Stop knowledge from walking out the door

In 2004, a study in the US found that the greatest impact of employee turnover was lost knowledgenot profitability

Do you know whether parts of your organization are reinventing the wheel, not learning from past experience or making repeated mistakes? Well, if your organization is even a few years old, this must be happening unless you have put in place a robust knowledge management practice. Managers leaving or moving to new assignments always take with them valuable knowledge that they don’t know they have.

In 2004, a study of 240 organizations in the US found that the greatest impact of employee turnover was lost knowledge—not profitability!

BP learnt this the hard way. In 2006, the company was forced to shut down its largest US oilfield after 950,000 litres of crude oil spilled across 1.93 acres in Alaska’s North Slope. All because of corrosion in the pipeline that started with a “small leak" in a quarter-inch hole in the pipe. Post-event audit showed that the position of senior corrosion engineer was vacant and the intellectual capital of the previous incumbent was not captured.

In an interview a few years ago, a senior manager from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) confessed, “If we want to go to the moon again, we’ll be starting from scratch because all of that knowledge has disappeared." No wonder Nasa now runs one of the more evolved knowledge management practices in the world.

Closer at hand, a conversation with a director in a company I had worked for a decade ago disclosed that a process error I had discovered in 1998 as a brand manager was rediscovered recently. In 1998, this process error was partly responsible for a three-year decline in one of India biggest soap brands. In 2014, the same error was responsible for a huge decline in a big brand in the beverages category. Even though there is a robust policy of handover in the company, this knowledge was never captured.

So, lost knowledge is a concern for even companies that have a detailed handover process. Why?

There are two kinds of knowledge each of us carry about our jobs: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is the “know-what" of an organization—knowledge that can be communicated using formalized language. Tacit knowledge is the “know-how"—knowledge that is deeply rooted in an individual’s actions and experiences, as well as in the ideals, values or emotions that the person embraces.

Explicit knowledge is what we can put down in a detailed handover note. Tacit knowledge is what we unknowingly carry with us when we leave a position.

Using stories is one of the more powerful knowledge management practices. Stories transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge and become a great vehicle to share that knowledge.

Storytelling is something almost everyone indulges in, but mostly unconsciously. The question is, how to use stories in a concerted manner to capture and transfer knowledge.

Today Nasa’s Academy of Program and Project Leadership (APPL) uses storytelling as a primary vehicle for transferring project management expertise. This is done using a series of story-based knowledge-sharing meetings that are supplemented by ASK, a bimonthly online magazine.

Here is a beautiful example of the benefit of storytelling for knowledge management at Nasa taken from David DeLong’s seminal work in the field of knowledge management, ‘Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce’.

“One example of how storytelling can effectively pass on knowledge that influences decision-making was reflected in the experience of Roy Malone, head of logistics services at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Shortly before attending an APPL forum for master project managers, Malone was told his budget had been cut by 12%. He spent a month trying to find other ways to deal with the $1.1 million budget cut, but in the end Malone knew this meant he would have to lay off people. During the masters’ forum, Malone heard a story told by a program director in the US Air Force, Judy Stokley, who described how she had handled a similarly painful downsizing challenge. The logistics manager returned to Marshall inspired by the storyteller’s ‘humanitarian’ approach, and he proceeded to adapt a number of the actions she used to his own situation. For example, he began working with his key managers to find money from other sources to reduce the number of layoffs necessary. Malone also told employees about the cuts the department was facing, giving those who would be let go a three-month warning. Finally, he held a series of open meetings with employees to let them vent their anger at the cuts and to educate them as best he could about the center’s financial situation. In the end, Malone attributed the lessons he absorbed from the air force director’s story to helping minimise the impact of the layoffs he had to implement."

Many other organizations across the world such as the World Bank, IBM, Corning and Shell are using storytelling to capture, store and transfer knowledge. Here is how you can do the same.

The first step is to identify the areas in which the person leaving the position has tacit knowledge. Talk to his seniors, colleagues and juniors. Ask questions like “What are the occasions when you miss his presence the most?" or “What kind of problems do you know he will have the solutions for?" Some of the questions you could ask the person himself are: “What have been some of the failures or failed projects during your tenure, and what have you learnt from them?" or “What are the things you wish you knew about this job when you started?"

Now get the person to tell you stories about these areas.

While we are all born storytellers, most of us freeze when asked, “Tell us a story." However, it isn’t very difficult when we follow the story-listening process. This process of narrative enquiry uses questions that get the person back to moments in time. Two powerful questions we use in story listening are “when?" and “where?" Also ask questions with emotion words like “elated", “disappointed", “frustrated", “proud". Memories are triggered with these emotions.

Transcribe your recording of the session and cull out the stories.

The best way to store these stories are through video or audio recordings of the person telling these stories. Of course, this recording has to be done separately from the story-listening session, which may not be to the point.

These recordings, when indexed and made available to people, become a fantastic way of retaining the knowledge.

The author is founder of StoryWorks.in

Read an unabridged version on www.foundingfuel.com

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