So much information, and all of it hard to find

09 Jan 2014 Chad Hawkinson

Industry turns to technical knowledge management to harness crucial, hard-to-find information.

Recently, a European manufacturer was part-way through an expensive certification process required to sell a high-end piece of electrical equipment in the United States when it discovered that the company's American unit had already done the certification work two years earlier. Another company, a manufacturer of industrial cleaning products, discovered the solution to a tricky engineering challenge lay outside its own four walls, buried in supplier patents.

These two examples illustrate the two sides of the knowledge-management conundrum looming over companies today: The opposite but equal challenges of harnessing internal and external technical knowledge. Within organizations, information is locked inside email servers, individual hard drives, or discrete internal systems for product lifecycle management, document management, or other activities. Likewise, engineers are unaware of both innovations outside their own organization and relevant best practices from other industries and technical disciplines. Nor are they able to tap into the industry knowledge to be found in a vast array of technical reference resources.

But these examples also demonstrate that companies can address such challenges by implementing a technical knowledge-management strategy providing a "one-stop-shop" for engineering answers built on a foundation of content, technology, research tools, and process. As our two manufacturers discovered, this approach to addressing technical knowledge management can be a significant driver of both top- and bottom-line business results.

Too much information

The growing difficulties associated with accessing and leveraging technical knowledge have roots in several ongoing trends, including demographics. About half the North American and European engineers in oil and gas, aerospace, defense, and other heavy industries are expected to retire over the next 10 years. This exodus can be viewed as a recruiting and training challenge, but it is also a knowledge-management challenge.

With veteran staff leaving the workforce, remaining engineers can no longer lean on the experience of their more senior colleagues to help resolve recurring problems. The challenge for organizations in these "graying industries" is how to ensure that the remaining engineers and the incoming generation of technical workers have access to all the information they require, so they can avoid repeating lessons already learned and reinventing who knows how many wheels. Accessing that information is time-consuming and tedious because traditional search technologies are ill-suited for research across the incredible volume of unstructured data that makes up the vast majority of R&D content.

At the same time, the technical world is awash in content that is in near-constant flux because of the pace of innovation. Standards, industry publications, technical journals, handbooks, conference proceedings, patents, websites, social media, and many other sources comprise a tsunami of information that threatens to overwhelm engineers who need specific answers to specific technical questions (see figure below). Finding the answer to just one engineering challenge can require information across a dozen-or dozens of-different sources.

Although most critical technical content is now available on the internet, it is curated, managed, and published on the web by myriad information providers and vendors, each with its own user interface and often without adequate search tools to help users quickly find pertinent, accurate information. The best technical information is often login-protected subscription content that popular search engines cannot "see." As a result, engineers and other technical professionals waste countless hours logging into multiple content platforms and repeatedly entering their search strings, only to be forced to comb through long lists of links to documents that may or may not be relevant to the problem at hand. What they really need are precise answers to their specific problems.

It is little wonder that, according to a study by digital engagement platform vendor Outsell, engineers in all fields spend 13% more time today searching for information than they did in 2002. And yet they still fail to find what they need. A 2011 study by consulting, software, and research company Infocentric Research concluded that 54% of engineering decisions are based on incomplete, inconsistent, and inadequate information, and according to a 2012 study by market research, analysis, and advisory firm IDC, 60% of manufacturers said they lack informed decision-making capabilities necessary to innovate. The financial impacts can be significant. From 1% to 2.5% of revenues are lost due to decreased productivity during the learning curve for new hires, according to investment management and investment services company BNY Mellon. In some industries, such as oil and gas, those lost revenues are higher because new engineers take several years to get up to speed, and their mistakes are costly (see sidebar "The big crew change" at the end of this article).

As these data points suggest, corporations are struggling to connect R&D staff, engineers, and product teams to the information they need, and corporate performance is suffering as a result. Ultimately, without a solution to the knowledge-management challenge, engineers will continue to waste valuable time and resources, to the detriment of their companies' revenues and profits.

One-stop-shop for knowledge management

Fortunately, companies are finding it possible to capture the value of information residing inside and outside their organizations by embracing a knowledge-management framework. The goal of this type of framework is to enable technical professionals to reduce the time spent searching for information and increase the amount of time they spend actually using information. Such a framework comprises a mix of content, technology, research tools, and process (see below). Let us look at each of these components in turn.

