• Chris Collison
  • Geoff Parcell


As corporate members of SOL-UK (Society for Organisational Learning) BP are used to sharing their experiences with the world wide business community. In this active workshop Geoff Parcell and Chris Collison showed us how they planted the ‘egg’ into BP by way of the ‘Connect’ programme in which the employees are the driving force of knowledge management (KM). They also initiated the drive towards company-wide excellence in operations and learned new ways of applying ‘after action reviews’ and ‘lessons learnt sessions’ which avoided a blame culture. We learnt of the ‘peer assist’ process which is a key mechanism for mobilising and harnessing knowledge from around the world and which taps into the ‘tacit’ knowledge of people as well as the explicit. From the egg came the fledgling project which has now taken off. ‘Learning to fly’ is the title of their current book on knowledge management.

Notes below Compiled For The LSE by Geoffrey J.C. Higgs.

Table of Contents


Knowledge management (KM) can be broadly understood as either the processes involved in acquiring new knowledge in the strategic areas of the company or as creating an environment in which knowledge is disseminated in a form that can be best utilised by those business units which require it. The sharing of knowledge may take place on a formal or an informal basis so it is important that people interact on a personal level as well as playing the role which their job dictates. BP has 100,000 employees in 150 countries and has undergone a series of mergers and acquisitions in which wide and different cultures have had to be assimilated. The current emphasis has been on making connections or getting the ‘right’ people talking to each other.

The US Army Story

The importance of quick accessibility to relevant information is illustrated by the story of the colonel in the US Army who was ordered to give any support necessary to an area hit by a hurricane. The colonel’s experience was of life at the ‘front line’. He had no previous experience of this kind of task but as part of his ‘executive education’ he had been introduced to what was called ‘the Centre for Army Lessons Learned’. Using his lap top computer he contacted the Centre and asked the question ‘what does the Army know about hurricane support?’ Within four hours he had accessed the following:

  1. A profile of the deployment of troops in the last three hurricanes in North America including number of staff, types of staff, number of skills and types of skills.
  2. A proforma budget with information of how past requested budgets had compared with actual budgets.
  3. Ten questions he was likely to be asked in the first few minutes of his arrival.
  4. A list of every state and federal agency that had had any contact with this kind of situation including the names of the people he had to contact and the Army liaison person who worked with the agency.
  5. The names of people on an advisory team two of which were now generals and one a colonel who had agreed to give this service.

The Brain Analogy

BP, like the U.S. Army, can be compared to the human brain: different parts of it can be associated with different functions. But learning to store the right kind of information or making the best response is not always easy. In dealing with children who have learning difficulties Chris’ wife uses what is called an ‘accelerated learning approach’. This involves ‘brain gymnastics’ in which each child might be encouraged to perform a circular motion with the right hand in one direction and suddenly switch to the opposite motion with the left hand. Or perhaps to recite the alphabet forwards and then backwards. The fact that the switch is awkward is thought to be due to switching from one functional area in the brain to another but after 5 minutes practice at creating such connections the children appear more receptive to learning. BP needed to make new connections some of which were undoubtedly awkward in order to mobilise and utilise the knowledge that flows undetected in and out and around the organisation and to make it quickly accessible on a wider basis. The aim of knowledge management is not to create a huge encyclopedia of everything that everybody knows; a sort of downloading of every individuals brain but to establish a way of keeping track of people in the organisation who know the ‘recipe’ for doing something. The aim was to get such people in contact both through technology and through change in the company culture.Whereas the U.S. Army was good at capturing new knowledge in the form of ‘lessons learned’, BP wanted to create the right connections. This was BP’s aim though other organisations will decide for themselves whether ‘connectivity’ or ‘new knowledge capture’ is a priority.

The Learning Process

Learning within an organisation can be seen as a three-step process:

Learning before action >learning during action >learning after action

Learning before action: there are a number of ways in which knowledge can be more easily accessed at the start of a project. In BP, whenever people have a problem or an issue or are starting a project about which they feel they have insufficient information meetings can be arranged to which those employees judged able to help are invited. Managers are actively encouraged to release staff for this purpose which may be a ten minute conversation or, depending on the importance of the project and the proximity of personnel, somewhat longer. Meetings have a certain formality. The project leader will give the background to the project and a brief resumé of his or her experience together with any ideas that the person has. There is usually a need to find a common ground or language and questions concerning clarity may be asked but people are discouraged from making value judgments until all contributions have been made.

