Waves of Churn – Eroding Organizational Knowledge

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Enterprises are beginning to feel the impact of some very powerful forces. Forces that will make the retention of institutional knowledge more and more challenging. This is knowledge that has required substantial investment and often represents an organization’s differentiation in the marketplace. But after two+ decades of outsourcing, the continuing trend towards a geographically dispersed workforce, and an unavoidable generational shift, a knowledge and experience gap is emerging that will be difficult to offset.

Because most full-time employees no longer envision decades of employment with the same company, they’ve prepared themselves for a career with ten or more stops. Additionally the trend for full-timers to work from home, remote offices and even coffee shops continues unabated. There are many benefits to this approach including operational costs and quality of life, but it does lead to diminished engagement with any specific work scenario. For those in a consulting role the number of changes in employer and role occur on an even more frequent basis. This  makes “change” seem like the standard operating procedure. Lastly, consider the burgeoning generational shift that includes both baby-boomer retirements and a millennial group who have different expectations for their shelf life at any given position, and you have one really big knowledge management problem. One where irreplaceable knowledge walks out the door almost every week in the form of consultants being reassigned, employees moving on to new opportunities, and baby boomer retirements.

“…employees who leave take a substantial amount of work, business and operational knowledge with them that’s difficult to replace or duplicate”  Dr. Andrew M. Peña on Workforce.com

Many organizations have seen this issue coming and have focused on the importance of culture to retain their most valued team members. Benefits like sabaticals, educational reimbursements, free food, think-time and of course, cash are some of the ideas that have been effective at maximizing retention. While these are all good ideas, they don’t fundamentally change the equation. People will leave. This is the reality. To successfully retain their investment, companies will need to be more pragmatic about how they look at knowledge management and take a more proactive and consistent approach to making the retention of institutional knowledge a regular part of the daily workflow.

Companies have invested heavily in their attempts to solve this problem. They’ve rolled out a variety of “push” systems (content management systems, wikis, intranets, discussion boards, etc) with the expectation that employees would post documents and dialogue resulting in a tangible form of their institutional knowledge. While these systems are (and will be) pivotal parts of an enterprise knowledge management ecosystem, inconsistencies in how documents are committed and retrieved have limited their success at codifying an organization’s institutional knowledge. This approach has also exposed gaps in how undocumented knowledge is captured. This is the tribal knowledge that lives in the heads of subject matter experts. This knowledge is delivered via emails, phone calls, IMs and hallway conversations. These are by definition one-off interactions with no effective way to save the valuable information exchanged or make this information accessible in the future. This is the knowledge that’s lost when a team member departs a company.

Waves of churn are eroding your organizational knowledge. What can you do about it?

As a knowledge management company, we at Haydle certainly “have a dog in this hunt” but we believe that enterprise Q&A is the way to fill the knowledge management gap exposed by employee churn. Questions “pull” knowledge from an organization. When saved, the question and answer sets are a permanent artifact and represent a micro-documentation of a company’s processes. This micro-documentation would occur on an everyday basis and does not require a change of workflow. Fact is that these questions are being exchanged with or without Q&A software. But without Q&A software this knowledge is used once then lost forever in email or the fading memory of a very busy staff member. As a result these questions end up being asked over and over again in “groundhog day” like loop that chips away at organizational efficiency and competitiveness.

Always interested in your thoughts….