On the content side, companies must ensure their knowledge workers have access to a library of technical information that is broad and deep. Internal content is critical, so that workers can leverage their colleagues' expertise and other tribal knowledge accumulated with the company. After all, an engineer's most trusted source of information is other engineers.

In terms of external knowledge, a comprehensive collection should include the typical handbooks and manuals one might find on an engineer's desk, plus industry standards, technical journals, scholarly articles, and patents-all kept up to date. Engineers would also have access to "Deep Web" content that is not indexed by the commonly used web search engines, including technical articles and reports not generally available through normal internet search tools. The content in this library should be specifically curated to match the evolving information requirements of the company's knowledge workers, aligning not only with their industry domain but also with their discipline (such as aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, and material sciences and metallurgy, to name a few). Similarly, the content must be specifically oriented toward a corporate environment, with an emphasis on supporting practical, technical problem solving, as opposed to an academic library environment where the objective is to support pure research.

All this content may as well be invisible, unless technical staffers are equipped with a knowledge platform that can retrieve the needle-in-the-haystack piece of information or technical detail an engineer might need. To accelerate research and solve problems better and faster, organizations must provide their engineers and technical professionals with an easy way to access both internal and external information, along with tools to digest and apply that knowledge to solve their toughest problems.

The good news: A new breed of technical knowledge-management solutions is now available. These solutions, tuned to the needs of engineers and technical professionals, provide one-stop access to the best technical information in the world. Right out of the box, users can access patents, handbooks, journal articles, and other reference works. Advanced search technologies enable users to quickly pinpoint relevant technical answers in prepackaged knowledge collections, as well as their own critical institutional knowledge, housed in a repository that spans hundreds of document types and an infinite number of data sources.

World-class knowledge discovery tools enable users to rapidly browse, digest, and understand technical topics. These tools also have the ability to dynamically summarize relevant documents, based on an analysis of their contents, enabling rapid review of hundreds of documents in a few hours, rather than days or weeks. Crucially, engineers can use these tools to explore across adjacent topic areas. A user looking for information on corrosion prevention, for example, may also need to understand the causes and effects of corrosion to create an effective solution, and the new tools facilitate this type of exploration.

Building upon content and research capabilities, the one-stop-shop knowledge management platform includes embedded workflows that automate ideation and problem-solving methodologies such as root cause analysis (RCA), value engineering, and failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA). These workflows help engineers and other knowledge workers define and analyze opportunities or problems, understand product requirements and issues, transform requirements into design-intent models, and drive breakthrough solution strategies.

Finally, organizations must consider whether they have the processes in place to enable technical professionals to take advantage of the content, advanced search technologies, and workflows discussed above. Engineers are inherently problem solvers, but the problem solving inherent to innovation is not explicitly taught as a process in engineering schools. Moreover, few companies have a culture built around a systematic, repeatable process of problem solving, including market analysis, competitive intelligence, research through the design cycle, and other upstream innovation research activities. A robust knowledge-management platform can mitigate this situation by providing a framework-a built-in interrogative process, underpinned by the embedded workflows and methodologies discussed above-that walks an engineer through the steps necessary to obtain the answer to a technical issue. Companies can also engage with third parties to help them learn the innovation process (and then carry it forward independently) or to actually run the innovation process-backed up by the necessary content and technology to ensure its success.

How the investment in knowledge management pays off

The return on investment in the type of technical knowledge-management platform described here comes along many dimensions, ranging from consolidated spending on research to productivity gains by engineers to faster new product introductions to increased use of information, greater insights into market trends, and reduced risk, among other benefits (see sidebar "How to measure the return on knowledge investments" at the end of this article).

In terms of spend consolidation, a single source and price for all outside technical information reduces the cost of administering supplier relationships and eliminates the greater cost of buying information piecemeal. The right single source will also ensure everyone on staff has access to the latest versions of standards, regulations, handbooks, and other critical technical reference works so they are always tapping into the most up-to-date information.

