Organizational Memory: Undervalued Asset?

The claims that everything is new and that the “old ways” won’t work anymore are overstated. Water utilities strive to provide safe, reliable and affordable water and the way they do it is relatively stable, with the exception of technological innovation in some of the processes. Even software firms must rely on established technology when they develop innovative new products and they use processes that have been developed in the past. The excitement of doing something dramatically different and unique should be moderated by the recognition that another word for “new” is “unproven” and that what has been used successfully is known to be possible. Aspiring to do something new may result in failure. This is not a Luddite condemnation of innovation but rather a perspective that values knowledge and skills that are critical to organizational performance, no matter their age.

Water utilities have a wealth of knowledge resting in both procedure manuals and in the heads of their employees. Where the pipes are buried and how they are hooked up is very important to know and they make every effort to make this knowledge explicit, by writing it down and training employees to utilize it. And software firms utilize existing modules when creating new packages, which makes it necessary to know in detail how those modules work and what is necessary to effectively integrate them with revisions or new modules. For that reason they attempt to thoroughly document logic, coding and routines so that they are available to anyone using the software.

Knowledge comes in two forms: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is algorithmic (there is an established process/set of rules that can be followed) and can be written down and conveyed to those needing it. But tacit knowledge resides in the heads of employees and they find it difficult to “tell all they know.” When I was with a large compensation consulting firm I tried to show other consultants how to develop a good fit salary structure utilizing relative internal job values and external market data. Yet I was apparently unaware of subroutines running in my head when I shot a structure. Simply using a regression tool often resulted in a poor result and I knew I did “something” to modify the formulaic result to make it better, but did not know just what. Several of the other consultants tired of me trying to show them exactly what I did and gave me a budget to do it. This was not an example of knowledge hoarding but a limitation in conveying knowledge that has been gained by doing something again and again. To be an expert you must have put in 10,000 hours of focused experience according to several research studies (see Outliers by Gladwell). We just cannot nail down why we cannot fully explain how we do some things… that is why the Blacksmith – Apprentice model has been used throughout history.

So if much of the critical know-how resides only in the head of employees and they are free to leave at the end of the day on Friday and not return on Monday how does an organization protect the tacit knowledge it so desperately needs? The field of Knowledge Management has become widely recognized as an important part of building and maintaining core competencies. There are many instances of organizations saying farewell to retirees and people leaving for other reasons without asking themselves “what is going out that door that we need and will not have?” Some organizations have developed sophisticated systems to capture knowledge as it is acquired and to make it available to those who might find it valuable. I have worked with organizations to set up simple mechanisms like internal Yellow Pages, which guide those needing knowledge about a system/topic to those who have that knowledge. To be listed is a tangible acknowledgement that someone is the possessor of expertise – it is flattering and can sometimes remind “veterans” they are still valued. Assigning them roles in conveying valuable knowledge can re-energize someone who has been doing the same work for a long time. And it is often the most efficient way to ensure the knowledge is not lost through people leaving.

I just attended the SHRM Foundation annual Thought Leaders conference and the theme was effectively dealing with a multi-generational workforce. Many of the presentations contained the message that bridging the “generational culture” gap was possible but that it took concerted effort and often required processes that differ from more traditional training and mentoring programs. In relay races losing or winning depends largely on the quality of the baton passes, and with five generations in the workforce it means four baton passes must be executed well.

We have become so enamored with big data, analytics and AI that we have forgotten these tools only work when explicit and tangible information is available. There is no way to put electrodes on the heads of employees and successfully retrieve tacit knowledge. Although explanatory models can be developed that seem to capture what went into specific behaviors we still should concern ourselves with knowledge management when we do workforce planning.

There are shelves of excellent books on Knowledge Management in my den and I have used many of the techniques to help organizations save, better use and retrieve critical knowledge. But when I am consulting with organizations on workforce planning (in those rare instances when I convince organizations not to wait until it is just too late to anticipate knowledge loss) I have trouble getting sufficient interest in knowledge management. Preventing tacit knowledge from being lost is much easier than trying to retrieve it or recreate it. But it requires recognition of its value and a willingness to invest in programs and processes to facilitate broad distribution of valuable knowledge and retention of that knowledge. This is not an AARP ad for retaining long service employees. It is an appeal to carefully evaluate what experienced employees know and to have a plan to prevent damaging losses of that which is needed.

The massive cohort we call “Boomers” are leaving and will continue to do so, even though many of them do not prefer an abrupt working/retired dichotomy. For those with valuable knowledge and skills that are difficult and time consuming to acquire organizations should attempt to render explicit as much of their tacit knowledge as possible. And handing the keys of the kingdom over should be a planned and controlled process. Recognizing that what you need is no longer on the premises is not a pleasant experience.

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