Posted On November 23, 2015

crop harvesting

The same employee who, if they were hit by a bus or won the Powerball, can leave the organisation very suddenly and in a very sticky mess. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone — and when knowledge that is critical to organisational success is lost, it’s often gone forever.

I use the examples of a star performer and experienced retiree leaving the organisation, taking with them what they know and how they did their work, to make the point that knowledge harvesting is a cultural mindset — not just an activity — that organisations may not see value in until a key employee leaves and things go pear-shaped.

Are you in danger?

The danger of losing employees with critical knowledge has never been greater. Australia’s workforce is ageing and a tsunami of retiring Baby Boomers, the 5.5 million Australians born between 1946 and 1965 now turning 65 years of age, is upon us. Many Boomers are already leaving the workforce, or planning to retire soon, and when they do their employers will be among the first to feel the impact. And the list of other risks goes on to include downsizing, globalisation and competition, larger emphasis on knowledge work, smaller L&D budgets, generational diversity, virtual teams, outsourcing, unexpected turnover and more.

Whatever the reason and whatever your industry sector, how the loss of work knowledge affects your organisation will be largely driven by how well you have implemented the strategies and practices needed to identify, create, capture, share and exploit the knowledge that exists around you. Whether it’s knowing the intricacies of a long-standing client relationship, locating still-relevant information buried in archives or simply trouble shooting the photocopier, harvesting employee knowledge can prove to be the difference between an organisation that struggles and one that thrives in the coming years.

Now, it’s true that the exodus of talent and knowledge is inevitable, but its impact can certainly be mitigated — while at the same time improving the time-to-productivity of new starters, sharing best practices and innovation across the enterprise, and lessening the load on workers left behind.

Finding the gold

You can start by thinking about where critical knowledge is embodied in the experience of old timers and nous of star performers, and embedded in the workflows and processes that underpin their work. Think in terms of what value it brings to the organisation, and what would happen if that knowledge was gone tomorrow. Generally speaking you’ll find it exists in two types:

  • Tacit knowledge, or what’s called “knowledge of experience.” This is personal, context-specific knowledge that is difficult to write down, visualise or transfer from one worker to another. For example, how does an employee explain how they’ve learned to deal with difficult situations, innovate, lead others or sell? Capturing tacit knowledge is made more difficult by the fact that, often times, the employee may not even realise they have it.
  • Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, is formal, objective and much easier to capture, document, transform and pass on to others in a systematic way. Here, think of policies, procedures, codes of conduct or a step-by-step manual that explains how to escalate the complaint of a grumpy customer or repair a jet engine.

Turning knowledge into treasure

Sticking with the star performer/retiree scenario, once you’ve identified a person’s business-critical knowledge here are three simple steps to turn your wealth of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and help keep it all inside your organisation:

  1. Collect and record the knowledge
  2. Share it with your wider organisation, and
  3. Implement mechanisms to keep it up to date.

If you’re in a smallish organisation, begin by having your key employees write down a list of what they do and how they do it. But a word to the wise: first explain to them why you’re doing this. Otherwise, asking employees to share what they know about their work will, of course, raise concerns you’re looking to reduce the size of the workforce. So explain in detail that the information you’re after is necessary to cover for employees who are sick or on leave, and to help train others.

When that’s done the repository of important knowledge could take the form of a simple “How We Do Things Here” Word document, possibly illustrated with screen shots, photographs and basic diagrams, or Excel spreadsheet.

Larger organisations, however, often have internal experts to identify, analyse, document and spread information about mission-critical tasks. In MCI Solutions’ experience this process typically involves facilitated workshops, interviews and surveys to obtain knowledge from staff, determining the priority areas to be addressed and then developing the most effective solutions to document, share and maintain critical information — all of this wrapped together with a comprehensive communication plan to ensure staff remain informed and, importantly, engaged.

Treasure Map Required

More advice: no matter what size the organisation or how big or small the solution needed to store and maintain its knowledge, the information must be your chief focus — not the repository tool. In other words, information is only as useful as it is accessible (via an intranet, performance support system, PDF or whatever) and accurate.

That means once you’ve identified and collected the organisation’s knowledge, a systematic approach is needed to analyse, organise and present it so that employees can easily access it and, and here are the crucial bits, understand it and act on it. Once again, in MCI Solutions’ experience a proven content standard such as Information Mapping is invaluable and can ensure your star performers, who are not likely to be experts in documentation, all use the same method to analyse, organise and present the information. This strategy can be useful as employee development software.

A culture of knoweldge sharing

At the end of the day the knowledge and expertise of your employees is just too valuable an asset to lose. By building a corporate culture that fosters information sharing and proactive knowledge management you can be better prepared than most when a star performer is head hunted, caught in a restructure or retires to the south of France.

One final and important consideration I mentioned earlier: the same corporate mindset that helps you weather the departure of key staff can also help find new star performers.

How? Now that you know what the organisation needs to be done and how, matching it to development plans for individual team members will help achieve this, as will continuous, never-ending employee training and development and regular, helpful feedback.

After all, the best way to ensure an organisation’s success is to help its employees succeed. The best way to do that is to give employees the information and skills needed to reach their full potential and productivity.

Those tools are intricately intertwined with the collective wisdom of the organisation’s best and brightest — the employees it has today, and the ones who have departed.F