Socializing and knowledge management

Before Lotus Notes or SharePoint we had Happy Hour. Arthur Andersen/Accenture grabbed an early lead in knowledge sharing because it recognized the value of a liquor license long before there was even a technological environment capable of supporting the likes of Notes or SharePoint. Their efforts demonstrate why successful knowledge management is rooted in the social, not the technical. It’s a lesson we keep needing to learn.

I started my professional career in the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co. years before the divorce that led eventually to the creation of Accenture. When I joined, the consulting group was known as “Administrative Services” and I spent a fair bit of time explaining to friends and prospective clients that I had nothing to do with office supplies or janitorial services. In those days, Andersen was justifiably known for its large investments in training its people in the skills and knowledge they needed to work effectively. It was one of the selling points that convinced me to join.

I joined Andersen shortly after it had invested in St. Charles. One of the primary training expenses was housing and feeding the hundreds of junior consultants being trained. It was the second largest expense item after the people costs themselves (both for instructors and for the students who weren’t generating revenue while being trained). Booking blocks of hotel rooms in Chicago or New York or London wasn’t going to be sustainable as Andersen continued to grow.

Just outside of Chicago, in St. Charles, was the campus of a recently failed Catholic girl’s college. Andersen’s partners bought the campus and transformed it into a center to house their training efforts. It made a great deal of sense and provided a smooth transition for all those young larval consultants; most of whom had just left similar campuses.

St. Charles was isolated and remote; an hour’s drive to the semi-bright lights of Chicago’s Rush and Division Streets. Few of us had the wherewithal to make the trip and courses were designed to provide little or no time to do so anyway. As a consolation prize, St. Charles had its own bar on campus. What the nuns who had run the college thought of this remains a mystery to me. What I have come to believe, however, is that getting this liquor license was the single most effective investment in knowledge management that Andersen ever made.

The bar at St. Charles was a safe place to share stories and a place where those with good stories mixed freely with those who needed to hear those stories. Better yet, the bar wasn’t a classroom. In a classroom, the teachers feel compelled to teach and the students feel compelled to feign wakefulness. In the bar, there was no teaching going on to interfere with the learning.

Before we started dressing things up in fancy terms like knowledge management and knowledge sharing we “talked shop.” The bar was a natural place to talk shop. It was also a place where people came from all around the world. It was a place where we could start building the personal relationships on which future knowledge sharing would depend.

Today, of course, we operate in a more complex and widely distributed world. It can be harder to create and sustain the interactions needed to create those relationships. But keep that image of the bar in mind when you’re designing for your environment.

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