KM tigers

ICICI Bank has grown six-fold since its KM strategy was established in 2000, making it the second
biggest in India today. But that strategy has been robust enough to grow with it. Central to ICICI
Bank’s success has been its flexible, innovative methods, and a plethora of KM tools that were
cannily marketed to staff from the very start.
By Deepa Prabhu
ICICI was founded in the mid-1950s at the behest of the World Bank, the Indian government and
various ‘captains of industry’ in India. Its purpose back then was to provide medium and long-term
development finance for Indian business.
In the mid-1990s its business strategy shifted to take advantage of the opening up of the Indian
economy. The idea? To create a diversified financial-services supplier offering a range of products,
instead of concentrating purely on project finance. ICICI Bank was, therefore, established in 1994
to provide retail banking facilities across India.
The idea was well timed and proved wildly successful. Today, it is the second largest bank
in India with assets of almost $40bn and can boast a network of more than 570 branches and a
steadily growing international business, with branches in the UK, Russia and Canada.
First steps
ICICI Bank’s knowledge management (KM) strategy was established in 2000. Back then, the
company was very much smaller than it is now – just 1,200 staff compared to the 30,000
that work for ICICI Bank today.
However, the programme was started at a time when the company’s growth was starting to go
into overdrive. Initially, the organisation developed a broad technology-linked infrastructure,
including a corporate intranet, ICICI Universe, intended to provide a platform where, for instance,
employees could check the human resources (HR) system for vacation entitlements, book days off
or view their personal pension details.
By putting these simple, but necessary activities on the intranet, it encouraged employees to get
familiar with using web-based applications, to overcome any fear of technology as well as
providing them with a good reason for using the portal on a regular basis.
What began more as an idea and less as a project, was simply the belief that staff should have a
space on the intranet where they could participate in collaborative activities, such as contribute or
find documents, engage in discussions and post or answer queries. That idea, in essence, first
converted the bank to KM.
Initially, the organisation was motivated to act due to the upheaval caused by the tail-end of the
dot-com boom, which was depriving the bank of many good staff as they left in significant
numbers to join dot-com start-ups – taking their knowledge and know-how with them. We
therefore developedWiseGuy, ICICI’s KM intranet portal – easily accessible from the main staff
portal – to provide a way of capturing and disseminating the knowledge of departing staff.
To develop WiseGuy, a team was put together encompassing KM, HR, technology and research
with a brief to ‘just do it’. Indeed they did and a beta version was ready within just three months.
Before the year was out, faced with the prospect of a reverse merger of ICICI Bank with its parent
ICICI, which went through in 2002, the KM team had to restructure to meet the needs of the new
corporate entity. Some issues articulated at the time included:
1. How to connect this vast new pool of employees with each other;
2. How to share business-related information about clients, deals and ideas;
3. How to manage staff through the change process via communication, messages, channels and
so on;
4. How to overcome the problems caused by staff turnover;
5. How to ensure that every person in the company is adequately equipped with the skills and
training required for their jobs and for lifelong learning and development.
The deeper question was, quite simply, how do we create a hunger among staff to acquire and
share knowledge? That is to say, how do we create the culture? The aim was to ensure that
employees stayed permanently aware of the external competitive challenges of the business, and
to persuade them to remain constantly open to new thoughts, ideas and ways of working.
Satisfied users
In our view, employee satisfaction drives usage and we wanted to use this as the delivery vehicle
to support three major information-handling behaviours: sharing, collaboration and self-help. In
essence, the workplace is no longer just a physical location. It has become a blend of physical and
virtual spaces in which work is undertaken.
The KM programme is now deeply embedded in the bank, but not as a result of any directive from
top management. Employees work with the KMprogramme because they see its benefits
and realise the value it brings to them on a day-to-day basis. This is what makes it vibrant and
engaging.
It is significant that a small project originally designed for about 1,200 employees in few locations
has been flexible and scalable enough to cater for more than 30,000 employees in more than 600
locations, most of whom are customer-facing staff.
Everything they need should be at their fingertips, whether getting an answer to a problem,
checking a policy or accessing standard templates and formats such as letters, agreements or
guidelines.
The importance of scalability cannot be underestimated. In 2005, usage increased more than six
times compared to the year before and the portal marked a record one-million logins in November
2004 after the site was redesigned. The number of staff using the KM portal doubled in the same
period.
On average today, about 6,000 users visit the site daily, of which 95 per cent come from ICICI
Bank’s retail branches. And more than 40 business divisions actively participate in the KM effort to
contribute and publish content. Today, there are more than 14,000 individual items, about 1,000
daily searches for information and more than 16,000 interactive postings.
