Do we know what we know? What?? Knowledge is information in action that delivers value. With the churn of right-sizing, reorganizing, relocating, and retirement, the knowledge, insight and wisdom of internal experts often, quite literally, walks out the door. How can company leadership make sure that the information that resides in the heads of departing employees, their Expert sum of experience, is recognized and available to the organization in perpetuity? What can a business do when an engineer with 30 years of experience prepares for retirement? How do they secure continuity of knowledge despite disruptive changes? Through Knowledge Management, which starts with knowledge capture and transfer.
Over the course of my 25 years as a scientist, project manager, and consultant, I’ve facilitated over 30 knowledge captures, primarily from departing experts. I’ve found that a learning culture, proactive knowledge management processes, and the skill to tap into the Experts’ knowledge is critical to insuring that the specialized, unique knowledge of experienced professionals continues to provide value, even after they leave.
Typically, Experts have such a deep understanding of, and experience in, a subject that they can diagnose issues and predict what will happen if XYZ occurs. This type of “Deep Smarts” is well-described in a book by the same name written by Leonard and Swap. Their chart, shown below, provides a schematic definition of deep smarts.
Over time, through many situations and contexts, the Expert mentally collects observations and data. Because they have experienced a sufficient number and variety of outcomes, the human computer quickly recognizes a set of conditions and predicts what will happen or what did happen. The sum of these experiences is knowledge. Often, this knowledge is so embedded that experienced practitioners do not have to think about it to perform the task, and they may not even be aware that others do not have the same understanding because it is so innate to what they do.
Knowledge Capture and Transfer
The goal of Knowledge Capture and Transfer is to make the information carried in an Expert’s head available to others in the organization. The information sought is both explicit, the more straightforward project or technology status, recommended next steps and risks to be managed, and implicit, the less obvious experiential learning gleaned from living the job. Implicit knowledge can be very difficult to transfer to other people and requires skilled practitioners to elicit and document.
Interventions (tools) or stimulations can be used to retrieve this harder-to-access information. One of the original, now classic, examples of this was published by Ikujiro Nonaka in Harvard Business Review (1991). In this example, designing a successful bread machine required translating the tacit understanding of “sufficient kneading” into explicit engineering requirements. Without hands-on experience, what technically describes enough kneading? Elasticity, stickiness, etc. What is the noise made by a mixer when all is well or not going so well? These are examples of experiential points that convey to the Expert critical information about the process. Storytelling is one way to access this information; even better is experiential. The Expert makes available to the Recipient the experience of the desired observation especially contrasted with a suboptimal observation.
The Work: Mind Mapping, Structured Conversations, and Storytelling
Knowledge Capture sessions for departing experts can take the form of one-on-one interviews or group discussions (or both). I recommend including group discussions because they stimulate broader, deeper conversation, which has a greater likelihood of getting to subtleties and nuances…the art of the science. In a thorough approach, the sessions comprise three elements: mapping the knowledge area, distributing the “map” to knowledge receivers to elicit their feedback and prioritization, and finally, conducting the discussion session.
Mind maps provide a method to capture relevant and layered topics. It is a diagrammatic method of outlining in a small footprint the breadth of what is to be captured. Often it’s possible to attach notes or other documents detailing content. So the map reflects the knowledge base at different layers of detail, serves as an outline and captures details for future reference.
Storytelling is ideal for providing context and examples of the knowledge being captured, which helps others make sense of what is being shared or explained. Eliciting stories adds richness and makes the subject matter come alive. Stories can also serve as scenarios for future training.
To formalize a Knowledge Management process, first identify and prioritize the critical areas of expertise and knowledge that are at risk, along with the associated Experts whose deep smarts need to be captured. Engage the Receivers of the knowledge at the outset. Utilize a trained facilitator with experience in Knowledge Capture to develop the right methodology, ensure comprehensive, unbiased elicitation of both explicit and implicit knowledge, and organize logistics (scheduling, session note capture, finished product, etc.)
The amount of time required to conduct a Knowledge Capture session depends on the format chosen and the richness of the information. A typical outline-driven one-on-one interview can take anywhere from an hour to half a day. For group sessions, a full day should be scheduled. If the topic is particularly rich, and especially if it’s critical to the business, more discussion may be required. In one extreme case, due to proprietary concerns, an under pinning grain conditioning technology was closely held by the engineer who had developed it but was preparing to retire. I facilitated a multi-day conversation between the inheriting team and Expert. While the company initially thought it could not afford to have the team locked away for several days, what would it have cost if an issue arose after this lone Expert retired?
The Drivers of Success
Knowledge Capture and Transfer is most successful in organizations with a strong culture of learning. Without this, absorption of Expert knowledge is limited, and it’s even worse if “NIH” holds sway (not invented here). This starts with the internal champion making sufficient time available from the Expert(s) and Receivers for the Facilitator to capture and effect the transfer. The risk of knowledge loss is substantial if day-to-day work is allowed to impede a thorough process.
Involving “Receivers” from start to finish is also critical. If the Facilitator documents knowledge from the Expert, but the Receivers don’t have (or take) the time to read, digest, and ask questions, the effort is wasted. The more engaged they are, the more likely the knowledge will become embedded. Knowledge transfer is most effective through apprenticeship, dialogue, and documentation, in that order. Finally, the “chemistry” and “personality” of the Facilitator, Expert, and Recipients needs to “click”; if the “fit” isn’t there, knowledge elicitation will be more difficult, and the output will be less nuanced and incomplete.
Knowledge Management does more than mitigate the risk of lost knowledge. A strategic, disciplined program can also help solve complex problems, spur innovation, and enhance productivity and efficiency. All of these lead to a lasting impact on the organization well past the end of that specific project. Does your organization capture and leverage the knowledge of its internal experts? Will you retain the intellectual capital of your next departing employee?
Need help getting started with a Knowledge Management program? Contact me, and let’s discuss what a Knowledge Management plan might look like for your organization.
About Leslie J. Morgan, Ph.D.: Dr. Morgan is a former R&D scientist from Unilever with a Ph.D. in Colloid & Interfacial Chemistry, who now specializes in Knowledge Capture and Transfer. Since joining YourEncore in 2008, Leslie has helped companies retain and leverage the “deep smarts” of corporate experts as they transition into reassignment, relocation, or retirement.