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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 developed WiseGuy, 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:

How to connect this vast new pool of employees with each other; How to share business-related information about clients, deals and ideas; How to manage staff through the change process via communication, messages, channels and so on; How to overcome the problems caused by staff turnover;

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 KM programme 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 KM programme. 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 Toyota even 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 us evangelise 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.


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 [email protected]

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.

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