CASE STUDY: Underwriting knowledge
For Gordon Larson, telling stories is all in a day’s work at his job as a chief knowledge officer at CNA, and that is just fine with executives at the Chicago-based insurance giant. Larson owes his job to a shift in corporate direction. Three years ago, under the direction of a new chairman, CNA set off on a new mission. The ultimate goals, says Karen Foley, CNA’s executive vice president of corporate development, was “to get out of the distribution business and become a great underwriting company”. In order to do that, the company had to become more informed about the industries and customers it served. But CNA’s traditional structure of 35 separate strategic business units made sharing internal information among employees nearly impossible.
A single customer seeking answers to different insurance needs might be passed to a variety of departments. CNA knew it had to create one uniform face to customers and that meant it had to reeducate its employees. Branch offices would have had to be consolidated to facilitate closer working relationships among staff teams. Most important of all, CNA had to equip its employees (many of whom had focused solely on niche markets) with the much broader knowledge of all the company’s products. To do that, CNA set about a web-based knowledge network that captures the expertise of its employees. And it is that expertise that Larsen uses as the fodder for his “knowledge” stories.
By December 2001 the 35 business units had been consolidated into three strategic businesses. Along with the physical reorganisation, the nature of what employees did had to change as well. “Just by reorganising, we would not get people to change how they think and work with other people”, Larson says. “Moving from a decentralised culture to a collaborative one is one major change-management challenge”. As the new “single face” of the company, each employee had to cede narrow product and market expertise to gain general knowledge of the company’s entire product portfolio. But how to make instant experts of the staff? CNA offerings include hundreds of products in more than 900 industry segments for both business and individuals, and in-depth knowledge was dispersed among 145 000 employees. The company had to figure out how to make the collective expertise of so many employees readily available to anyone, when and where it was needed. And it would have to do so in a way that did not cramp individual work style or create undue burdens on employees looking for information. Larson knew the company would have to “make it easy for individuals to have access to people within CNA who had answers and information, even if that staff was geographically dispersed”. Then Larson hit upon the idea of an expert locater system; software that allows employees to post questions and give answers via the internet or an intranet.
Bob James, CNA executive vice president of the technology and operations group, spearheaded a team of consultants from AskMe’s professional service group to customise the software and create a small pilot project of 500 employees. The system, which CNA call the knowledge network, has since been rolled out companywide and is being actively used by 4 000 employees. Now if a CNA employee needs someone with underwriting experience in the inland marine industry, for example, he can type in a query and other employees are notified via e-mail that a question in their area of expertise has been posted. When employees answer questions, the software automatically adds them to the archive, which eliminates the headache of answering the same question and over again.
A new leadership role was to formalise around knowledge management (KM), and Larson assumed the helm of a four-person team dedicated to promoting KM. Larson represented a significant cultural change at CNA where employees traditionally did not collaborate with one another. For Foley, creating a KM department under the corporate development umbrella was a nod from management to the importance of knowledge sharing. “Our KM sits in corporate development for a specific reason”, she says. “We chose not to put KM under technology because we do not want it viewed as a piece of technology. We chose not to put it in HR because it is not a training programme. For us, KM involves brand development, research, and employee communication.”
Based on the information in the case study, would you classify CNA as a company purely using an effective knowledge management system or do you think the company has evolved into a fully developed learning organisation? Refer to the article by Chinowsky and Carillo (2007) as well as the article by Serrat (2009) to support your arguments and motivate your viewpoints.