Like data, corporate knowledge is created, stored, distributed and consumed. Unlike data, however, it can also be easily lost. A loss of knowledge is caused by multiple factors, including these:
- Retiring IT staff.
- Employee attrition.
- Temporary contractors moving on to other assignments.
- Vendors completing their software development engagement and moving on to new clients.
- Employees with technical skills moving into nontechnical roles, causing their technical abilities to diminish.
Preventing knowledge loss within IT has three primary steps: creation, retention and distribution.
Knowledge creation comes from two primarily sources: mental and physical. Mental knowledge is generated via ongoing employee experiences, formal and informal training, innovation-related activities and the implementation of new software, processes and methodologies. Physical knowledge is made up of the artifacts created by employees as part of their jobs. These include internally-built software, written documents and formalized internal procedures.
Physical knowledge has the potential to be used by the company long after the employee or contractor has left the scene. The retention of mental knowledge, however, is much more elusive. The issue with this mental knowledge, often referred to as “corporate knowledge,” is that it’s embodied in people. As a result, it can easily fall prey to human frailties, employee career choices and non-work-related decisions.
This raises the question of how to retain corporate knowledge when employees, contractors, vendors and others move on.
The following activities retain human-based knowledge.
- Implementation of expertise as seen in software, processes, policies, system architectures, database designs and other work artifacts.
- Documentation describing the usage, structure and maintenance of work artifacts.
- Task video libraries.
- Internal discussion boards and wikis.
- Procedural manuals.
- Recorded internal instructional webinars.
- Creation of corporate wisdom.
When looking at the above list, the term “corporate wisdom” refers to unwritten, widely distributed and generally agreed-upon knowledge, processes, values and best practices. The reason I consider this to be knowledge retention, even though it is only contained within the minds of humans, is because it’s so widely known that its memory within the organization is virtually guaranteed.
The following activities can help you distribute human-based retained knowledge.
- Employee onboarding.
- Cross training.
- Internal coaching and mentorship programs.
- Brown-bag lunch presentations.
- Job rotations.
- Job shadowing.
- Mastermind groups.
This list includes another term you may not be familiar with: “mastermind groups.” These are small groups of four to six people within a similar profession — java programming, business analysis or tech support, for example. The groups meet about once a month for two to three hours, depending on the members’ schedules and the number of people in each group. The format of the meeting is that each person has thirty minutes dedicated to him/her. This time can be used to work out a technical issue, seek career advice or discuss any appropriate business topic. People who don’t have particular needs at the time of the meeting can forfeit their turns, thus allowing more time to those with more pressing concerns. Alternatively, they could use their time to teach the group about new technologies, best practices or other appropriate subjects.
There must also be a plan to distribute physically retained knowledge. The reason is that far too often documentation, written instructions and other important work artifacts are either forgotten or stored in physical and digital locations where they can never be found again. Thus, even if they do exist, they are effectively worthless. Consider the difference between a blender used to mix drinks and the disposal in your sink. They are both designed to receive big objects and grind them up. The difference is that with a blender you can retrieve the contents. With the disposal, the food is nonretrievable and gone forever. This is the conceptual difference between a well-designed and active document repository and a poorly designed repository. The moral of this short analogy is that just saving your work artifacts is not enough, they must be easy find, easy to retrieve and properly marketed so all employees know that they exist.
These three steps (knowledge creation, knowledge retention and knowledge distribution), if properly designed and implemented, help maximize IT productivity by allowing your team to continually take advantage of the knowledge of former employees rather than having to continually reinvent the wheel.