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 gone—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.