The APQC Blog

What is At-risk Knowledge?

What is At-risk Knowledge?

At-risk knowledge is unique knowledge and skills that might be lost due to changes in workforce demographics, projects, and/or technologies. When most people think about at-risk knowledge, they think employees that are up for retirement. Retirement is a huge driver of knowledge loss, and organizations would be wise to plan ahead for the “Silver Tsunami” of Baby Boomer retirements. But retirement isn’t the only factor that puts knowledge at risk. 

A lot of knowledge is put at risk by the way we staff and run organizations today. In many businesses, employees constantly move from project to project. Contract work is increasingly popular across industries. Most analysts predict M&A activity will resume its rapid pace after (and perhaps even before) the world recovers from the pandemic. In the meanwhile, COVID has accelerated the need to move to new technology tools and systems now—even if that means postponing migration of content from legacy systems. In a digitally enabled environment where remote work is the new normal, processes are changing too—and fast. Some organizations, seeking to cut costs where they can, are automating processes before investing time in documenting or analyzing them.

All of this movement—of people, process, and technology—creates the potential for permanent, irrevocable knowledge loss. The consequences of knowledge loss can be dire. Just ask NASA, who has to start from scratch on the next human mission to the moon because it lost the knowledge from Apollo. Or, consider this finding from HR Daily Advisor: A firm with 1,000 employees can expect to lose $2.4 million in productivity annually from to the day-to-day inefficiencies caused by knowledge loss.

This is a scary picture, but the important thing to understand is that not all at-risk or lost knowledge is critical knowledge. Consider the following questions:

  • Is the knowledge needed to support current and/or business strategies?
  • Does the knowledge help drive competitive advantage?
  • Is the knowledge rare or unique?
  • Is the knowledge unlikely to evolve?

If the answer to all the above is a resounding “No,” then you’re probably in the clear. Letting a senior SME walk out the door without documenting his knowledge about a well-known, now-obsolete process is perfectly reasonable. And let’s be honest, your ancient repositories aren’t exactly the Library of Alexandria. There’s probably a lot of stuff in there that belongs in the dustbin of history. 

But as you dive deeper into your organization’s knowledge environment, you’ll often find that answering these questions gets harder and harder. Perhaps the knowledge isn’t needed to support current business strategies, but can you be sure won’t apply to future strategies? Hard to know if you don’t talk to executives. Is the knowledge really unique? Hard to know if you don’t talk an SME. Sounds like things are getting pretty complicated, and that’s when you need a rubric. 

Knowledge mapping is that rubric. Based on 25 years of experience in KM, APQC recommends knowledge mapping as the best way to gather input and create consensus on what constitutes critical knowledge. Now, APQC offers an online Knowledge Mapping training course designed to help even complete beginners learn how to use this powerful technique. In this class, you’ll learn the big-picture how and why behind knowledge mapping, and you’ll have the opportunity to practice the steps and techniques to put it into practice at your organization. Get started today!