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Knowledge leaders in accounting

This interview was originally written in 2013. At the time, Simon Cheng was knowledge leader for Ernst & Young’s Transaction Advisory Services in the Asia-Pacific region. He is now the Global Tax Knowledge Manager in Hong Kong.

1. You’ve been at Ernst &Young for many years and, in fact, started out as a Tax Manager there. How did you find yourself in a knowledge leadership role? Were you identified as having an affinity for KM or did you forge a path?
At the time, it certainly felt as if I was forging my own path as, arguably, I fell into a KM career by accident.  During my time in tax, I did not envisage myself leaving.

However, in 2005, our knowledge team in Hong Kong started to expand its operations and actively recruit within the organisation for people interested in a rotation to a knowledge role.  At that time, I had a very limited understanding of KM but was loathe to turn down an opportunity to learn something new.  During my initial talks with our CKO, he was able to paint a vivid picture of what the knowledge team was trying to do and the value that they were trying to bring to the business.

I was sold.

Our vision of bringing together our people’s shared knowledge and experience, of enabling them with the right content, tools and experience so that they could be responsive to our clients; of empowering them with the insights that make a difference in the market – all of these combined to open my eyes to a world that I had never previously imagined.  It was this vision which prompted my move away from tax and into knowledge.

With a bit of hindsight, I believe I was probably destined for a KM role eventually.  Even during my time in tax, I had been involved in non-client facing projects related to improving our workflows and transfer of knowledge.   I didn’t recognise them as KM projects then but they would lay the foundation for my eventual journey into KM.

2. What sort of issues does knowledge management inside a large accounting firm address?
On a broad level, some of the issues faced are:

Diverse service lines (audit, tax, transaction advisory services and advisory) – Our service lines are very different from each other. Then, within each service line, we have numerous different service offerings. The issue is that each of these service offerings has very differing knowledge needs. As you can imagine, trying to manage these diverse knowledge needs so that we can share across the organisation using a common language and common tools requires an approach with high flexibility.

Hundreds of communities (geographic areas, industries, sectors, service lines, account teams) – One of the biggest benefits of a community with a shared interest is the ability of members of that community to connect with each other with a shared culture and language. However, when communities overlap, we have to look out for any issues around sharing cross-community in terms of culture, language as well as convenience.

Constant change and growth in the market – It is widely acknowledged that the one constant in our current market is change. From a KM point of view, this means that our KM approach, tools and processes must also be constantly reviewed to ensure that they are still relevant and providing the right information and insight to our practitioners to enable their service delivery.

Staff who are highly mobile and remote and who collaborate across the above communities – It goes without saying that all of the systems and tools that we set up are worthless if our people don’t have access to them. The nature of our work means that our people need to be able to access our repositories, our communities and our working papers even while on the road. This is particularly problematic given the stringent security requirements resulting from our handling of sensitive information. Then factor in other concerns such as legal and privacy issues which vary from country to country and you very soon find yourself dealing with very pragmatic issues beyond the realm of “pure” KM.

A significant proportion of our population is recent graduates, who are accustomed to new technologies such as social networking techniques – The explosion in popularity and influence of social networking has been amazing to see. Naturally, we need to cater to the requirements of our users in terms of how they share knowledge. However, while social networking has opened up new avenues to drive knowledge sharing, the challenge is in finding the right balance between the push-pull strategy given the new tools available to us.

3. KM is often touted as a way of gaining a competitive edge. Is this part of the pitch to a CEO, and do you think the message needs to be different across the government, NFP and private sectors?
KM as a competitive edge is always included in the pitch although we may not always specifically label it as such. Instead, we try to focus on the strategic goals the business is trying to achieve and identify how KM can be used to help the organisation achieve those goals. In this sense, it is not KM itself which is the competitive advantage but KM matched with the right organisational strategy (although it is worth mentioning that KM can also be used to help define the right organisational strategy).

I believe it is this practical approach to demonstrating the value of KM which makes KM equally relevant regardless of whether you are working in government, NFP or the private sector.

4. Often there’s a groundswell for knowledge management at the lower, operational levels of the organisation, but that group hits a wall where they may need more budget, resources, or even just an emphasis on strategic importance from higher up. What’s been your experience and do you think KM initiatives can be grown from the bottom-up in this way?
Leadership support is a key requirement for any KM initiative to succeed.

This is based on my own experience in implementing KM initiatives as well as being echoed by our people who, in their feedback to us, indicate that visible leadership support of the KM initiative is important to their own adoption. From a practical point of view, the challenge becomes one of placing ideas generated by the lower, operational levels of the organisation in front of leadership.

Innovation is important to Ernst & Young and we have adopted various programs and tools to drive the generation of ideas from our people. For example, within Transactions Advisory Services, we use a global online innovation platform to capture ideas from all levels of the organisation with people having the power to vote for those ideas which resonate with them. These ideas are monitored by the Innovation Advisory Board, which has the authority to take the best ideas and turn them into real projects (with an invite to the original idea submitter to take part in developing that idea to fruition).

5. Do you think some industries, more than others, have a propensity for good knowledge management practices, and why do you think that might be?
I don’t think that any particular industry is better suited for good KM practices and in fact, am constantly amazed at where good KM practices spring from. Even if we were to only restrict ourselves to looking at award winners, you can see a wide range of different industries represented in the annual global and regional MAKE awards where, for example, previous winners have come from consultancy firms to consumer product companies and from both the private and public sector.

6. What do you think are the important qualities for a knowledge leader to have?
Team building – In many ways, this is a critical skill and applicable from the very start of the KM journey all the way through to the end. At the start of the KM journey, it is important for the knowledge leader to build a good rapport with the business leaders so that the business issues can be understood. Even after the KM project is approved, actual implementation invariably requires support from different functions within the organisation (for example, even something simple like building a central repository for stored knowledge would require IT support). Lastly, building rapport with end users is important to enable the adoption of the new tools or processes and, potentially, corresponding culture change.

Communications – While linked to team-building in some ways, this skill is important enough to warrant separate inclusion and covers many aspects. Firstly, active listening is important so that you are addressing the actual needs and issues faced by the business. In addition, the knowledge leader needs to be able to communicate the vision that KM is trying to achieve and drive the messaging around new tools and processes. As you would expect, good presentation skills are invaluable.

Project Management – Ultimately, it is the ability of the knowledge leader to deliver actual results which will determine whether KM is adding value to the organisation. And when it comes to implementation and delivery, project management skills are critical. While it’s naive to pretend that every project will end on time and within budget, good project management skills will give advance warning of potential pitfalls and surprises while giving leadership confidence that you are able to keep things on track.

7. Can you share your best tip for anyone who may be about to pitch a KM strategy to an unsuspecting manager?
Don’t sell KM – sell a solution to a problem the manager is dealing with.

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