The WiseGuy KM portal also encompasses a variety of sections including: document management;
news inside and outside the organisation; digital resources such as trade and news journals,
research reports, maps, directories, currency and time calculators; information on the various
business groups and group companies, complete employee information; and, interactive sections
such as discussion forums, query boards, book reviews, online quizzes, the rewards and
recognition scheme, and so on.
Wise Wednesdays
Early on, we realised that several senior people were reluctant to type and post submissions to the
portal. So we invited them to share their tacit knowledge in an informal manner and
the WiseGuy Knowledge Leader Series (KLS) was born.
Guest speakers included experts on various topics, such as advanced finance, and internal
business heads who were delighted to be invited and were willing to give it a try. KLS evolved to
include even chief the financial officers and CEOs of renowned companies in India, who have
spoken on the topics of leadership and strategy.
Called ‘Wise Wednesdays’, we have conducted more than 60 KLS in various formats over a period
of three years from 2001 to 2004. It contributed immensely to our WiseGuy brand and really
helped to build the popularity of KM in ICICI Bank and, overall, gave our KM efforts huge visibility.
In another experiment, we set aside some time once a week for a knowledge café in the canteen
of our Mumbai headquarters. Similarly, we tried a variety of other formats, including informal
‘brown bag’ concepts, in which staff would be invited to bring their lunch along to a presentation
on a particular subject by a notable individual, to web conferences and live webcasts, so that any
user in any location could participate. KLS encouraged face-to-face, live interaction and KM was
therefore not seen purely as a portal activity.
Not all of these were successful. For example, our knowledge cafes had to be abandoned because
the noise in the canteen proved too distracting, while some of our speakers for the brown-bag
presentations felt offended that staff were tucking into their lunches while they were presenting
about weighty topics.
Corporate learning
The ability to learn across the group and from team mates is a very powerful tool. We aim to build
a learning environment by encouraging collaboration and push mechanisms, including a webzine e-
mail to every employee before 9.30am. The Daily Dose, as it is called, is a summary of what is
new in the outside world and on the portal. It features headlines, opinions, polls, happenings,
customer appreciations, newsletters and other regular updates.
Again, one of the main benefits of the Daily Dose is the high profile it lends to our various KM
initiatives. When we polled staff, almost 97 per cent said that The Daily Dose represents an
important part of their working day. By delivering it direct to their mailbox, it helps the KM team to
capture the ‘mind space’ of employees as soon as they sit down to work in the morning.
Other tools we use include Newsroom, a space on the intranet where daily news headlines are
published. Here, staff can look up all the newsletters published by internal business groups, media
releases, as well as tracking what our competitors are up to. Then there are ‘K-mailers’, which are
short, one-page reviews on any one of 33 topics in six categories; internal newsletters from
various domain specialists; online quizzes; ‘word power’ articles or glossaries; training modules;
and, a whole library of online research tools.
Query Board, a central, interactive frequently asked questions repository by and for staff, is where
they can post any work-related queries, such as the number of cheques that can be deposited at
any one time, customer credit questions, cheque returns and so on.
Indeed, anything work-related that demands authoritative responses from colleagues and in-house
experts. It serves as the fastest and most reliable source for feedback on queries or doubts related
to workplace rules, policies and procedures, technical know-how and much more. Remarkably, the
average response time to a query ranges from five to 15 minutes, but never more than one day
from the time the query was posted.
In addition to Query Board, we also offer a more general discussion forum on the intranet where
staff can talk about finance, business and economy-related topics. Discussions on our forum
revolve around topics highly relevant to the work in the bank, such as the automatic cheque book
re-order system and solutions for detecting fake bank notes.
Managing documents on WiseGuy
The digital assets on WiseGuy represent a vital element of our
KMprogramme. WiseGuy’s document-management system offers a managed view into otherwise
overwhelming enterprise content and provides users access to personalised content with team-
specific interfaces to improve collaboration.
Centralised and distributed publishing capabilities mean that users are empowered and can
contribute their own documents, define them, schedule updates and so on. Furthermore, the portal
manager enables business groups to generate their own template-based, database-driven mini-
websites using an extremely flexible front end, point-and-click tool.
The content is classified and organised by use of a simple tree view for easy navigation,
supplemented by a search tool for easy retrieval. Information can be located within two or three
clicks, or less than a minute of searching. Other key features include easy identification of
documents by author, date, posted comments and even queries.
The system helps to preserve the organisation’s intellectual capital, as it is able to capture
information so that it is not lost even when a person leaves the organisation. To encourage
participation, ‘sticky’ features on the portal include opinion polls, cartoons, tips, word of the day
and tools available to business teams to conduct surveys and online quizzes.
Technology platforms
Much of what is deployed to support our various KM initiatives is custom-developed, but the tools
are supported on a variety of standard hardware and software platforms, particularly Microsoft
Windows, Linux, Microsoft Office, OpenOffice (the open-source alternative to Microsoft Office), and
a host of other off-the-shelf and custom applications.