Reducing disparate sources of information (each with a different login credential and interface) to one, or even a few, reduces total search time. Giving users a single source with one login, one entry point, one user interface, one search protocol, and one training routine-then leveraging it across dozens or hundreds of engineers-can shrink the time engineers spend looking for answers to their technical problems and increase the time they spend applying the knowledge they have acquired. Engineers, product managers, marketers, and others in the organization are empowered to make effective technical and product-related decisions more quickly. The effect is to shorten design cycles, enabling companies to bring new or revised products to market faster, win more business by responding to bids more quickly, and reduce iterations and unneeded redesigns (see figure below).

A single source for aggregated technical information, internal and external, leads to higher adoption and more use of sources. Improved access can expand the knowledge base for the entire company, giving engineers better awareness of industry trends, best practices, innovations, and cutting-edge technologies. Increased use also contributes to reducing rework and the number of design iterations. It means consistency throughout the company because engineers work with the same source of truth.

Measurable benefits also include insights into market and technology trends, an understanding of the competitive landscape, and consumer sentiment as expressed in social media and on the web. With these insights, engineers and product managers can find new markets and make smarter product road map decisions.

Finally, closer adherence to regulatory requirements improves quality and reduces liability and warranty costs as well as noncompliance fines. Improved quality and compliance reduce plant or asset downtime, maintenance costs, and lost revenues or fines caused by a failure to meet supply contracts or the inability to get products to market in time.

Seizing the challenge

The factors outlined above provide a framework for how senior executives can think about the return on investment in a technical knowledge-management platform. Simply measuring the amount any single information source is used, as a corporate librarian might do, will not fully capture the value this type of platform can deliver. The fact is, a technical and engineering knowledge system will contribute to revenue, profit, and market share.

Consider the European manufacturer of big electrical equipment mentioned earlier. When it decided to enter the US market with one of its premiere products, it had to certify that the equipment met various US regulatory and other standards. This required shipping two of the expensive units to the United States for testing. The company envisioned a six-month timeframe with a $5 million price tag, written off as the cost of entering a new market.

At the time it began the certification, the company installed a knowledge platform with advanced search capabilities. Once it was plugged into all enterprise sources, the European team discovered that its US business unit had taken the electrical equipment through the certification process two years earlier. The team discontinued the duplicative effort and saved a few million dollars and valuable months.

The episode helped the company recognize that its silo mentality was as big a barrier as the lack of tools. It embarked on an effort to roll out and use the knowledge platform broadly throughout the company to better manage knowledge capture and use, to identify and create cross-company communities of expertise, and to create a new culture of knowledge capture and sharing.

Duplicating innovation already achieved outside the company is yet another challenge. The manufacturer of industrial cleaning products mentioned earlier was overhauling its commercial detergent and sanitizer dispensers to improve performance, safety, and ease of use, and to reduce packaging waste in landfills. The manufacturer's engineers were stymied by the dispenser's check-valve element, which was collapsing at high back pressures. Pressed to find a solution quickly, the engineers needed to know if one existed outside the company. Using a knowledge-management platform with advanced search capabilities and problem-solving workflows, the team was able to understand the contextual aspects of the problem they were trying to solve and then research suppliers' patents. Eventually, the engineers identified a promising check-valve technology, which led to a licensing agreement.

The company launched the industry's first maintenance-free dispenser, which reduces user costs as much as 80% and is 100% recyclable. The dispenser has generated tens of millions of dollars in incremental revenue in its first five years on the market.

As these examples illustrate, today's technical information and knowledge-management challenges can be turned into opportunities if companies set themselves the goal of doing so. The overall goal of knowledge management in this engineering context is to compile authoritative content that brings all the relevant industry knowledge and best practices to users' desktops; to use advanced research capabilities to pinpoint answers within oceans of internal and external data; and to apply problem-solving tools such as RCA and FMEA to speed answers to the toughest problems in key workflows. All these efforts must be built upon a sound knowledge-management framework. Only with a solid foundation in place can companies expect to survive-and thrive-in the midst of today's information tsunami.

Learn more about Knowledge Management and Product Design.

The big crew change

Any industry in North America or Europe heavily staffed with Baby Boomers is about to encounter a brain drain. But according to T+D magazine, 44% of organizations have no knowledge transfer process in place and no plans to create one.

