The APQC Blog

What is Critical Knowledge?

What is Critical Knowledge?

Critical knowledge is knowledge that is valuable and durable enough to offer a sustainable, competitive advantage that justifies the cost of retaining it and transferring it from employee to employee. What critical knowledge looks like is different for every organization, and that’s a big reason why it’s critical. Critical knowledge is often difficult or impossible to replace through hiring. It’s the kind of knowledge that’s gained through on-the-ground, real-life experience inside an organization. 

I like to think of critical knowledge as the oil in the engine of your business. Executives driving the business might not think about it on a day-to-day basis, and customers are more focused on the shiny exterior. But that oil is what ensures everything runs smoothly and reliably. If it’s gone—even for a moment—the engine will grind, seize up, and stall. You’ll be in for a costly and time-consuming repair, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have caught the problem before it causes irreparable damage. 

Consider the following example. To cut costs, an airline laid off some of its experienced mechanics. The remaining staff needed a lot more time to diagnose and repair airplanes. This led to flight delays and cancellations, which in turn created unhappy customers and an increase in the airline’s cost per seat mile. Fortunately, the airline learned its lesson and started identifying critical knowledge before the next round of staffing cuts.

Knowledge Mapping Course


Identifying critical knowledge isn’t just about loss prevention, though. When you know what your organization’s critical knowledge is and where it lies, you can leverage it better. You can move faster by applying the knowledge as soon as it becomes relevant, creating a more seamless experience for customers. You can train others on the knowledge, enhancing capabilities today and building bench strength for tomorrow. You may even be able to turn the critical knowledge into a marketable asset that distinguishes your company from its competitors. 

The first step in identifying critical knowledge is to talk with business leaders. Critical knowledge is hard to spot from afar, especially if the folks looking for it lack relevant domain expertise. You’ll need to dive deep into the business to get a picture of where critical knowledge might lie. But then, things get even more tricky:

  • What will you do if people disagree about what’s critical?
  • How are you going to prioritize what knowledge is most critical to capture and transfer first?
  • What will you do if people aren’t sure how to explain or document their critical knowledge?
  • How can you make critical knowledge gets to the right people, in the right format, at the right time?

These questions are not easy to tackle, and they crop up almost every time an organization starts looking into its critical knowledge. That’s why APQC recommends knowledge mapping. After 25 years of experience in KM, we’re confident that knowledge mapping is the best way to gather input and create consensus on what constitutes critical knowledge. Fortunately, you don’t need a bunch of fancy tools to do it—you can get the job done with a simple spreadsheet if you like. But you do need a little know-how. That’s where APQC’s new online course comes in.

APQC’s self-paced Knowledge Mapping course is designed to help even complete beginners learn how to create and analyze knowledge maps. You’ll build skills by practicing the tactical steps and tools to scope and complete a knowledge map, learn how to identify and analyze knowledge gaps, and see how to use the insights from knowledge mapping to enhance critical knowledge flow in and across business processes. Get started today!