The Secret Knowledge Management Asset You Need To Stop Ignoring

Jim Lee's picture

Dorothy Leonard’s excellent insights in her recent CLO article 5 Ways to Ensure Critical Knowledge Transfer were a great reminder of the importance of “getting ahead of the game” when it comes to retaining an organization’s knowledge. But why was it even necessary to write it? After all, [cue the smirk] if people are an organization’s most valuable asset, we’d already know to retain their knowledge—even long after they’re goneLack of Retiree Knowledge Transfer Leads to Ruin—wouldn’t we? It would seem, however, that some (many?) organizations don’t know about this well-known little secret. That’s one of the key value propositions of knowledge management, but some leaders still don’t understand KM well enough to take advantage of it.

What are some symptoms of the unaware? How about a one-hour exit interview with someone leaving after spending 30 years at the organization? Better yet (for the “retiree”) are the places where retirement means leaving on Friday and coming back the next Monday as a consultant at 3x the retiree’s former salary! I suppose the second example is an illustration of an employee being the most valuable asset—or at least the most expensive! Those of us nearing retirement may secretly harbor a wish for this model of knowledge retention, but when organizations wait this long to recognize our expertise, it feels a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. Why don’t organizations begin extracting the knowledge out of us the day we start?

I’ll throw this out as a reason: We are assets—just like other capital expenditures such as machinery and equipment. In that vein, leadership in such organizations must believe that people depreciate over time as well (I pity those who are accelerated or double-declining balance type depreciators).  At least that’s how the organizations less initiated seem to treat their people. Make good use of (note that I didn’t say take advantage of—that has a very serious negative connotation) the expertise of the people while in the organization’s employ because that’s all they’re there for. Once the person is gone, they’re released from the bonds and obligations of the past, even if it means that the organization forgets what it once knew.

Fortunately, some institutions do not seem to subscribe to this model of knowledge retention (or should I say, lack thereof).  One such organization that I worked with included a group of very experienced production supervisors. When I asked the group why they cared so much about transferring their collective knowledge, the common response was, “Because we don’t want the next group of people to screw up what we’ve built on our watch!” Although that answer may sound a bit cynical, it does tell me that this group of “assets” understood the value of knowledge sharing even if they were somewhat imprecise about the value to be gained. So when leaders realize that knowledge sharing increases the organization’s value, their most important assets will also be acknowledged to appreciate and not the other way around.

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Anonymous's picture
Agree with your recommendation to plan ahead, but employers and aging employees have roadblocks to broaching such a conversation. From the employer standpoint, discussing age and possible reduction in hours, compensation or similar, creates a risk that the employer will be branded as discriminating on the basis of age. From the employees standpoint, telling your employer that you would let to transition to a less active or to a mentoring/training role, will, in some organizations, transition you into lame duck status. Creative solutions to this dilemma need to be developed Tim Donovan
Anonymous's picture
A company's culture, employee relatioships, high morale atmosphere and the using of some motivationg tactics would enhance the chance of attaining the smartcreatives and their know how.
Jim Lee's picture
Thanks for the comments. One of the creative ways to provide a non-threatening environment for the more senior folks while simultaneously ensuring expertise transfer has been fellows programs. That is, as a person gains more experience and is acknowledged to have attained expertise above and beyond others, they may be nominated or selected within formal fellows programs to publicize their achievements as experts. This often comes with some additional requirements to fulfill the "title" or role, but those requirements are often exactly what the senior person aspires to anyway: formal recognition as someone out of the ordinary. That type of recognition which can be shared both externally as well as internally, can be a powerful incentive for an experienced person to reach for. What other ways can expertise transfer be conducted? How can the newest, least experienced employees share their expertise to others?
Becky Whitworth's picture
Hi Jim - I think that your recommendation to plan for the transfer of knowledge before employees transition out of an organization is valid. Through my journey of KM I have found that many employers do not think on these terms and you CAN NOT depend on HR to take lead on knowledge capture and transfer. I think that they can be a partner but their focus is typically looking out for new talent for future needs. Besides employees leaving the company for retirement you have company restructures that are "not planned" that highlight people with 25 to 30 years experience that their jobs have been eliminated. You have may be 90 days or less to potentially document knowledge if they are even open to that exercise. Becky Whitworth MSA
Jim Lee's picture
Becky, thanks for your comment. It reminded me of a study we conducted a few years ago which included Michelin. Here's a link to an overview of their program The key aspects of their KM program included a "lifetime" view of employees and their career development needs, the cross functional learning from both professions and competencies, and specific techniques such as handoff documents. For me, the strategy of Michelin's KM program was a great example of ensuring that individual knowledge became organizational knowledge.