CASE STUDY: Tales from the ESN trenches

Major Barry Byrne knows better than most the value of corporate knowledge sharing. If put in the right hands at the right time, information can dramatically impact the efficiencies of a business and lead to more effective outcomes.

As chief information and knowledge officer of the Irish Defence Forces, Byrne is in the business of saving people - not with bombs and bullets but information.

" Effective knowledge sharing and better access to information enables better decision making and reduces the risk to people and equipment."
Major Barry Byrne, Irish Defence Forces

“If we don’t manage information properly, we are at danger of costing lives,” he says. “Effective knowledge sharing and better access to information enables better decision making and reduces the risk to people and equipment.”

Introduced a few years ago and now adopted across the organisation, the Forces' IKON knowledge management solution – an enterprise social network or ESN - is its response to an information-sharing problem shared by many large organisations around the world.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

IKON (Information and Knowledge Online) manages the Forces' electronic document and records, serves as its intranet, internal collaboration tool (ICT) and search engine and ensures numerous levels of regulatory compliance.

The success of IKON is another side of a rapidly growing global social-business industry. Research from advisory firm Technavio predicts the social business market will grow to around $US23 billion by 2019, with an annual compound growth rate of more than 26 per cent.

The rise comes in response to a growing corporate resistance to ‘old-style’ digital communication amid research suggesting knowledge workers spend around 28 per cent of their time as a slave to their email and another 20 per cent trying to track down information.


Byrne says sharing knowledge was the key to becoming a smarter and more-professional organisation and critical for the Forces becoming faster and better at what they do.

“We operate in an environment where information is a primary resource and a critical enabler to our operations,” he says.

For the Forces, sharing crucial information is not only in everyone’s interest but their duty, Byrne says.

“It can mean a helicopter takes off 40 minutes quicker and saves a child’s life, or that a Commander in a battlefield has the insight needed to inform a decision they need to make quickly,” he says.

A turning point for the Force was the realisation it couldn’t have valuable knowledge locked up with one person, Byrne says.  It needs to be within reach of many people constantly and simultaneously.

Not unlike many other large organisations, in the pre-IKON era the Forces was comprised of silos both culturally and technologically. Byrne says the group lacked the cultural will and technical capability to store information accessibly and in a discoverable form.

“We didn’t have one platform that enabled our people to do it and do it well,” he says.

The Forces' all-in approach is supported by decade-long research from McKinsey which shows a direct correlation between the deployment of an advanced social technology and strong results.

Embedding the change has taken some time, Byrne says.

“Changing the culture of an organisation is like turning the rudder on an aircraft carrier, it’s very slow, you can do it but the whole organisation takes a long time to turn.”


Introducing IKON had its challenges, Byrne says.  Surprisingly, they were more about the human element than technology, with around 80 per cent of the focus spent on people and process.

In Byrne’s view the single most critical and ultimately successful part of the project was getting buy in and support from senior leaders.

It’s a movement seen all around the world as more and more executives jump on the social media train. It’s proving to be a career-critical choice – a recent executive survey showed more than two thirds of CEOs believe peers who do not engage on social channels will become increasingly irrelevant in the digital age.

It’s a perception as important externally as it is internally; a similar survey revealed 75 per cent of consumers believe C-Suite social media engagement makes a brand seem more honest and trustworthy.

“First and foremost we secured the support of the highest level of management,” Byrne says. “These projects need champions and the best way to get the attention of people everywhere was to go to the top. It signals that it matters to the leader so it should matter to them in their role.”

Before long, the Forces had Senior Admirals and Generals embracing social, hashtagging and targeting each other like social experts.

An added bonus of IKON’s success was a flattening of the traditional hierarchy of the organisation, Byrne says.

“As there’s no ranking on the system, knowledge flows more freely among people and across ranks in peace keeping missions in Syria, Lebanon, abroad and at home,” he says. “We see full Colonels interacting with people from all ranks right across the organisation which we never thought would happen.”

The Forces shifted the ‘knowledge is power’ paradigm – one shared by many large businesses which have been around a long time - to show staff sharing would empower them instead. Different strategies for tacit knowledge sharing and explicit knowledge sharing were used.

Byrne says the shift within the Force has been tremendous.

“We’ve moved from retaining huge amounts of information to less, ensuring compliance and retaining the valuable stuff,” he says. “We’ve seen the value of being social and we know sharing information mitigates the risk of information not being in the right place.”

Sue-Ellen Atherton is a contributing editor at BlueNotes

PHOTO: The War Room from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. SOURCE: Wiki Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

09 Sep 2016

LONGREAD: how the world is being digitised

Drew Turney | Freelance journalist

Let’s say you're interested in an investment property. But it's in another city and you can't be there to view the floorplan. Instead, you visit a website and do a virtual walkthrough – in 3D, not just on a computer screen - where it's fully furnished, contains realistic lighting and final surface colours – before it's even built.

29 Aug 2016

VIDEO: Knowledge has no rank

Sue-Ellen Atherton | BlueNotes contributing editor

In the new world of knowledge sharing in business, old-style cascading models of information distribution don’t work. Instead, successful organisations create a collaborative mindset and instill a responsibility to share among all employees – from the C-suite to the ground floor.

13 Jan 2016

Be not afraid, believe in ESNs

Rita Zonius | Former Head of Internal Digital Communications, ANZ

Change can be a scary thing. In an increasingly social business world the arrival of enterprise social networks (ESNs) in workplaces has been met with a mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety. The truth is you have nothing to fear – while it will change the way everyone works, it is only for the better.