It’s no secret that we live in an information age. What would have taken previous generations days to research and painstakingly analyze is available, literally, at our fingertips. Type a few keywords into a search engine and voila, knowledge appears. There are downsides, however, to this increased knowledge base.
“From a work perspective, the knowledge that is available to support any task that anybody is doing is some magnitude greater than what the human mind can actually retain,” said Cedric Coco, vice president of learning and organizational effectiveness for Lowe’s Companies Inc.
“If you go back 10, 15, 20 years, you could have had a business where you had an employee or a set of employees who knew everything there was to know about a given topic or a given area. Right now, it’s humanly impossible.”
To cope with this new reality, organizations need to actively capture the knowledge needed to carry out critical tasks and make the useful parts available to an increasingly global workforce.
“You want to make sure as much knowledge as you can, and all the capability that you need to be successful as an organization, [is] within the community or the network of employees,” Coco said.
The tools to capture knowledge are increasingly varied, but the goal remains to make knowledge available to a worker in a knowledge repository at the moment they need it.
“Whether it’s a video or spreadsheet or podcast, if I need to go do something, rather than me spinning my wheels because I’m doing it for the first time, let me see somebody do a presentation on video that has done it before and I’ll learn not only the explicit things, but I’ll learn some of the tacit tricks of the trade too,” said Ron Baker, founder of VeraSage Institute and author of Mind Over Matter: Why Intellectual Capital Is the Chief Source of Wealth.
The U.S. Army captures critical knowledge about every project they do through after-action reviews. Stakeholders get together to review the project and explore four key areas: their expectations of what would happen, what actually happened, why there was a difference between expectation and reality and how to do it better next time. The Army collects all these after-action reviews and makes them available to the rest of the Army to improve performance.
“That way, they don’t have to make the same mistakes over and over, and they can figure out better ways of doing it,” Baker said.
There are other ways to capture knowledge that aren’t so formal. Storytelling, mentoring and communities of practice all represent opportunities to collect and share information with the workforce.
“Prediction markets to forecast launch dates … are a great way to capture knowledge of the crowd and leverage social capital,” Baker said.
Looking at demographic trends, knowledge capture takes on additional urgency. As the first baby boomers exit the workforce, the knowledge and expertise they’ve developed leaves with them. That spells big trouble for the organization.
“These individuals possess some of the most critical talent of the firm,” said Nick Bontis, associate professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Canada. “They don’t have underlings that know everything. They haven’t mentored somebody. They have some specific knowledge base that’s critical to the organization.”
CLOs can establish mentoring programs that allow these retiring workers to transfer their knowledge to their successors and minimize the concurrent knowledge drain that may result.
“If all of these people walk out the door without a CLO and a firm understanding that they’ve got to transfer some of that learning to the next generation, we’re in big trouble,” Bontis said.