Implementation was eased by the fact that it was not one single mega project, but a combination
of many experiments and modular launches. This means that we nurtured what worked and
discarded along the way any elements that plainly did not work.
One early project was a ‘Yellow Pages’-style directory for the entire corporate group. These, of
course, are quite common KM tools, helping put staff in direct contact with one another. The
result, Peoplefinder, is the experts’ directory that employees use to locate others and update their
own profile with interests, areas of expertise where they can help colleagues and other relevant
information. Creating it was like opening the doors and windows in a dusty house shut for many
months as people who did not even know who was sitting on the same floor as them suddenly got
‘connected’ and it continues to be one of the most-used sections.
Many implementations began as line-of-business pilots. ‘At your Service’ is one such example in
which employees who are also customers of the bank can talk directly with the product and
process teams for personal banking issues. With a back-end plug-in to the call centre it serves the
dual purpose of learning while solving problems. It was so effective that it was replicated for other
teams too.
Compliance, quality and customer service
In 2002, the bank launched its quality programme to achieve the relevant certification levels
throughout the organisation. Naturally, KM’s role was to support the quality team and we did this
by building a KM mini-portal on quality. This quality ‘portlet’ maintains the background material,
documents on Six Sigma methodology, international quality standards, certifications and
everything else that relates to the organisation’s endeavours in maintaining quality levels. Staff
can also post and respond to queries and interact with the quality experts.
KM tools and techniques are also deployed so that customer-service teams and those staff who
deal directly with the public can share almost everything related to customer complaints and
service quality issues, from branch and customer satisfaction with cash machines, to standard
templates, letters, tools, to recognising and celebrating customer satisfaction benchmarks and
people who have achieved it. The various activities, contributions and postings help spread the
good practices throughout the bank.
Of course, banks today have to deal with growing regulatory demands, including circulars and
notices from the regulatory authorities that must be followed to the letter. We therefore created E-
Circulars to inform and educate staff on regulatory and compliance matters. It is used by
designated senior managers who have a duty to inform employees on guidelines issued by various
regulatory authorities as they affect the bank’s policies, products and processes. It is not all one-
way. Recipients can also be tested with four or five key questions to ensure that they broadly
understand the content.
Beyond the surface to the soul
This is a phrase from a very useful book on the topic. It states that KM is not just a set of
techniques or practices. If that were so, it would not have been difficult for other manufacturers to
copy the Toyota Production System, for example, even though the details have been relayed in
books and Toyotaeven gives tours of its manufacturing facilities – it is no secret. The difference is
in its philosophy and perspective about such things as people, processes, quality, continuous
improvement and other factors that represents not just the surface – what you can see – but the
inner soul.
This has become increasingly relevant with the realisation that few jobs are well structured or well
defined. Instead, knowledge work is defined at the point of need by the issues, problems or
opportunities that arise. Researchers and authors Pfeffer and Sutton asked why it was that with so
much education and research, management consulting, books and articles, that the little change
that does occur often happens with such great difficulty. They concluded it was because knowledge
of what needs to be done frequently fails to result in action or behaviour consistent with that
knowledge.
This is what they called the ‘knowing-doing gap’. Their study analysed how some organisations are
consistently able to turn knowledge into action while others fail. Their findings suggest that it is
management practices that either create or reduce the knowing-doing gap. In our work, the KM
team used their insights as a guiding philosophy.
Rather than waiting for culture to change, we banked on change impacting the culture. We tried to
make it fun and prestigious and persuaded leaders to champion our KM efforts. In experimenting
with so many new things and new ways of doing old things, risk taking was encouraged and
mistakes were not considered fatal.
Marketing, it is frequently said, is absolutely key to encouraging the use of KM systems. At ICICI
Bank, employees are encouraged to participate and contribute by way of rewards and recognition.
First, the very fact that contributions are published on the portal along with ownership details
gives employees a sense of recognition for everything they do.
Every contributor earns ‘K-Points’ for contributing anything from an article to documents, queries,
responses to queries, initiating a discussion and even just rating discussions. A separate section on
the intranet is dedicated to the ‘knowledge champions’, displaying the top contributors based on
their ‘knowledge quotient’. This KQ is also prominently displayed on their home page next to
a personalised welcome message. ‘K-Cash’, an earlier version of the rewards scheme, enabled
employees to redeem gift vouchers online for the points they earned. And knowledge leaders who
spoke in the Knowledge Leader Series, as well as knowledge champions, were given certificates
signed by the managing director and CEO of the bank.
