He Drills for Knowledge

As Texaco taps oil fields all around the world in search of crude, John Old helps the company’s 18,000 people tap their collective brainpower — and the ideas to help the company operate faster and more productively.


Knowledge-management guru John Old drills away at a potential gusher: the collective brainpower of Texaco’s 18,000 employees in 150 countries. Their pool of knowledge ranges from how best to set the stroke depth of an oil-well pump to how to get the inside scoop on top competitors. Old’s mandate inside Texaco, which pumps more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, is to connect people who have questions with the people who have answers — helping the company to work faster and more efficiently.


“Knowledge management” is one of those business buzzwords that goes in and out of favor every few years. But for Old, 58, managing knowledge isn’t a fad — it’s a critical business challenge. And it’s as much about creating personal relationships as it is about installing elegant applications. In an interview with Fast Company, he offered some of his best thinking on the theory and practice of managing knowledge.

Lots of companies talk about intellectual assets and managing knowledge. What’s the most important feature of a knowledge-management system?

Any technology solution will fail if it doesn’t recognize the importance of human connections. Here at Texaco, our strategy is to connect people and help them leverage their know-how. Knowledge is contextual, so technology that simply enables people to “write down what they know” doesn’t work very well. And you can’t force people to share knowledge. David Snowden, with the Institute for Knowledge Management, uses three principles to test if technology will work to help spread knowledge: One, knowledge can only be volunteered; it can’t be conscripted. Two, people always know more than they can tell and can tell more than they can write. And three, people only know what they know when they need to know it.

Do people who know each other tend to use knowledge-management tools more?

When you can see somebody’s face and body language, it builds trust. Having personal relationships aided by technology feels right to most people. That said, it’s not impossible to create trust online between people who haven’t seen each other. There’s also trust by proxy: I trust somebody because a friend whom I trust says that this person is okay.

But nothing beats personal interactions. We encourage our global practice areas to convene for face-to-face meetings once a year. Last year, we even brought together a group for a “Lessons Learned” summit in knowledge management. We wanted to hear from successful practice communities, as well as from networks that failed.


What were some of the success stories that you heard?

One of our folks used PeopleNet [a search engine for employees on the company’s Intranet, @Texaco] to contact someone with 25 years of drilling experience to clear up a problem. The person who needed help was confused over how to figure out the “pinhole” position on the equipment that controls how far an oil well’s pump goes up and down. The directions that he was getting were contradictory. Using PeopleNet, he found someone with lots of experience who could help out.

What I liked most about the story was that the person with the question chose to ask the 25-year veteran because he had read his biography and had seen his picture on the Intranet.

He wrote that the more experienced person’s photograph had made him appear to be a likable guy who wouldn’t seem to mind answering a question from a stranger in the company.

We had another person who used PeopleNet to search out various sources of competitive information to help decide whether Texaco should enter into a new line of business. The kind of information that she needed is generally unpublished; she needed some really savvy insight. She wrote in her success story that “80% of what you want to know about the competition is inside your business.” I’d have to agree with her.

Those stories highlight one of our major lessons learned: Use the simplest technology you can for the purpose at hand, whether it be a search engine or an email distribution list. For example, we use a software system in-house called KnowledgeMail, from Tacit Knowledge Systems, because it helps people make good contacts with colleagues who happen to be focused on the same issues they are.


Do you worry much about security or about the loss of privacy?

I worry much more about trust. Trust and privacy are linked together. I’m not worried about my privacy when I’m talking to or sending an email to someone I trust. And usually, I trust the people I know. I only want privacy from the people I don’t really trust.

So trust matters. But how do you go about creating a sense of urgency inside the company around the idea that people should share what they know?

There are a number of factors that help determine how eager people are to share knowledge. Communities that are brought together by technology aren’t successful if they don’t have a clear, specific, easily measurable business purpose. We also found that there’s a really strong “what’s in it for me” factor involved. The knowledge-sharing communities that create value for the company also have to create value for the individuals.

One last point: You need strong, engaged leaders to make this work. You need people who will rattle the cages, who will say, “Here’s an interesting problem. Does anybody have any insight?”

It seems as if many knowledge-sharing programs have come up short. What parts of this field do companies tend to overestimate the most?


Many companies create elaborate databases of best practices, which I find tend not to work very well — at least not as a pure database. For example, somebody discovers a nifty way of saving a million bucks and writes up a story for the “Best Practices” feature in our in-house magazine, Agenda. Maybe the idea will get used in exactly the same way in another country — but maybe not.

Again, it’s really not about the technology per se. What generally happens is that people connect at a meeting or at a conference and fill each other in on whatever important issue is on their minds at the time.

Knowledge transfer occurs because the right people happen to meet. We view our databases more as indirect pointers to people than as actual ways of sharing specific ideas.

Can you share some of the obstacles to sharing ideas?

There are plenty of obstacles, most of them having to do with people and organizations. For example, it’s hard to share knowledge if you don’t have enough time to reflect on what you know or what you need to learn.

Most companies have squeezed almost all of the reflection time out of their business processes. People don’t have the time to think about what they’re going to do next, let alone who they should talk to about it. People get extremely task focused: “What’s the least amount of work I can do to get this done?”


So we have built a specific process into the project-management techniques that we use at the company. It calls for bringing in others to consult with you, and to review what you’ve done, to see if they have any suggestions or advice.

What can leaders do wrong in this process?

It’s easy for leaders to screw up a community of people working together. Communities tend to disappear when you try to control them, or even when you try to “help” them. Organizations are living organisms, not engineering artifacts. If you take an organization apart, spiff it up a little, and then put it back together, it usually doesn’t work the same way.

Fara Warner is a Fast Company senior writer based in Silicon Valley. Contact John Old by email (

Sidebar: Smart Mail

It’s hard enough to think great thoughts — let alone to capture them for a knowledge database. That’s why David Gilmour, the founder, president, and CEO of Tacit Knowledge Systems Inc., in Palo Alto, set out to create applications that capture expertise as it gets created. Tacit’s software and server products scour email, documents — anything digital — to build an ever-changing knowledge bank.

Gilmour calls it “expertise automation.” KnowledgeMail keeps track of when people stop writing about a topic, as well as how often certain words or phrases are used and how important those words are within the document. To illustrate the way KnowledgeMail works, Gilmour uses a law firm as an example.


“Let’s say that your case has been reassigned to a judge whom you know nothing about,” he explains. “In the past, you’d wonder, ‘Who can I call to find out what the judge is like?’ But that takes time — as well as knowledge of all the lawyers in your firm and which judges they interact with.” With Tacit, you type in the judge’s name, and all of the references tied to that name pop up. Not only does the software give you people who have tried cases before that judge — but it also gives you details such as how often, over what span of time, and what type of case was tried.

Contact David Gilmour by email (