KM’s father figure: Robert Buckman

No one can lay claim to originating the term knowledge management, but a big share of credit goes to the person who first turned the concept into a highly functional, industrial-grade reality: Robert Buckman, semi-retired CEO of Buckman Laboratories International Inc., a Memphis, Tenn.-based chemical company with approximately 1,400 employees in 80 countries.

In an interview Buckman discussed the origins of his knowledge-driven enterprise and how management should deal with knowledge initiatives in this tight-budget economy.

Your company was founded in 1945; when did you start applying KM to your business?

We somehow got stuck with this term knowledge management. We never used that term. We don’t have a CKO. We have a lot of people who are “knowledge officers” because that’s what they do. We started that work seriously in 1984, fooling around with using desktop computers as tools. Desktops didn’t work out well because we wanted to have our knowledgeable people in the field with our customers. Laptops, even the 17-pound ones, were better and freed people from having to be at the office but still have access to all the knowledge of the people at the company.

What was your goal with this KM experiment?

We were trying to radically improve our abilities to solve customer problems better and faster, to redefine our competitive position. It was essential — it still is — that we redefine the time equation of work. Back then, we would ship Ph.D.s all over the world to transmit knowledge. It wasn’t viable. It was very expensive, but worse, it didn’t move fast enough. Really, what we do this for is to redefine the speed at which we get work done.

We had a breakthrough in 1992. We built systems for transmitting knowledge on top of CompuServe forums, threaded discussions.

What were the first benefits?

We radically improved our speed of new product development. Before it had been 13 to 18 percent a year new products, and with this CompuServe set-up we were at 30 to 35 percent.

So you measure effectiveness as a new-product-sales ratio?

Not anymore. That’s a good metric for a product-driven organization, but now we’re knowledge-driven. We’ve evolved to a different relationship with our customers, more of a partnership. We don’t just ship them chemicals, we ship them knowledge of how to use them, or sometimes we take over a whole operation for a customer, assuming responsibility for their technical department, equip it, staff it. We measure our effectiveness in getting $X per month on a product, not $X per pound.

But when you build that kind of company, you have to do it on a basis of trust or you create no value. If you hire the right people, 99.9 percent of them want to do the right thing. And when that’s the case, you don’t design systems on the basis of the 0.1 percent who don’t. Open systems make the smoke blowers obvious, and they soon disappear. The problem with so many organizations is they’ve become involved in command and control and they’re too afraid to be able to benefit. Chaos makes serendipity.

So in this permafrost economy, is KM a luxury you can afford?

You have to think about using knowledge to accelerate speed to reduce costs in this environment where you have no pricing ability. You have to get better teamwork function, collaborate better, no matter what tools you use to get there. We’re actively looking at eRoom; we use QuickPlace and newsgroups. It’s a little easier for us than most companies because we’ve done it before, but we’ve never needed it as much as we need it in this environment.

Technology still imposes limits. Microsoft has to figure out how to get effective people collaboration in Office, for example. The key thing is to figure out how to redefine the timing questions of work. If we don’t do that, we won’t get the cost improvements that will improve our standard of living, and all the white collar work will move offshore.

Those are the issues we have to figure out. We’re going to have continual economic pressure to do things better and faster.