Case Study Unilever (UK/Netherlands)
Would like a sample response to the three questions posed at the end of the case study.
CASE STUDY EXERCISE
Two weeks after Paul Polman had been appointed as Chief Executive, he asked for a review meeting with Cathy Bautista, Head of Unilever’s Knowledge Management Group. At
the meeting they discussed Unilever’s achievements in establishing communities of practice and various knowledge repositories. However, he was concerned about the
extent to which Unilever’s knowledge creation and transfer processes were aligned to corporate objectives and strategies. His fear was while there may be a lot of
learning and knowledge within Unilever, it might be insufficiently focused towards delivering better products and services. He asked Cathy to re-evaluate current
knowledge management activities from a strategic perspective and to put forward recommendations that would move Unilever towards a more purposeful approach to its
learning and knowledge.
Unilever is one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world with an annual turnover of $40bn. The company employs around 250,000 people based in over 100
countries. It has a large and varied portfolio of foods, home and personal care products including such well-known brands as Flora, Omo, Ragu, Calvin Klein and Dove.
Unilever invests around 2.5 per cent of its annual turnover in research and development leading to continuous product innovations and filing of patents each year. It
takes learning and knowledge seriously and believes that transferring this knowledge into its products and services is a key source of competitive advantage. The
organisation has ambitions to be ‘multi-local’ through understanding and anticipating local needs around the world and producing products and services that fulfil
these needs. Internationally Unilever aspires to be a networked learning organisation with its diverse and dispersed workforce and often questions whether it has
become more of a top-down ‘teaching organisation’.
Unilever’s Knowledge Management Group has aimed at delivering the learning organisation vision through a number of targeted interventions. They have developed a
framework of organisational knowledge processes and focused their efforts on locating, capturing, sharing, transferring and creating knowledge. Cathy Bautista sees two
clear reasons for this approach: ‘Firstly, as a group it is helpful to have a structured way of organising the what and the how of knowledge acquisition. Secondly, the
team knows that to be able to give better advice and support to their customers, they must excel at what they do’. She recognises the benefits of learning from
mistakes and ‘error harvesting’ but appreciates that it is more of an aspiration in some parts of the organisation. ‘Learning from success is relatively easy as we can
actively promote and help embed lessons derived from successful experiences. Learning from failure is more sensitive but just as important. We are promoting a culture
of being willing to learn as you go and to embrace and apply learning both from success and failure. This is what I would call a “wholesome way of learning”.’
Unilever started its knowledge management activities in 1996. A key strand of its activities has been the development of several dozen communities of practice (CoP).
To initiate these informal networks, they organised ‘Knowledge Workshops’ to bring together key experts and practitioners from around the world. The purpose of the
workshops was to focus efforts in a functional domain and to ascertain what people did and didn’t know about the area. The domain had to be core to Unilever’s
strategy. This allowed a shared vocabulary and terminology to develop as well as identifying any knowledge gaps. Each workshop generated a ‘Knowledge Domain’ for each
community of practice. This comprised handbooks, manuals, presentations and any information deemed valuable to that domain. There was also a list of key people and
groups within Unilever who had long-term experience in that domain such as meal sauces.1 Each CoP had a champion to help coordinate and mobilise the network. The
champion held a relatively senior position to encourage commitment and focus to the CoP. The aim of the CoP was to encourage collaboration between geographically
dispersed plants and to cross functional boundaries. The CoPs were built around four key principles: deliverables, people, operations and leverage. The deliverables
could be business deliverables such as increasing efficiencies in organisational processes or they could be knowledge deliverables such as new insights or producing
best-practice guidelines. The people aspect ensured that there was a right mix of experts from diverse geographical and functional backgrounds. An ‘activist’ role was
articulated in each CoP. The activist position rotated around the group and was introduced to ensure that there was strategic alignment with community activities. The
operations element of each CoP was around creating a safe and trusting environment where people felt comfortable to contribute and co-create new knowledge. The
leverage dimension was to create linkages between the different communities rather than having lots of isolated communities within such a large organisation. Each
community developed their own identity and brand and engaged in two-way dialogue with other communities. 2 External feedback was provided to each CoP after it had been
in operation for some time. This took the form of a health-check questionnaire and identified strengths and gaps in the persistence of the community. Each CoP also
tried to classify the value of their activities in a variety of ways. This included a list of success stories, quotes from satisfied community ‘customers’ and use of
the balanced-scorecard framework.
Another major strand in Unilever’s knowledge management endeavours was the development of an Intranet portal. The aim of the portal was to aid knowledge sharing and
increase collaboration across the organisation. The portal held a knowledge repository with a search engine covering different CoP projects, a CRM database as well as
key procedures and practices. The knowledge repositories were supported by ‘chat groups’ who provided hints, tips and guidance on how best to use the material.
Community interactions were maintained using community software such as e-groups and Geocrawler. A ‘yellow pages’ database was created to help identify experts. The
main challenge was getting experts to maintain and update their profiles regularly.3 Unilever has tried to capture the knowledge and learning of retiring employees
through narrative accounts called ‘learning histories’. They used two game-show formats, ‘Blind Date’ to match people with the necessary expertise and ‘Mastermind’ to
help people question a departing expert. The learning histories served as a form of organisational memory to help employees think through what they might do in similar
situations.4 Learning from projects was captured in ‘Knowledge Debriefs’ to help prevent recurrent mistakes ‘re-inventing the wheel’ on each project. The debriefing
focused on process and technical learning. Interviews were conducted with project participants to capture the five best and worst aspects of the project. These were
discussed with all participants and documented as a form of process learning. Technical learning came from comparing key product attributes and consumer attributes set
at the beginning of the project. Two delegates from new related projects attended the project debriefs to
ensure that mistakes weren’t repeated and any learning was transferred to the new project.5 Cathy reflected on her earlier meeting with Paul Polman and smiled at his
perceptive remarks around knowledge management. She recalled her own affirmation in this area through organisational circulars:
‘Knowledge management needs to be aligned with CEO’s strategy. It will be essential to define how KM can support the business strategy as well as build and/or
strengthen KM competencies across the business. Professional competencies need to focus not only on what people do, but also on what they need to know in order to
deliver. In that sense the discussion shouldn’t be as to whose responsibility it is, either the CKO, CIO or HR function, but rather of how to ensure that those needs
are deliberately identified and addressed’.
It was time to move some of this rhetoric into reality. Cathy called her knowledge management team together to discuss the way forward.
1 von Krogh, G, Nonaka I et al 2001, ‘Making the most of your company’s knowledge: a strategic framework’, Long range planning 34: 421-39.
2 Poss, A, Linse K et al 2005, ‘Unilever: Leveraging community value’, Inside knowledge 8(4).
3 Iske, PL 2002, ‘Building a corporate KM community’, Ibid, 6.
4 Higgison, S 2007, ‘The Knowledge: Sam Marshall’, Ibid, 27 June.
1.What advice would you give Cathy Bautista on improving the strategic focus on Unilever’s knowledge management activities?
- What changes, if any, would you make to Unilever’s communities of practice?
How could ‘learning histories’ be further developed to capture organisational memory?
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