It has long been said that knowledge management should be the preserve of people development specialists, not the computer buffs, but not many organisations have made this happen. Tesco has taken the plunge and it is now the responsibility of new learning director Kim Birnie. She explains what makes her job so special
If you’re serious about becoming a learning organisation, then you need a learning director. So eight months ago supermarket chain Tesco took on Kim Birnie.
She doesn’t come from a traditional training background, having spent the previous eight years filling a variety of HR roles for PepsiCo. But being learning director at Tesco is not a traditional training job.
In addition to being in charge of all aspects of training and development for the firm’s 220,000 workers across the globe, Birnie is taking the lead in developing knowledge management at Tesco.
"Learning is not just about finding and designing training products," she says. "It’s much more about what happens before that – understanding the core capabilities and behaviours the business is trying to develop and building them into performance management, training and development systems."
The vision to turn Tesco into a learning organisation comes from the top – chief executive Terry Leahy. Essentially it’s about pushing up quality and developing a common way of doing things.
"Everything we do around training, development and learning is to ensure that we reach a high quality and common way of improving the organisation’s capability," Birnie says.
Given the increasing complexity of Tesco’s business, this is not an easy job. Tesco has set itself two key, pioneering business tasks: to increase its international presence and build its e-commerce business.
The supermarket chain has made no secret of its e-commerce ambitions, investing in the business-to- business end as well as home shopping for consumers.
Its international plans are even more challenging – Tesco wants to be one of the first British retailers to succeed in international markets. It currently operates in 10 countries across Europe and Asia and 25 per cent of its business is outside the UK.
Over the next five years it intends to grow this to 40 per cent of the business opening three times as much new space outside the UK as within.
Developing quality standards and ways of doing things that cross-cultural boundaries is an ambitious task especially in an industry such as retailing, which depends so much on individual relationships with customers.
But Birnie believes it is possible to establish a Tesco way of doing things that applies across the board, from senior management to the front line.
This does not mean local differences are ignored. "We can’t apply everything in a blanket fashion," she says. "Flexibility is the key."
Nor does it mean the UK imposes ideas on the rest of the business. The focus is on sharing learning, Birnie insists. "We want ideas that have portability and can be shared with other parts of the business. So, for example, in central Europe where the stores have a different front we have taken the methodology and adapted it for the rest of our business."
The result is a great deal of time spent in consultation with different parts of the business working out what’s negotiable and what isn’t.
Not surprisingly, developing this common approach also means Birnie has high level of contact with Tesco’s main board.
However, it’s one thing to work out what your common standards should be, but quite another to make them happen. It will be senior managers who are ultimately responsible, so Birnie’s head office learning team devotes a lot of its time to management development issues.
In common with other big multinationals, Tesco puts a big effort into working out what makes a Tesco leader, irrespective of their nationality or function. And it has developed a leadership programme for its top 1,500 business chiefs. "That’s where we are really focused," Birnie says. "This is how we will build our international and dotcom capabilities."
The programme has involved, among other things, devising a new set of core competencies and introducing a 360-degree feedback process.
A major front-line training initiative, called the training framework, is designed to drive up the skills and abilities of Tesco’s general sales assistants – again with common standards of behaviour and service in mind. "We are trying to take out the complexities in their role and encourage them to focus on the things that are of most value to the customer," Birnie says.
There are three levels – bronze, silver and gold. Bronze has been rolled out across the business (Training, April 2000), and silver is on its way.
Meanwhile, Birnie admits, that gold is still aspirational. "We’re looking to see better informed staff doing things in a more effective and efficient way for customers."
Thus far it is hard to distinguish Birnie’s role from that of any successful training director – a focus on management competence and development, and lots of negotiation to get senior managers to take the ideas on board.
But what makes Birnie’s job different and enables Tesco to call her a learning director is her emphasis on knowledge management. This is not a traditional part of the training role and it’s come about as a result of Leahy’s vision and Birnie’s personal interest in the link between technology and learning.
It is, she suggests, a natural HR function. "Knowledge management has a systems aspect to it, but it also has organisational, business process and people aspects," Birnie says. "If we bring all that together then knowledge management is about a different way of working, making sure we are being effective and using our experience to improve business performance."
By handing knowledge management to Birnie, Tesco has turned it from an IT project into a capabilities building system. So eight months into the job, Birnie is up to her armpits in technology. She is not a "teckie", she insists, but she does understand enough to know what Tesco needs to be effective.
There are two strands to the knowledge management project. The firm is already introducing new hardware and new software. This updates existing systems such as the company e-mail. It also includes some e-learning software – learning space – although it is still in the conceptual phase. The aim is to use it to deliver some technology training with a view to seeing if people use it and how effective it is.
"We still have to understand what the e-learning opportunities are in this business and how people might tackle e-learning," Birnie says.
A far more ambitious project is the intranet that Birnie is working on. The vision is to link the entire business and give everyone down to the front line sales staff access to "the knowledge".
The physical aspect of this could see computer terminals in the staffroom or even on the shopfloor. Staff could find out a range of information about products, sales or maybe even their own personnel files.
Your average Tesco customer could be forgiven for wondering why sales staff whose job it is to keep the shelves full and the check-out queues moving, might need to access this information on a regular basis. Birnie insists it is more than a motivational tool to make them feel loved.
Reacting to change
Once again, she insists it is about sharing information. For example, it could be used to run focus groups among front-line staff about customer reaction to new products. "This sort of technology would enable us to react to change much more rapidly," Birnie says. "It’s a must for any organisation that has to react quickly to customers."
Despite her obvious enthusiasm for the intranet project, Birnie is cautious. Introducing knowledge management systems to the entire organisation has to be an evolutionary change and it will be some months before Birnie and her colleagues have worked out what knowledge needs sharing and how. Nor is she interested in technology for its own sake. It’s only relevant if it adds to Tesco’s effectiveness, she says. "We are fundamentally a relationships business. Therefore, while the technology might be good for x and y, it won’t necessarily work for z."
Being responsible for knowledge management has raised the profile of learning within Tesco. But it is also a good time to be taking on such a role in the firm – international expansion, the drive to become an e-commerce business and competition from Wal-Mart have focused the collective Tesco mind on change.
So, where most training directors spend hours persuading their commercial, marketing, finance or production colleagues to take learning seriously, Birnie says that battle was won before she joined Tesco.
"There’s a real momentum and support for doing things differently," she says. "And there is a level of trust in my background experience and understanding of the business."
While Birnie’s role as a head of learning is unusual, it’s not unique – many US firms, for example, already boast chief knowledge officers who are able to link all the factors involved in building skills and knowledge.
This is the way training and development has to go in the UK too, Birnie says. "Whether you have one or three people doing that isn’t the issue, it’s recognising the value of linking these factors together."
Feb 2000 Tesco Stores, learning director
1993-2000 PepsiCo Inc, various roles
1998-2000 Frito Lay, director of organisation and management development
1997-98 Walkers Snack Foods, head of HR
1995-97 Walkers Snack Foods, HR director, commercial
1994-95 Kentucky Fried Chicken, HR manager, operations
1993-94 Pizza Hut, HR and compensation planning manager
1990-93 Barclays de Zoete Wedd Services, international personnel manager
1987-90 Organisation Resources Counsellors, consultant