Without knowledge retention efforts to capture what senior engineers and other technical professionals know before they retire, these companies will find themselves repeating lessons learned but not recorded for future use.

A closer look at the oil and gas industry illustrates the brain drain challenges all these industries face.

In oil and gas, the aging workforce, combined with the decline in students in petroleum engineering, is a growing concern. The industry is calling it the big crew change.

The industry is focused on recruiting, training, and developing a new generation of petro-technical professionals, and it has made capturing the knowledge of senior professionals a priority. It is also focused on the relatively younger engineering workforce in Asia and on bringing them up to speed. The Baby Boom brain drain is mainly a problem in North America and Europe. But what a problem it is.

By 2015, about 50% of American oil and gas engineers will be eligible to retire. In that year, the flow of younger petro-technical professionals into the industry will reach about 17,000, compared to about 22,000 departing, according to Schlumberger Business Consulting (SBC). Petro-technical professionals include geologists, geophysicists, petro-physicists, and petroleum engineers with expertise in reservoirs, drilling, completion, and production.

On average, it takes a new engineer 8.2 years to gain sufficient experience to make nonstandard, original technical decisions, according to SBC's 2012 human resources benchmark study for the oil and gas industry.

"The Value of Competent People"-by J. Ford Brett, managing director at oil and gas training company PetroSkills-documents typical costly mistakes by novice engineers: Perforated wells with reduced production; increased nonproductive time in drilling operations; and less success with exploratory wells. Some of these mistakes can cost up to $500,000 each, Brett estimates.

Brett calculates the big crew change will cost the industry about $35 billion per year in wasted exploration and production expenditures-about 20% of the total. His PetroSkills Alliance (with more than 28 members, including Shell and BP) focuses on meeting the challenges of the big crew change through developmental training.

The industry's adoption of better knowledge-management systems and procedures is also driven by other factors. Besides the aging workforce, the oil and gas industry is undergoing profound changes from advances in technology, shifting global demand, ongoing regulatory uncertainties, and heightened attention to environmental risks.

Calculating the ROI of better knowledge management

Companies that invest in a one-stop-shop approach to technical knowledge management can achieve significant top- and bottom-line returns on their investment. The specific benefits vary depending on the type of organization, the size of the knowledge workforce at the company, and the types of projects where the knowledge-management solution is applied.

Results from manufacturing companies that have deployed this approach for new-product development reveal significant efficiency gains:

  • A 20%-30% reduction in engineering time spent locating relevant technical knowledge, curating information (that is, researching document currency, procuring outside documents, accessing documents referenced within specifications, and maintaining paper copies), and sharing information with other colleagues
  • A 50%-75% reduction in time spent reviewing and understanding relevant technical knowledge
  • A 20%-50% reduction in time spent on ideation, including analysis, problem solving, and decision making

In terms of dollar savings, the estimated annual cost reductions for an industrial manufacturer with 500 engineers, each earning an average fully burdened salary of $93,000, ranges from $7.6 million to $13.4 million. Of course, these figures reflect only the time and dollar savings of the engineering staff. Additional benefits include a reduction of as much as 50% of the time spent re-creating work already done elsewhere in the organization. There are longer term benefits, as well, such as the value of creating a 100%-reusable audit trail of all research and problem-solving efforts.

These results reflect the return on investment of a relatively large engineering organization. A smaller organization employing, say, 35 engineers could see direct engineering cost savings ranging from $500,000 to $1 million a year. A much larger global corporation with 1,000 engineers could realize annual savings of as much as $26.7 million.

Based on company case studies, benefits from improved technical knowledge management have been shown to provide additional competitive advantages:

  • Accelerating time to market of new products by an average of two-and-a-half to four months
  • A 1%-5% improvement in manufacturing yield
  • A two- to five-fold reduction in product/process defects and failures
  • A 5%-10% reduction in manufacturing costs, including materials savings, energy savings, and process improvements
  • A 5%-10% increase in intellectual property royalties

Other, "softer" advantages include:

  • Improved ability to identify new markets and strategize new market entry
  • Market-share gains of 1%-2%, thanks to deep market intelligence around competitors, consumer sentiment, industry and patent trends, technology trends, and more
  • Better capability to develop product road maps strategically

Chad Hawkinson is a Vice President of IHS Product Design


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