Have you ever started working on a new project, only to find out that someone already did the same thing a year ago? Or even worse, someone else in the organisation is doing the exact same thing at the same time…
And what about those times when employees that have had an indispensable role leave the company? These employees take a vast amount of knowledge, efficiency and experience with them.
An example; BP learned the hard way why capturing key knowledge from subject matter experts before they leave is critical. When Senior Corrosion Engineer Richard C. Woollam left, BP lost valuable intellectual capital, namely his knowledge, experience, and expertise.
BP realized just how valuable Woollam’s knowledge was on February 25, 2006, when corrosion in the Prudhoe Bay pipeline caused a “small leak” in a quarter-inch hole in the pipe. BP discovered the leak five days later on March 2, after 250,000 gallons of crude oil spilled across 1.93 acres. The spill, the largest ever on Alaska’s North Slope, forced BP to shut down the pipeline and the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, the largest U.S. oilfield. Overnight, 8% of domestic oil production was shut down due to “extensive corrosion”.
Audits showed that by the time this massive oil-pipeline spill was discovered, the job of BP's senior corrosion engineer had been left unfilled for more than a year. This vacancy, and others, hindered BP's ability to maintain a ‘strategic view’ of its corrosion prevention activities, the audit found. A BP spokesman said Friday that a replacement for the senior corrosion engineer has yet to be found...” (Source)
If you’ve ever worked in a large organisation, you’ll probably have encountered problems with valuable knowledge leaving the company. Everybody knows this is happening, but few are able to tackle this problem.
The reason why knowledge drain is so hard to tackle?
It's because we often underestimate the problem and we don’t really want to change anything about our way of working. Although it is very hard to put a price-tag on the loss of knowledge within an organisation, there are enough examples to show that knowledge is one of the most valuable assets a company has:
- NASA Manager confesses – “If we want to go to the moon again, we’ll be starting from scratch because all of that knowledge has disappeared.” From: NASA Officials Warn of Aging Workforce, Washington Post, March 7, 2003
- After Boeing offered early retirement to 9000 senior employees during a business downturn, an unexpected rush of new commercial airplane orders left the company critically short of skilled production workers. The knowledge lost from veteran employees combined with the inexperience of their replacements threw the firm’s 737 and 747 assembly lines into chaos. Management had to shut down production for more than 3 weeks, forcing Boeing to take a $1.6 billion charge against earnings. From: Jeff Bond, In the Eye of the Storm - Washington CEO, as noted in David Delong Lost Knowledge
Loss of knowledge can occur when people switch roles or leave the company, but also, people just forget things. When working for a company for a longer time, you tend to forget what you did a year ago, let alone five years ago. This is normal, but the information you’re forgetting might still be valuable.
Documenting knowledge isn’t just an efficiency argument; loss of knowledge can also create a lot of stress and cynicism with employees, like when you’re creating something that someone has already done before, or when you’re trying to figure out what your colleague did before he went on holiday.
Make documentation a priority and facilitate it
To minimize the risk of losing the information your colleagues have gathered over the years, make knowledge sharing a priority. You will need to implement a knowledge sharing platform that is intuitive and easy to use. Because if people don’t want to use the platform, it won’t work.
Also make knowledge sharing an integral part of the job. Give people time for documentation. And when you’re onboarding new employees, make sure that they fully understand the importance of documenting their work.
Furthermore, create and nourish an environment that encourages cooperation, evaluation and cross-training, as this will help facilitate the transfer of knowledge.
When implementing a knowledge management solution in your organisation, there are generally seven building blocks that you’ll need to address:
- Way of working: Usually, people need to adjust the way they currently work. Since they’re not used to documenting their learnings and knowledge, they must now learn how to do so and implement it in their daily workflows.
- Ease of use / UX: If documenting knowledge isn’t easy and intuitive, people won’t do it. You can’t force them to, either. That’s why a good user experience is crucial.
- Mindset: If they haven’t documented their knowledge before, make sure that they want to do this.
- Organization: You are about to change something that affects your entire organization.
- Access / cooperation: For people working directly with knowledge management, but also different BU’s and external agencies.
- Mandate / owner: front-runners are crucial in the success of your plan. They need to be facilitated and given the correct mandate.
- Tooling: With the right tooling in place, the transformation will be much easier.
How to embed knowledge documentation in your organisation
When embedding knowledge management in an organisation there are a few steps to follow.
- Know how people work currently and why they do it this way
- Don’t define the implementation of knowledge management top-down. This has to be embedded and supported in the entire organisation
- Make sure that everybody knows about this and is on board. Lead by example.
- Make clear that this is the new way-of working and there are no alternatives
- Besides facilitating tooling and time, you should also focus on changing the mindset people have. If you are going to change their way of working, there better be a good reason for it.
- Make sure that this is an integral part of onboarding new people
- Make sure that employees train other employees
- Assign local heroes. They’re the ones that will be working with it from the start. They are also the ones training their colleagues, maintaining the platform and providing the best feedback for improvement.
- Make sure that everybody has access. It’s a given that the people directly working with a knowledge management tool will need access to all the knowledge that is being shared. But also make sure that people in other departments, business units and external agencies have access to the information. This will increase the adoption.
- Kill your darlings: make sure to only log indispensable information. It is easy to log everything, but that doesn’t mean you should.
- Create clear use cases that show the benefits for employees
- Choose tooling that facilitates the user and creates an intuitive flow. Don’t get distracted by all the possibilities; it’s function over form. Make sure to choose tooling that suits you and is as close to your current way-of-working as possible. There are multiple tools you can use, like Confluence or Notion.so, but also free tools like Google Docs and Dropbox Paper.
- Be strict: the documentation platform you choose becomes the only source of truth
- Give your employees time to do this, time to learn but also time in their daily schedule to reserve for documentation.
- Test, adjust, test, adjust, etc
Implementing a new system for documenting the knowledge that you have in your organization isn’t easy and will probably take multiple iterations before you have a good system in place. But the benefits can be great and result in a more (cost) efficient organization with, in the end, happier employees.
How will you embed knowledge management into your organisation?