This kind of ‘brainstorming’ may involve a cross section of management or it may involve a meeting between people of equal status. What is important is that that they will have past knowledge or experience of the task or problem in hand. People are more inclined to share knowledge with those in an equal position in the organisation and BP has been keen to encourage this with what they call ‘peer assist’. There are a number of ways in which people can be brought more in contact with each other but a very powerful one is via the Internet. Some 20,000 staff have created their own website including a ‘friendly’ photograph and personal information about their interests and skills. Typically people will combine their own offers of information or assistance with a request for some in an area in which they are lacking but often people belong to ‘communities of practice’ which offer specialist knowledge or expertise which is not directly concerned with BP’s operation.Very little in BP is mandated but people are encouraged to think beyond their own environment. When a connection is made it is possible to see who else has logged in. So not only can you ring someone up or send an e-mail but if you’re a refinery operator on site and feeling lonely you can pick on a friendly face and have a chat. There is also an on-line newspaper to which people can send their stories, a group calendar and a ‘tool kit’ of useful assessment processes. People can write reviews on whether such tool kits are useful. So the whole process becomes very democratic.

‘Explicit’ knowledge or that which has been codified or written so that it consists of relevant and coherent facts or theory or a recipe for some process has obvious exchange value. ‘Tacit’ knowledge which is in the heads of people or in their skill in carrying out a process must be learned either through conversation or some kind of other contact such as apprenticeship. The ways of getting to ‘lessons learned’ may be formal or informal and it is therefore important to engender not only a feeling of loyalty and responsibility to a particular division but to the organisation as a whole. This doesn’t stifle competition but it does keep it friendly and as members of a ‘community of practice’ people are encouraged to make practical and intellectual assets available. It is the responsibility of the knowledge management team to create an easy access system and BP has very specific ‘delivery networks’ which were created to solve particular problems, but it also has what might be called ‘enabling networks’ which keep the ‘communities of practice’ in touch. In BP the difference is:

Delivery networks have: Enabling networks have:
A sponsor
Appointed leader
A budget
People meet physically
A performance contract
Measurable value
No sponsor needed
Emergent leader
No budget
People usually ‘meet virtually’
A mission or vision statement
Value is hard to measure

If ‘captured’ knowledge is made explicit it has to be in a form which is easily assimilated. It is very easy to have ‘graveyards’ of knowledge in certain areas because the knowledge is either too esoteric or insufficiently publicised or simply too much. It is often impossible to read all the reports on similar projects and information must be abstracted to certain levels. So for example the questions might be, ‘what are the top ten things a person needs to know to deal with an ‘X’ situation?’ ‘Who can a person talk to if he or she needs more information?’ There has to be an easy way of running through different levels of details or complexity.

Learning during action: this involves a trick taken from the U.S. Army called ‘after action review’. After a specific action individuals or teams ask the following questions:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. Why was there a difference, if any between (1) and (2) and was it good or bad?
  4. What have I learned? Of course the ‘peer assist’ process should always be available. If someone is running a refinery turnround which involves a shutdown it is a very costly procedure and it’s useful to be in touch with the people who have done it before. ‘Enabling networks’ arise spontaneously and people find value in sharing information because it enhances their individual or their team’s performance. As in other organisations a contract involves a simple progression of things to be done: PROMISE     ACT     DELIVER.

Learning after action: Post project appraisals often gather dust and are full of reasons why mishaps were nobody’s fault. Somehow successes as well as failures have to come out in order to be learned from without establishing a ‘blame culture’. Moreover many ‘lessons learned’ are those people might gain from five minutes chat at the bar rather than hours ploughing through reports. BP’s answer is try to get to get all those involved in a project together in an immediate and personal sense maybe for a half or a full day. Some of that may be for merely eating or having a drink together but the remainder will be a structured review of the operation. Each individual is invited to give reasons why the project was successful (if indeed that was the case) and reasons why the project was not more successful (if indeed that was the case). These can be subjected to the five ‘why questions’, designed to elicit the overall or underlying reasons for success or failure. It’s useful to adopt the role of a team called upon to advise those on a similar future project and even perhaps to have a client in the room so advice can be given first hand. More importantly this event should take place as soon as possible after the project to avoid too much ‘post hoc rationalisation’. Finally individuals are asked to give the operation marks out of ten and possibly to say what could have made the operation efficiency ten out of ten. None of this information exchange gets shared beyond the meeting unless expressed permission is given by those concerned. The aim is that blame should be decoupled from individual responsibility and that though the final report should contain all relevant advice about what to do and who to contact it is not a vehicle for showing up incompetence. Building up sufficient trust in this procedure is of prime importance.

How can KM be assessed?

