Knowledge Retention (1/7): Enabling the employees to become knowledge sources

It does sound harsh, but it’s true. An organisation should think more about retaining the knowledge of its staff rather than the staff themselves. That’s what’s going to benefit both parties.

You see employees leave, it’s a fact of life nowadays. For an employee to get the recognition and respect they deserve, never minding financial reward, they have to move jobs. This may be within the organisation or outside, but either way their knowledge is going to move with them, not stay in the team, department or division they left behind.

Even if the organisation goes out of their way to retain staff, people will become bored and find less and less challenges because they are doing the same role. Even if they don’t they will find the same things repeated month after month, the same way to get things done, the same working practices. Their working life gets repetative, void of challenges or it just can’t offer them the next career move they require.

So they leave, and with them goes all that knowledge they’ve built up that enabled them to carry out that role day after day. That 80% informal learning they’ve built up and carried out through their career in this role goes with them as they walk out the door.

In effect what I’m saying is that you should let your employees move on to ensure they remain happy, and focus your organisations attention on retaining their knowledge.

There’s almost an argument to say that the more time, effort and money the organisation spends trying to keep the employees in their positions, the more they are driven away. I suggest a different model.

Firstly I don’t think that totally ignoring the needs of the employee is the way to go. A happy and well mixed work-life balance is required, but the mentality of keeping them happy while they are at work is key, and that’s all. Nice premises and amenities, allowing them the freedom to play as well as work, you know, treating them with trust and respect like adults.

Help the employees move…

Then the organisation really needs to help them move, and plan towards that move. Give them the time, resources and assistance to further their career and find new work, help them to market who they are and what they can do both internally and externally, as well as giving them all the training they need for both this role and the next.

By now those of you on the organisations side are asking so what about our turn? When do we get something back? Well it’s not quite as easy as that, there’s still some work to be done.

The main task now is to control the information going outside the organisation without hindering the learning of employees.

Have in mind that recruiting people with new and expert knowledge not already be inside the organisation is bringing new knowledge in that needs to be prevented from going out again without being recorded.

This is a common mistake in technology areas where projects require knowledge in some new system or language and the organisation instantly turns to outside contractors. They hire them in and assign them immediately to the project. They work quite happily getting results quickly, and come the end of the project their contract is not renewed and they leave. Suddenly there’s a knowledge gap in the organisation, a new system that no one knows anything about, and come upgrade time another contractor has to be hired to work on the system and the cycle repeats. In the long term this is very costly.

There’s an even worse scenario, if that contractor is then kept on to work in other projects. Suddenly they are learning more and taking knowledge from the employees! Isn’t this the wrong way round?

Mentors and Experts…

The answer is to only take these outside sources of knowledge on as mentors or experts, don’t let them work directly on the project where there is a knowledge gap, but let a project team of employees tap knowledge from them using some recordable tool and thus retain the knowledge while educating existing staff. This will not only retain the knowledge within the organisation after the expert leaves, but will also have the effect of pushing the existing employees to learn new skills and challenge them. That’s also more likely to keep them in their roles.

The type of tools that could be used are commonplace on the Internet these days. Wikis, Discussion Boards, Instant Messaging, Virtual Classrooms, in fact any collaborative and recordable software.

A great area to record the organisations knowledge is in project work. Invariably this is where knowledge is gained and shared, and ultimately lost. It’s within projects where experts are created, and it’s here that their knowledge should be recorded and distributed.

Projects should be run using collaborative project software such as AceProject, where everything required to operate a project team can be found – task lists, gantt charts, resources, timesheets, issue management, discussion areas, document storage, etc.

Using a tool such as this for all a project will build a persistent store of information. Once completed the information can be reviewed and republished into FAQs or searchable documentation, or even left in its original form. Regardless it becomes a record of how the project was run, the issues and resolutions, and the all important documentation.

Retaining the knowledge and learnings from individual projects is not enough though, there’s a lot more learning going on in an organisation on an individual level that can be tapped, and an ideal way is using some form of expert system.

Everyone in the organisation is a learner…

Everyone in the organisation is a learner, from the people in the mail room all the way up to the Chief Executive. Yet they aren’t just sitting their pulling knowledge in, they have knowledge within themselves that is either vital or beneficial to others. In some way they have gained knowledge that could be used by others, whether it be job specific knowledge, or something unrelated to their role. They could be deemed by others as being someone that they would go to in order to find the answer to a question or learn something new.

The first question is how to find these experts, and one idea is through social networks software. I’ll talk about that in the second of the articles. For an overview of all the articles in the series, see Knowledge Retention not Employee Retention.

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