowledge management pilot, the project has been a very valuable trailblazer, demonstrating the value of knowledge sharing and the viability of web sites as an enabling technology. The success of this and other pilots has resulted in a well-received presentation to the Operations Committee of Rio Tinto, proposing a coordinated knowledge management strategy for the Rio Tinto group.

4.   Learnings

There were many potential barriers to the success of the project. The Rio Tinto corporate culture has a clear bottom line business focus. Low commodity prices mean that the minerals sector worldwide is very concerned with cost reduction. The operating businesses are feeling the squeeze and are not receptive to any potentially distracting influences. The geographical challenges are considerable. The existing IT infrastructure was patchy and IT support was uncertain. Any one of these could easily have derailed the project.

The key factors in overcoming these barriers were alignment with company strategy, and determined high-level support. Without these, the project, for all its merit, would have fallen at the first hurdle.

Once it was clear that operating business units would cooperate, other factors became important. The web site had to be well designed, easy to use and it had to work. Little user training was needed, since the user interface is completely web browser based and quite intuitive. The subscription service made it easy for users to align their use of the web site with the requirements of their roles, rather than being an extra thing for them to remember and find time to do. Interestingly, a common way for site HS&E representatives to make use of the site is to print Safety Notices and distribute them on site notice boards and at safety “toolbox talks”, further enhancing knowledge transfer. Features like the inclusion of photographs make the Notices more graphic and help to give a feeling of being “real”, rather than removed from everyday experience. These factors help users to feel part of a community and encourage them to contribute to it.

Other companies and agencies are also having success with safety knowledge sharing. For example, Dupont have been developing SHE networks, and have had a similar experience (visit http://www.dupont.com/safety/esn99-2/shenetwork.html). According to SHE Advantage Program manager, Lucy Rusidell,  "Safety, Health and Environment has been spearheading the networks process, but what we've been doing can be transferred to other functions and SBUs. It's just a matter of issues and need." Chevron set up a safety-sharing network, SafeNet, as part of its knowledge management program, reporting a 50% performance improvement since 1993. The US Department of Energy has recently launched an Internet portal for safety (go to http://tis.eh.doe.gov/portal/KsmlinkReg.htm), which “creates a "knowledge-sharing" environment where users can participate interactively in forums, report on corrective actions being taken to resolve safety issues and register for environment, safety and health (ES&H) training. In addition users can check calendars for upcoming events related to ISM and consult electronic locators to identify available departmental experts in the many ES&H disciplines and topic areas. This feature, called the Knowledge Management Tool, helps users benefit more fully from the collective knowledge of the complex by placing powerful collaborative and research-oriented tools at their fingertips.”

Certainly, the Rio Tinto Safety Notices web site has demonstrated that knowledge management techniques can enhance corporate safety programs. This gives every reason to believe that in the future good knowledge management practice will add to Rio Tinto’s success in other important operational areas.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

The author would like to thank Rio Tinto PLC’s Technology Group, for assistance in preparing and permission to publish this work. I would especially like to thank those who worked on the Safety Notices project.