Should knowledge retention be high on organizations’ agenda?

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2008. ]

Yesterday I stumbled across a post by Gordon Ross of Thoughtfarmer talking about a client where 50% of its staff is eligible to retire in the next eight years. What a massive brain drain! But we don’t even have to go that far into the future. Times are tough now. The lists of laid-off employees (here and here) become longer and longer with every day. Even though these are two totally different scenarios, the fact that people and their knowledge are leaving an organization is the same.

Most companies have extensive data backup and disaster recovery plans in store. I think it speaks for itself that companies are still more concerned about machines breaking down than people leaving the company. Axing people now may help to cut costs and survive the economic downturn. However, if companies do not take action to retain the knowledge of people leaving, they will face increased transaction and training costs in the long run.

Obviously, the problem of knowledge retention is not entirely new. It has been on the agenda of knowledge managers for a long time. Early efforts included conducting interviews or documenting everything the employee deemed to be important shortly before leaving the organization. I personally have not read any statistics (or even seen an ROI ) on how fruitful these efforts actually are. However, I can imagine that the success is rather limited, since there are various problems with such formal approaches:

  • What is important to one person is not necessarily important to others.
  • Most knowledge cannot be documented but is inherently connected to people.
  • Questions and documents are inadequate to capture informal conversations or to make social connections visible.
  • Given our short time span, it is very likely to miss important pieces of information when interviews are conducted.
  • If an employee is laid off…

In short, relying only on formal approaches like the ones mentioned above will yield poor results when it comes to knowledge retention. I am not saying that these do not bring any benefit, but it should be clear that an organization needs to take a more holistic and especially timelier approach to knowledge retention. Holistic in the sense of being able to capture/transfer informal knowledge and timely meaning starting today and not when an employee is about to leave. Knowledge retention starts as soon as a new employee comes into the office for the first time. In almost every interaction between people, let it be online or offline, knowledge is created and shared. These interactions are vital for knowledge transfer, as most knowledge is attached to people and cannot be captured in formal ways.

Instead of trying to document everything and controlling knowledge transfer, invest your efforts in facilitating knowledge networking. Allow employees to connect and interact with each other using simple tools. By doing so knowledge is naturally disseminated across the organization. In case an employee leaves the company, there are others that (most probably) carry parts of his work-related knowledge or know someone that knows. In the end, this informal approach to knowledge retention could save the company considerable amounts of money, because people do not have to spend extra time for interviews / questionnaires etc. when leaving the company and new people can get up to speed much quicker, as they can rely on the help and knowledge of the other employees.

I believe that the notion of knowledge retention as a one-off activity in a distant future will soon disappear. Instead, organizations will need to find ways to make it part of employees’ day-to-day work – from their first to their last day at the organization.

That’s easier said than done, but here are some tactics that can help to achieve that:

1) Increase transparency

Large organizations are ‘famous’ for re-inventing the wheel, since the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Give employees smart tools that enable them to easily communicate, collaborate and connect with each other on an organization-wide level.

2) Enable free flow of information

Too often gatekeepers and inappropriate tools are major barriers to information flow. Employees should be able to decide what information is important and relevant to their work.

3) Focus on personal productivity

Employees are primarily concerned about their own performance. Give them simple tools that make them more productive, but which at the same time make use of network effects and benefit the organization as a whole.

4) Get out of the way!

Facilitate but don’t control!

Surely, this is by no means an exhaustive list of tactics. If you have any other thoughts or suggestions on how to tackle knowledge retention, please consider leaving your comment below.

social business

Manage, and you may survive! Facilitate, and you may thrive!

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Recently I went to see an organization, and a good while into a very pleasant conversation I was asked: ‘Will we (organization) become obsolete in ten years’? What a daunting question! What had happened?

The organization has about 1000 member companies. It offers a variety of services and stages events frequently. After I had met one of the employees I was invited to one of their events at the rather exclusive University Club here in NYC. The person introduced me to a number of members at the event (after all networking is a key part of such events). Yet, I had the strong feeling that I missed opportunities, simply because I relied on the knowledge of one person and random conversations limiting the ‘ROI’ of my time investment. So I wrote a long email to my contact at the organization with some ideas on how do address this particular issue (among others).

