Online Extra: Q&A with Siemens' Roland Koch

The head of a key telecom division talks about the future of the company's Web-based knowledge-sharing system

Roland Koch is a member of the management board of German electronics conglomerate Siemens and president of the division that sells equipment and services for landline telecommunications networks. The division, known as Information & Communication Networks, was the first to implement ShareNet, a Web-based system that uses a combination of software and incentives to encourage salespeople to share information with colleagues worldwide. Stoked by ShareNet's success, including a $122 million increase in ICN sales last year, Siemens now plans to expand the ShareNet idea throughout the Munich-based company. Recently, Koch spoke with Frankfurt bureau chief Jack Ewing about how ShareNet works.

Q: Why did you start ShareNet?


We started our knowledge management efforts mainly for two reasons. First, we have to see the war for talent going on in our business. Employees want to maintain their marketability. This means knowhow, competitiveness, the chance to advance their careers, and the capability to extend their responsibilities. For achieving this, the main driver is knowledge.

The second reason was our business. Our customers are changing a lot. They don't purchase just a product anymore. They differentiate their vendors based on how competently they provide advice, how well they provide consulting, how well they walk customers through the alternatives. Competence in advising is a main differentiator besides the price and time-to-market. So we need the best people advising our customers to be better.

Q: How did you proceed in setting up the network?


The problem was that no platform was available for this purpose. So I put our internal business transformation partners in charge of providing a platform on our own. Then we asked ourselves, who are the most challenging people to use it? It's the people on the front dealing with the customers: our salespeople.

Q: How do you keep the information flow under control?


Cases that are used very often are the value generators. We help people not only to generate the information but to clean it and to extract information in an interactive way. It's self-generated. We let it swing, because we don't want a Big Brother watching it. It's like the old idea of the Internet: Talk to each other, help each other. Contributors and users are both rewarded.

Q: Where do you go next?


We had a good start with the most challenging people. Now we're opening it to service people and research and development. I am specifically interested in seeing ShareNet in R&D because it has the potential to be an innovation driver. But at the end of the day, we are only successful if we bring our customers online. We want them to be interactively on our platform. So when they ask a question, our people are answering from around the world.

Q: Will you have to design ShareNet differently for other groups of people?


The incentives for R&D people have to be different. They are excited about their ideas -- excited when ideas become implemented. Our business transformation partners are seriously thinking about how to respond to that.

Q: Are you happy with the results so far?


If I look in the eyes of those people, that motivates me already to say: Yes, it was a success. I have a reasonable assumption it generated a substantial increase in sales. I see also a big improvement in our global network, how people are talking to each other. So far I'm happy.

Q: What's your advice to other people setting up knowledge management networks?


The network needs to have a freewheeling attitude, and it needs top-management support. If the CEO doesn't stand behind it, you can almost forget it. You also have to pick the right leader. And give the ShareNet advocates a personal visibility. I meet those people, and I talk to them regularly. I have all their business cards in a picture frame in my office.

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