Natural ways to capture organizational knowledge

Since the US election of President Barack Obama I have been thinking about the transfer of power between him and Bush. In November, 2008 the media published a beautiful photograph of the two men sitting together in the Oval Office. The article talked about the process these men were engaged in on behalf of their beloved country. I was surprised to read that historically, the handoff of power has not always gone smoothly. Of course, we know it was a political photo-op, but still it got me thinking. Here are two men, as different from each other as you could imagine, getting ready to transfer knowledge so that they can provide a level of stability and sustainability to their country. Certainly there is something relevant for leaders whose job it is to do the same for their company.

In the next decade organizations face the looming wave of baby-boomers exiting the workplace. The risk is, when they go, they take knowledge with them. Capturing knowledge is not as easy as writing a memo. Much of what we learn through the experience of working is tacit knowledge – hard for us to isolate and articulate. Some of it feels personal. Now the recession is in full swing. Already some of those who planned to retire are forced to stay on longer. Tight budgets mean it’s highly unlikely that funding will be available for such rich HR programs as formal mentoring or job shadowing. Let’s not give up. Poor economic times give us an opportunity to get real – to look for practical solutions that work in tough times. Here are some ideas to get you started.

• Assess your “knowledge pool”. Who knows what? How relevant is it to today – and to tomorrow? How much is documented? Who else knows? Identify your risk areas: Where historical or technical knowledge is critical to your success, and it is held in only one person or in pieces among many.

• Everyone has a way of sharing information that is comfortable to them. More introverted thinkers prefer to reflect and write. Extroverts get energized with an interviewer or making a presentation. The truth is that many people don’t know what they know. Just asking them to share it isn’t enough. Create a list of questions, challenges, scenarios, probes – a way of stirring up the knowledge that may be lying dormant waiting to be needed.

• Find a place where it really is needed. There must be a presentation that needs to be improved. Orientation programs that include a history of the product or service are a good start. Sales presentations or client presentations are another. Invite your Subject Matter Expert to create a PowerPoint. Ask them to present it to a test audience, who has been given pertinent questions to stimulate more discussion. Videotape the presentation.

• Call centres often need their new staff to be given a refresher on how something got started or how it technically works. Customers can ask tough questions, often out of context. Ask the expert to speak to the Call Centre staff. Or, better yet, take the Frequently Asked Questions that the operators log and give them to the Expert to answer. Perhaps your experienced staff can write case studies (based on historical truth) to be used in training new employees.

• Track legislation and regulation history. Ask your Compliance people to create a timeline chart showing major legal changes or challenges. Bring together some of the people who were there when it happened. Facilitate a discussion about what the impacts of the changes were – what decisions were made, what products or services were begun or discontinued. Frame the meeting as a way to prepare to deal with upcoming legislative change.

• As a best practice, facilitate a post-implementation review meeting after every major initiative in 2009 – even if it is something that happens on an annual cycle, and has been happening for years. Tough economic times warrant continuous improvement and this is a good way to initiate it. Ask questions like, “What went well?” and “What didn’t work well?” – but add a historical aspect to the review. Also ask, “What did we used to do, and when did it change?” “How come we do it that way – what’s the rationale?” An outside facilitator can bring the eyes of an anthropologist and ask questions about processes that everyone else just takes for granted.

• Is there an opportunity during the recession to create new partnerships and to link with new stakeholders? It’s easier to build trust when you can be transparent and share information – historical and current. Get your most knowledgeable people at the table. A good minute-taker can capture the stories and the flavour of their “briefing” interviews.

• Put a seasoned employee on important project teams. Not at the Steering Committee level, but at the task team level. This is easier to sell during a recession when resources are lean – they just have to roll up their sleeves and get into the work. Working hands-on they will impart knowledge, almost by osmosis, to your more junior staff.

• Many organizations have a recruiting process that requires a senior candidate to meet his/her peers. In these meetings the candidates ask questions about the company, the product, the business model, the sales cycle. Curious and interested candidates can ask questions that insiders might not think of. Ask your HR recruiter to double in the meeting as a note taker. Then document the learnings from the interviews.

• Use technology to simplify and categorize knowledge. If there is no time to build a sophisticated database – so be it. Take what you have and park it in a place that is easy to access and in categories that make sense. Let functional leaders own their data. Just make sure it’s not parked between their ears when they finally decide they can afford to retire.

Integral Coach™ is a trade-mark in Canada owned by Integral Coaching Canada Inc. and licensed to Jill Malleck. Permission is given to reprint this article with full attribution.

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