In the email and subsequent conversation I made the case that the value of the offline networking events could be increased considerably by developing an online platform with a business networking component for members at its heart. At the moment the organization publishes an attendee roster prior to every event, which lists only the names and companies of attendees. While key employees of the organization have built up an impressive wealth of knowledge about members, members themselves don’t know the faces, roles, interests, or connections of other members making it very hard for them to effectively network on their own. It’s not too difficult to imagine why the organization considers that knowledge as one of their key assets and where they believe can add even more value to the membership. And yet, I suggested the unthinkable: ‘Open up! Make the knowledge about the network and all its members visible to members (companies). Let them explore the network, connect and interact with each other! Don’t be the guardian or bottle-neck as a matter of fact. Members know best what is good for and relevant to them. You may assume that you know, but let’s face it, you don’t!’

And that’s when the question came up: ‘Will we (organization) become obsolete in ten years’? Apart from being daunting to answer, I also thought that this was a rather courageous question. I believe few businesses (industries) ask(ed) themselves this question, and even fewer face a sometimes cruel reality. Most of them live in total denial. (CLAY SHIRKY).

For a long time people and organizations that had a quasi-monopoly on knowledge or products crippled progress and innovation and still capitalized on it. You can look at enterprise systems, which locked organizations into to the dungeon of one vendor. Media outlets had a monopoly on producing content and charging for it. Key people in organizations had a monopoly on knowledge, making them indispensable. All of them were at the center of their respective environment. Their exposed position allowed them to control the terms and conditions on how their knowledge or products were used.

But with the advent of social tools these monopolies are coming to an end. We are now witnessing an ever increasing connected world where we don’t have one huge nucleus but rather dispersed nodes. Gone are the days of locked-down systems and walled gardens. ‘Control’ might have been a valid notion in the past, but the only way to stay relevant now is to open up and interact with your environment. To a large extent ‘control’ is replaced by ‘facilitation’. That’s the quintessence! You provide a platform and let other people built on top of your applications (e.g. Facebook (partially), Twitter, Confluence), interact with your content (e.g. NYT, Guardian) or connect with each other (e.g. …. ). Other examples of facilitation can be found in the Obama campaign, Twestival and knowledge management. The Obama campaign and Twestival are great examples, where people were given a vision and tools to achieve a goal. How they did it was up to them. The same holds true for knowledge management. The days of central knowledge repositories, gate-keepers and knowledge managers in its true sense are over. Get out of the way! Open up the silos! Give people a platform on which they can connect with each other based on what is relevant and important to them. Facilitate, don’t manage! If you simply continue managing, your organization may loose on business opportunities.

So, wrapping up all these thoughts, my answer was something along these lines. ‘It depends. Fortunately, your core business is not necessarily based on networking. However, it is an important part. If you keep the status quo, chances are that sooner or later members will realize that the current practice is ineffective and they are missing out on business opportunities. They may use LinkedIn at home or know of other organizations in town that offer an online platform to its members as an added value. They may demand something similar or cancel their membership in worst case. Another drawback to keep in mind is that if you left the organization, there would be no one to replace you easily, as you hold all the knowledge about the members and connections. If you don’t move at all, you most certainly will become obsolete in ten years, simply because other organizations will size the opportunity.

If you set up a platform to provide online networking among your members, you will still play a role, not as a manager but as a facilitator. It is an additional value that you give your members. If they realize the value they will spread the word across their network, which could result in new members. Your key asset may not be the knowledge about the members anymore, because it is accessible to all members; it will actually be the members themselves. In that sense you will play an even more important role in ten years than you may do now.’

Obviously, it does not have to be one or the other. A healthy option would be somewhere around the center but tending towards opening the organization’s knowledge. As mentioned before, I would see the networking component at the heart of the system. Around it you could imagine the organization providing more relevant news and content to its members based on the information available and their activities on the platform. Other ideas could be the live-broadcast of member-only events, invitation of a guests (from member companies), better membership management.