Are you at risk for losing critical knowledge?

5 Sep

My long-time colleague and friend Larry Wilson and I are really good at capturing deep smarts, the kinds of things experts do naturally that aren’t easily articulated. We’ve been doing this work for 20 years and although there have been lots of highs and lows, there has always been a steady stream of companies who recognized the importance of capturing knowledge from soon-to-retire experts. At least until now.

I’m a little stumped as to what happened. There have been more baby boomer retirements in the last few years because the market has picked up a little, so you’d think the concern would increase, rather than diminish. Contact with former clients suggests an unusually apathetic lack of discussion and concern inside organizations that once considered critical knowledge capture essential to their survival.

The same sort of apathy seems to permeate the press. What once was an important topic of discussion with lots of articles, conferences and thought-leaders, has now diminished into an occasional dribble of rehashed thoughts and ideas.

What I can’t put my finger on is why. The problem didn’t go away, so why are there fewer and fewer people knocking on the door? Is it that we lost the cool factor we once had when the big guys stopped talking about it? Did the people who recognized the problem and were motivated to do something about it retire or move on to another cooler, hipper focus? Did they wake up one day and decide that what all those old-timers know or know how to do isn’t important anymore?

I can live with whatever the answer is, but it sure would be nice to know there was a good reason as opposed to just apathy setting in. Let’s take a look at some of the potential good reasons and see if we can figure this out.

The old-timer’s knowledge is no longer relevant (we do things differently now)

This is a valid point, especially when the critical knowledge is tied to technology that is no longer used or is in the process of being phased out. However, and this is important, it’s never really been about the technology, at least not in our world. It’s about the experts understanding and use of the technology.

Technology always changes and information about what it does and how to use it is generally easy to find. What isn’t so easy to access, and what really has value to the larger organization, is how the expert thinks and makes decisions. In our capture of expertise, we rarely ever bother with documenting the steady state or how to use technology. What we do capture is what the expert does when things don’t go according to plan, when the technology doesn’t work or delivers unexpected or ambiguous results.

Anything I need I can find online

Another valid point. Twenty years ago when we first started capturing deep knowledge, the amount of quality expertise online was low. It’s gotten much better. I’m not a handy person, but thanks to videos by expert plumbers and handymen, I’ve been able to successfully repair all sorts of things around the house that 20 years ago I would have had to pay an expert to do. The same is true across industries and inside organizations. It’s not difficult to find out about something online. It’s even relatively easy to find out how to do something. What’s often missing or more difficult to find is the contextual or conditional knowledge that applies to your specific situation.

Work has been increasingly complex. There are more and more dependencies and relationships and more and more opportunities for making a change in one place that adversely effects something somewhere else. What separates the expert from the novice is that experts have typically experienced more contexts and conditions and have a larger repertoire from which to draw. What you find publicly available online is likely to be very basic and lacking the rich context you’d need in a complex work situation.

We captured the knowledge but no one used it

This one is perhaps the most valid point of all. Well-meaning companies spent the money, captured the knowledge, made it available on their intranet and not so patiently waited for the younger generation to suddenly drink in the knowledge of the experts. But it didn’t happen. Why not? Why could they not appreciate the experiences, insights and critical know-how of these remarkable men and women?

Several reasons come to mind. One, Baby Boomers were comfortable with longer, more comprehensive explanations, but younger workers don’t seem to share that affinity. Short and sweet blurbs delivered at exactly the right time are the format of choice. “I only want to know exactly what I need to know to get this task done,” explains a Millennial. “Only give me stuff that I can use today, right now.” We (Boomers) did not have immediate access to information so we got use to learning about things in more detail, knowing we’d probably use the knowledge at some future stage. Younger generations don’t think that way because they don’t have to. Packaging and delivery of knowledge needs to change accordingly.

It’s not on the CEOs priority list, so therefore not important

When there’s not a lot of talk about a subject in the press, executives forget about it for awhile. Sadly this is one of those things that often doesn’t become a hot button until something happens that wouldn’t have happened if the expert was still there or you’d transferred his know-how to the new guys and girls.

Smart companies don’t wait for the preverbal shit to hit the fan. They proactively look to ensure they’re not inadvertently putting the company at risk through loss of critical knowledge. Capturing and packaging deep smarts offers a substantial return on investment but only if you’re careful to: A) go after the right stuff (the most critical knowledge) and B) put knowledge to work immediately after capturing it.

That means looking at the risk of loss knowledge the same way you look at other risks. It means regularly assessing and prioritizing knowledge so you know what’s most important and where your gaps are. Once you zero in on what to capture, it’s important to keep that knowledge in play and flowing throughout the organization. Rather than having it lounge around in a rarely read document, incorporate it into day-to-day work activities and training, build it into tools and technologies, hold people accountable for knowing, using and adding to knowledge and include these behaviors in assessments and reviews.

In summary

I recognize that all disciplines, this one most especially, need to change and evolve with the times. I can accept that the way we did things in the past was not as efficient or effective as it could be, certainly not easily scalable as we discovered some time ago. What I have a hard time dealing with, however, is a world where people no longer value the knowledge and skills of those who came before them, where they immediately dismiss the importance of understanding the bigger picture and why things were done a certain way, or where they cavalierly accept the risk of not knowing based on a naive view of the complexities of work.

Hopefully this lack of attention to knowledge loss is a momentary blip and things will turnaround soon. Maybe younger generations are having the conversations with older employees and capturing the knowledge, but just not doing so with any sort of formality. Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks. I remain ever hopeful.

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