Clearly, if knowledge management is to be adopted as a policy, there has to be some way in which it can be assessed. BP has devised a series of categories in which a KM strategy combined with indicators such as degree of innovation, capturing knowledge, learning before and after and how well the organisation is geared to knowledge sharing is assessed in terms of five levels. Each organisation must find their own form of words for this schema but the following is an example:

KM Assessment


Strategy Innovation Organisation Learning (before/during/after) Knowledgecapture
Level 5 KM /business strategy. Framework & tools. Clear targets/markets for innovation. Creativity sessions Clearly defined roles. Networks have clear purpose. Prompts for learning built into processes. language/template common Relevant knowledge is efficiently pushed to operators.
Level 4 Awareness of organisation’sintellectual assets. Process for filtering ideas. Good people identified. KM is everyone’s responsibility. Networks organised ‘Learning before, during and after’adopted. Clientsparticipate. Knowledge is distilled and refreshed by named individuals.
Level 3 Some strategy exists but not linked to business results. Research to find how best to do it. People networking. Job descriptions for sharing. People can find out what the company knows. Peers help peers. Knowledge collected in a common format
Level 2 People using a number of tools to learn and share. Innovation is rewarded. Good examples get implemented. Resources defined for KM. Ad hoc networking to help individual. Some learning before doing. Program review sessions. Access to lots of knowledge but no abstracts.
Level 1 People agree sharing knowledge important. No standard procedures. Few innovations get adopted People talk about how to knowledge share. People conscious of need to learn but little time to follow up Few contribute lessons learned’. Few search.


It was suggested that organisations outside the oil industry are often very different and that the learning and sharing policy might be very different between the public and the private sector. It is appropriate to talk about a common language across an ‘operational community’ such as the oil industry and in considering KM assessment it is relatively easy to agree what form of words should go in at the different levels. Whether it is a refinery in Grangemouth, a chemical factory in the US or offshore platform in Australia people talk about much the same issues. Some organisations such as universities are not accessible to breaking down into ‘communities of practice’ in the same way. Their emphasis is on generating new knowledge, not necessarily with a clear purpose but with a great deal of diversity and crossing of boundaries. In science, for example, there might be a shared purpose but it isn’t goal oriented. The ‘publish or perish’ policy also goes against sharing information and makes people very selfish. Whilst learning from success might not be as easy as learning from failure it is often difficult to avoid the ‘blame culture’especially if a person happens to be something like an air traffic controller. People are also very reluctant to share failure in a society in which litigation is widespread. However in general, positive and negative feedback especially from peers is very productive and increases awareness of unforeseen ramifications in a project.

How KM affects the performance management process

A lot of the process at BP is concerned with ‘operational management’; managing production and distribution of crude oil and its products, running chemical plants, refueling aircraft etc. Though people tend to see their own business as unique, everyone is concerned with managing cost, ensuring competency, good relations with the outer community, and even managing corrosion is a common concern. Some two years ago people started looking at the things that were core to every part of the operation and a cross section of the staff were brought together to identify and assess practice areas. What was required was a common assessment tool; a form of words that could be applied to all areas. Every business unit would then have a benchmark against which it could measure itself. So ‘operation excellence’ was born.

‘Operation Excellence’

The overall operation was split into a number of functions or practices and a common procedure was instigated as shown below:

Practice areas diagram:


  1. Every business unit benchmarks itself against a set of key practices using the common assessment tool.

  2. Targets for improvement are agreed by business units and offers and requests are recorded.

  3. Results are collated and analysed to build up the overall picture.

  4. Business units use a ‘dating agency’ to share strengths with others.

  5. ‘Good practice’, ‘tools’, offers and requests are made available on the Intranet ‘community centre’.

‘Offers and Requests’

A diagonal slice across workforce and management for each business unit is invited to assess the overall picture. People from each unit can then identify areas that they want to improve on, set some targets and develop action plans which can be built into contracts. In this way every business unit benchmarks itself against the common criteria of practice. Again categories of practice can be given different levels so that business units can see what they are good at in the organisation and where they may need to improve. Just as the ‘learning after action’ process was designed to avoid the ‘blame culture’ so this assessment avoids making direct comparisons in terms of ‘league tables’. So called ‘river’ diagrams (line graphs) indicating where units are on particular practices and where they are aiming to be and ‘stair’ diagrams’ showing how each unit is coping with a particular practice are not meant to single out individual units for blame. There may be very good reasons why for example, some particular unit remains at ‘level 1’ on say corrosion. On the other hand people may see themselves at ‘level 5’ and want to say ‘we are good at this because of so and so’. People who see themselves at a lower level can make ‘requests’ for help of various kinds. In fact every business unit is encouraged to make three offers and three requests. This balance makes it acceptable to make requests and not a matter of swallowing one’s pride. The ‘dating agency’ gets the right people in contact between units and all the rest of the communication channels, from ‘success stories’ in the Newsletter to the ‘peer assist’ procedure, keeps the information flowing. The BP fledgling has learnt to fly.