Who Should Read This: Anyone who has ever noticed that their colleagues carry inside their brains a whole lot of knowledge and expertise that could improve how their department operates. Anyone who has ever experienced how difficult it is to capture that knowledge and practically apply it to solving a real-world problem. (In other words, anyone who has worked with other people for more than, say, a week.)
Client: Senior director of a global company, coordinating a diverse group of local representatives in various regions.
This client has implemented several software packages to support their global processes. The software is well configured, with formulas and processes and data tables. Each service line that uses the software has a commonly defined approach for how they handle their products, interact with their vendors, and propose new solutions for their customers. On the surface, they seem to have everything they need to perform with excellence. And, for the most part, they do—but there’s a catch.
Most businesses, locations, regions, functions, and departments have something unique in how they operate. It’s a reality, even if some organization leaders don’t like to acknowledge it. In this client’s situation, local representatives are placed all around the world, and each one possesses a detailed understanding of the operations of an average of 5 service lines—including their local supply chain, staffing arrangements, and inventories (including customer-owned inventory that might be stored on their customers’ behalf).
Do the company’s global systems contain data about all of these specific local operations? Yes, absolutely. But what the global systems can’t do is explain why the local variations exist—the rationale, context, or story line behind the data. Some data is also difficult to interpret from within a transactional system: for example, the placement of inventory in a warehouse, or why one space might be used for different purposes, or what the strategic business objectives are for the lines of business in that location or region and the implications for customers, service offerings, and staffing. Many decisions are based on local team members’ understanding of these specific nuances across the global organization.
In the past, our client had used SharePoint surveys to try to gather contextual information about local transactions, decisions, and processes. However, their process of validating the survey results was challenged by responders’ perceptions that their answers were “wrong” in the report—suggesting a disconnect between the questioners’ and responders’ understanding. The challenges were compounded by long delays between survey completion and validation of the results, and by the survey team’s struggle to keep its recommendations up-to-date based on the results. As end users were completing another survey, the client asked Abundiant to help as quickly as possible to find a solution that would speed up and smooth out their process of compiling, rationalizing, and reporting the results.
Some projects fit nicely into a clear methodology; others start on short notice in the midst of ongoing work. This was definitely a “dive right in” kind of project. Abundiant quickly assessed the situation, the client’s technology, their data models, and their processes, and we found a number of root causes for their challenges. Using the technology they already had in place, we addressed the chief causes of the processing lag and reduced the team’s turnaround time on reporting from many weeks to a few hours.
With this achieved, we were then able to step back and help the client team look at the content of the survey itself. We worked with them to weed out questions that could be answered using other system resources, recraft questions to invite answers that could be plugged into formulas without interpretation or guesswork, and focus the survey on that crucial information that couldn’t be obtained any other way than by asking the experts to unpack their brains. (Data scientists refer to this information as “tacit knowledge.”)
Once local representatives saw their own expert observations and points of view reflected in the reports they got back, they grew more confident that continuing to answer the (now routine) surveys was worth their time. This is a great example of how some very loud and influential critics were converted into evangelists for the process! Their buy-in was crucial: it not only drove the perceptions and engagement of executives and others in their locations, but it also improved the quality of their answers. This seemingly simple, routine survey of local representatives now provides critical input to numerous multi‑million dollar strategic and tactical decisions. Local experts feel they are heard—and they are—and they can see the link between their role and the business decisions happening around them.
At Abundiant, we’re often asked if unstructured information and tacit knowledge can really contribute to a company’s financial health. We can tell any number of stories to demonstrate how that is true. But this story tells itself pretty well.