How Quaker

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2002-05-15 Email Print this article Print

An online collaboration system is helping Quaker Chemical become more efficient. Now the chemical maker needs to convince all employees to use it.

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How Quaker's System Works

The system is critical for its ability to capture both structured data, such as financial reports, and unstructured data, such as e-mails and notes from meetings. Tracking what the company's lab workers know about Quaker's formulas is crucial. "We don't have off-the-shelf products," explains Chief Information Officer Irving 'Bubba' Tyler. "Literally every customer is unique."

Using QBI, which works with Quaker's Novell GroupWise e-mail system, employees can drop Word documents, e-mail, presentations and spreadsheets in central files on to the system. Workers subscribe to certain folders that relate to their job, just as they would to an e-mail list. They are alerted automatically when changes are made to the chosen files that relate to their job tasks. About 60% of Quaker's files are used by research and development workers, with the remaining files shared by salespeople, finance and others.

Quaker invested more than $200,000 in Intraspect's software, a desktop application that pops up when an employee logs on and provides the look and feel of a simple-to-use Web page. One key difference is that employees—not a Webmaster—control what's added to their home page or to the group files and can customize the site to meet their job needs. Since it is Web-based, Intraspect can be integrated with a data warehouse system Quaker is already using from SAS, which tracks the company's financial information. Eventually, both of those systems will work with a new $10 million J.D. Edwards enterprise software project the company is now rolling out.

Quaker's success to date with QBI has been largely anecdotal. The company claims it's already saved $300,000, or four months of labor, when three different lab sites tapped formulas stored in the system rather than duplicate the research.

Quaker isn't fixated on the return on investment, mainly because it's too hard to track with knowledge management and wasn't really as important an issue as getting workers to use the system effectively, Tyler says.

It's fairly common for companies to bypass a return-on-investment analysis for the knowledge-management projects. "With an amazing number of companies I talk to, not many are held to task going into (a project)," says Tim Powell, president of T.W. Powell, a knowledge management consultancy in New York. Yet, project costs go beyond buying the software. Managers need to promote the project internally, workers must be trained in its use and user profiles need to be maintained.

So far, 800 of 1,100 Quaker workers are using the Intraspect system, which launched in mid-2000. Thomas Baker, Quaker's manager of business intelligence development, spends a lot of time tracking who's using the new system and reports there are 26,794 documents stored in 7,117 folders. Employees can also search through 8,565 e-mail messages. It sounds great. Yet what's more important is whether employees are using all that data in meaningful ways that help them to more efficiently do their jobs.

"We don't want people to just send statistics," to the system, Tyler says. "More and more in this area, we are trying to find out what people said and what they learned from their mistakes," information which he calls valuable "unstructured data." In one recent case, Quaker developed a formula for automaker Mercedes-Benz in Holland. It now uses data gathered during that product-development cycle in another plant in South America.

Tyler also points to a "steel product managers forum" hosted on QBI as an effective use of the system. Before, if a manager had trouble figuring out why a customer was plagued by surface imperfections while rolling steel in a specific type of mill, he would e-mail his colleagues. Now he initiates a discussion within QBI, sending an alert to all managers who work in the company's steel division. The message threads from that discussion are archived within QBI. In a best-case scenario, the thread will be used to help workers who later search the database with a similar question.

So far, Quaker isn't forcing anyone to use the system. And adoption isn't happening as fast as Tyler would like. "A lot of people think knowledge is power, and, 'If I give it to someone else they won't need me,'" he explains.

But then there are eager workers like Nelson, Quaker's customer service director, who has two more projects that she'd like to launch using QBI, one to track performance guarantees issued to customers. (When Quaker sends out a product, it either bills the customer if the chemical performs to spec or holds off if it doesn't).

"There are problems when a product is in the field for two months and we haven't heard anything back," from the customer, Nelson says. Billing is held up needlessly in these cases. She'd also like to place purchase orders on the system to better alert the workers who make the chemicals.

Ultimately, Quaker plans to extend the system to share product knowledge and collaborate with its customers, and is already conducting trials with a handful of customers. The idea is to start collaborating online with partners like Ford and DaimlerChrysler that are demanding a higher level of Web-based service from suppliers. Tyler's goal is also to increase use of the system by 30% a year over the next two years and get all employees to use it.

Results are often intangible, including better communication among employees, information sharing, problem solving and customer service. As Baker puts it, "It's hard to put a price on customer satisfaction." It could be priceless.


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