Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
21 Jun 2011

Is your knowledge pipeline leaking?

21 Jun 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Our knowledge pipeline is leaking

Knowledge loss is a problem which involves the complete employment lifecycle. From recruitment to retention through to retirement. As employees in organizations progress they acquire knowledge that is customized to the operation, structure and culture of that organisation, they also acquire insights and understanding of unique characteristics about the company that is gathered over time and learning from that knowledge is difficult to replicate or replace when employees transfer or retire from their positions.

Companies may be unaware of the impact

For example, during the last quarter of 2009 I was building a competency framework for an organisation in the oil and gas sector, they were situated in a fairly remote location. The organisation was experiencing a rigorous commissioning process and therefore a demand for engineers with a variety of skill sets. Attracting and retaining talent was presenting difficulties for various reasons, and then the recession coupled with the rising cost of air travel resulted in a decision to reduce numbers, chaos reigned as project managers were informed of the decision and the schedulers worked out new rotations, it became apparent that those who were departing possessed a store of valuable knowledge.

Coincidently, the issue of knowledge transfer was one of the competency areas that the organisation had identified as essential to its responsibilities to develop others as part of its nationalisation programme. I had been asked to include a competency set dedicated to this area and had already incorporated it into the performance appraisal and recruitment documentation as a core competency. At the time I had raised concerns about the lack of methods for ensuring knowledge transfer – all in good time was the answer.

Knowledge sharing strategies

By default we had reached that time where it was imperative to focus upon strategies for ensuring essential knowledge was captured. Before we could formulate a long term strategy we needed to plan immediate action since the first batch of employees, due to leave the company at the end of their rotations in approximately 6 weeks, our focus was upon capturing their knowledge and that involved:

  • Defining “knowledge” and separating that from “information” - all knowledge is based on information but all information does constitute knowledge. Information without context is raw data, not knowledge, and so we needed to turn the information into knowledge and avoid just creating a data dump
  • Identifying those individuals who had no buddies, backups, or replacements
  • Identifying the at risk knowledge among all individuals who were departing the company
  • Separating explicit knowledge from tacit knowledge
  • Deciding what knowledge could be documented
  • Identifying potential knowledge that could only be transferred through face-to-face interactions.

Im not sharing attitudes

As Francis Bacon said, ‘Knowledge is power’ so it came as no surprise when some of those contractors who were departing used their knowledge as leverage to try to buy more time.  An additional problem was presented when identifying knowledge and experience among those in specialist roles who often could not describe their deep tacit knowledge. Furthermore we often failed to understand the significance or value of the knowledge that was shared. Many failed to realise how useful particular knowledge may be to others.

Time was an issue, and the increasing pressure of productivity, and deadlines on those who were leaving meant they were in demand and not easily accessible. The more knowledgeable you are, the more people are waiting to make use of that expertise.

Knowledge is an intangible asset

We are hopelessly unsophisticated in our approaches to knowledge management. For some, the definition of 'Knowledge management' is limited to the belief that they are managing knowledge if they get the right information to the right desktop at the right time and they spend a fortune on acquiring the systems to do that. We assume naïvely that everybody will share knowledge willingly once they understand what the corporate plot is. We forget that individuals have their own agendas and unique aspirations and they will also use knowledge to drive themselves towards success.

Mitigate risks associated with attrition

When an employee walks out the door for the last time, they take the majority of their knowledge and all of their experience with them. Attrition is a major cause of 'brain drain' within organisations. This is specifically true for companies that…

  • Take employees to the door as soon as they announce their resignation
  • Allow employees to complete their 'notice' without specific plans to record or share what they know 
  • Offer early retirement to workers who have reached a specific plateau 
  • Terminate employees quickly due to poor performance, or restructuring.

If you don't ask your employees to record what they know when they leave, only a small percentage, if any, of their knowledge will stay behind. Attempting to capture an individual’s knowledge as they work through a period of notice is a fatally flawed strategy because the incentive to share is decreased; and the departing employee is busy throughout their final days. In the oil and gas industry where contractors are hired because of their specific knowledge and expertise consulting/contractor agreements should clearly define responsibility and methods for sharing knowledge. Consulting agreements that leave little or no time for knowledge transfer leave companies in a bind when the assignment ends.