Marketing KM, we found, is all about making connections, so we didn’t hold back. Early on, we
moved to win over senior management to help usevangelise our work. Then there were mailers,
posters, group presentations, off-site meetings, open house sessions on KM, regular publishing on
the portal, surveys, a KM newsletter, even bare-faced gimmicks. When, for
instance, WiseGuy completed its first year, employees who logged on to their machines in the
morning were surprised by a short 40-second video embedded in an e-mail with bank
director Chanda Kochar delivering
a message on the value of KM, congratulating them and urging them to use it more. It had the
whole company talking about it for days and successfully generated further interest in KM at ICICI
Bank. However, user tools were kept relatively free of catchy, gimmicky names in favour of simple,
explanatory terms that explained their purpose. For instance, we eschewed names like Guru,
Oracle, Solomon, Answer Point and any number of catchy acronyms in favour of the simpler Query
Board, Discussion Forum and E-Circulars.
This helped us to stand out from the crowd. Users, we feel, appreciated having something plain
vanilla whose purpose they could understand and relate to. The care we took in marketing was
reflected in other ways. For instance, early on the KM team would use internal marketing
campaigns inspired by topical themes, but this was stopped when we realised that it would not be
relevant to everyone throughout India – let alone in London,Moscow and Toronto.
Challenges
The short history of KM in ICICI Bank has not been plain sailing. Having a director throw his
weight behind the project certainly provided an initial thrust. It sent a positive signal across
the organisation that the top brass were serious about KM, but it also ran the risk of being
perceived as a pet project or flavour of the month.
While many employees actively use the portal, there are gaps in pockets among mid-level
managers. ‘I know best’ and ‘not invented here’ attitudes remain a barrier. Knowledge sharing is
not tightly linked to staff appraisal and neither are knowledge management activities mentioned in
ICICI Bank’s balanced score card index – if it were, it may be a different matter.
Certain measures can be a double-edged sword. For instance, one team started an internal
initiative in which they asked team members to submit suggestions, linking their participation to
performance indicators and making it a part of an employee’s mandatory goals. However, it was
soon observed and reported that some staff were taking ideas from WiseGuy and submitting them
to their group system. Such instances undermine or detract from the overall process and can stoke
internal conflict.
From a technical perspective, the KM initiatives have done a better job of capturing internal and
external unstructured information, such as documents and ideas and in harnessing external
structured data such as content and databases versus internal structured data, such as data
warehouses, enterprise resource-planning applications and databases. Disparate systems can
create fatigue and/or confusion among users about which one to use.
First-generation KM revolved around creating processes to capture, codify and organise knowledge
for retrieval. In second-generation KM, knowledge flows becomes more important than the
knowledge itself. The third generation of KM involves easing the creation of new knowledge,
innovation and improving organisational performance. Maturity levels vary according to the
applications within each teams.
At ICICI Bank, the business leadership team, by sponsorship and example, has outlined principles
of action that stipulate that employees must actively share knowledge and seek out colleagues’
expertise to solve problems and/or improve processes. KM at ICICI Bank was started in a non-
dictatorial manner and its use is voluntary, but a programme of this nature cannot be expected to
continue on momentum. But to the average employee in the bank, KM now is no longer strange or
a novelty, but has become the ‘way we work’.
So while we build for scale, we design for the soul. The KM team is encouraged to be open-
minded, to bring in outside resources and to avoid being ego-driven – to find solutions within only.
When this is done, it is a value arbitrage and a not cost arbitrage.
On many occasions it is not about KM strategy, but survival strategy. Simply ensuring that the
proposals and projects see the light of the day, ensuring they are nurtured and survive initial
skepticism and hiccups.
Finally, it is about speed, about the youth and their energy, about collaboration and co-operation.
Deepa Prabhu is the head of knowledge management at ICICI Bank. She can be contacted
at deepa.prabhu@icicibank.com
WiseGuy contributions
WiseGuy has assisted the organisation in a number of ways. It has helped:
 In the creation of a common storehouse of knowledge;
 Staff identify sources of in-house expertise;
 In the development of a sense of ‘belonging’ among staff;
 Save the bank money;
 Improve our employee’s decision-making ability;
 Empower staff;
 Provide a means for staff to upgrade their skills;
 Staff to plan their career movements;
 Provide a platform for recognition of contributions made to the bank.
What works
What really continues to work in favour of WiseGuy is the way that it helps to engage employees.
This is the result of the philosophy and management practices and small decisions taken on a day-
to-day, case-by-case basis. Some insights may be capsulated as follows:
 Listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more;
 Speed is of the essence – lead, don’t follow;
 Maintain the intrinsic organic nature and growth versus design and diktat;
 Don’t kill any idea – however small;
 Tap the collective energy;
 Compassion and caring – most employees are struggling with personal issues of work-life
balance and stress. If KM helps decrease this, you have a convert;
 Sensing underlying concerns;
 Team work, every time.