Every day, as key employees leave – whether from retirement, lured away to the competition, or a just a desire for something new — companies worldwide experience the loss of capabilities, skills, and “tribal knowledge.” As key employees depart, they take expertise and proprietary knowledge with them. This is especially true of supply chain professionals, where there is today a large talent gap.
How do you deal with the loss of their personal contacts and customer vendor relationships built up over years? How about partner relationships and product and service sourcing knowledge? And, what about specialized process knowledge that enables faster turnaround time and in-depth troubleshooting of your unique processes?
When experts leave, don’t let their critical knowledge walk out the door! Think about the time it takes to get new hires up to competence, not to mention high-performance; or the time and resources spent “reinventing” or “rediscovering” successful processes and products. And you experience a “double-whammy” when expertise walks to competitors…expertise that your organization paid to develop!
Consider these well-known examples of the cost of knowledge that has left an organization. When an employee at major computer manufacturer’s production line left, she was the only one who knew that the operating manuals did not convey the best way to work the machines on the line. Correcting the resulting mistakes cost $200,000.
After Boeing offered early retirement to 9,000 senior employees during a business downturn, an unexpected rush of new commercial airplane orders left the company critically short of skilled production workers. The knowledge lost from veteran employees combined with the inexperience of their replacements threw the firm’s 737 and 747 assembly lines into chaos. Management had to shut down production for more than three weeks, forcing Boeing to take a $1.6 billion charge against earnings.
When experts leave they take their deep tacit knowledge with them – the knowledge that’s in their heads but not documented in manuals or other documentation. A good example is the technician described above who knew that technical manuals did not accurately convey specifications and standards.
Hopefully, your organization has prepared for this knowledge drain and has put programs in place to mitigate performance loss from retirees, experts, and key employees leaving. In case you haven’t, here’s a high-level blueprint for critical knowledge capture and sharing, modeled after our proven knowledge capitalization process.
First a word about knowledge capitalization: it is an active process of specific knowledge capture and representation to support workers at the time of need – when they are performing a task, making a decision, or solving a problem. Knowledge sharing is accomplished through knowledge bases (KB), expert systems (ES), and other knowledge platforms that enable higher performance and greater productivity, making a true capital asset of your organization’s knowledge, experience, and unique expertise.
Knowledge capitalization: Capture, model, represent, & share expert knowledge
The key to knowledge preservation and sharing across your enterprise is based on how well you capture and represent the knowledge of your expert(s). You want to not only mitigate losses if they leave but also share their knowledge with “less expert” staff to bring their performance up to expert level. This means capturing the deep tacit knowledge acquired over years through study, experience, and practice. When you’ve captured that expertise, represent it in a high-fidelity format and then share it with appropriate workers.
There are several effective techniques for eliciting the deep tacit knowledge of experts. They have been developed over the past thirty years and shown to be effective through controlled experiments and increased worker performance. They work in any industry to facilitate the preservation and rapid transfer of knowledge. These techniques fall into three groups: interview techniques, modeling techniques, and specialized techniques. They start at a high overview level and gradually drill into deeper levels of knowledge and expertise.
- Interview techniques involve interviewing your expert(s) to elicit basic knowledge. They include unstructured and semi-structured interviews and pave the way for modeling and specialized knowledge capture techniques.
- Modeling techniques consist of displaying knowledge in a knowledge base using diagrams, process flows, concept maps, tables, and matrices that show relationships and context of your knowledge assets. These include Trees (composition, process, attribute, cause, and mixed trees), maps (concept and process maps), timelines, matrices (attribute and relationship matrices), frames, and knowledge pages (k-pages).
- Specialized techniques probe the expert’s mind to elicit deep, tacit knowledge. They involve the expert doing something (performing a task) rather than saying something to reveal knowledge that is difficult to explain. These techniques include scenarios, commentary, concept sorting, limited information task, and others proven to work for tacit knowledge capture. The saying is “We know more than we can tell.” Think of how to recognize a face! We do it every day but usually can’t say how we do it. However, law enforcement agencies have methods and tools to represent a face for recognition. An expert artist will interview a witness and ask specific questions about the features of that face. They will then use tools (software or sketch pads) to visualize the face, modifying and changing the features until the witness says, “That’s it!”
When the captured knowledge is cross referenced and placed in an easy-to-use knowledge base, users can see tasks and concepts in context and relation to each other. It’s like having your rapid-access “Google-type” of searchable, specific knowledge at your staff’s fingertips.
Share the knowledge
Once your expert knowledge has been vetted and validated by your expert(s) you’ll need to make the captured knowledge base available to your organization, so they can access it in the natural flow of their work process. Hopefully you’ve planned how to embed the knowledge base in your organization’s intranet or IT system for use by those with access permission when they need it and in the course of their work flow. If not, we can help with that.
And, although your knowledge base should be intuitive and easy to use, don’t expect users to naturally flock to it. You’ll need to publicize it, train users, and (depending on how extensive it is) implement a change management program for effective acceptance.
With an effective knowledge capitalization program that captures and shares expertise, you’ll see real financial gains. You can fill talent gaps by sharing expert knowledge across your teams. You’ll find employees acquire expertise and are competent faster, with fewer miscues and mistakes; you’ll reduce cycle time for product development and delivery; and you’ll encourage knowledge-sharing across divisions and departments, which can lead to more collaboration, cross selling, and resource sharing. You’ll be able to share valuable how-to’s for buyer-vendor relationships, unique delivery requirements, and expert “short cuts” to process flow.
The loss of knowledge from your organization from departing staff is real and reduces your competitive advantage. And the cost of onboarding new hires is expensive…and their production limited until they gain competence. But with a well-planned and effectively-executed knowledge capture and transfer program, you can mitigate that loss, bring new hires up to speed faster, and build on your proprietary expert knowledge for continued growth and success.